Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Proust and Powell

powell-dance-thimbIn 1989, just as I was starting my first successful trip through In Search of Lost Time, I met a fellow who was to become a lifelong friend.  He, too, had attempted Proust before, and put it aside.  Instead, he had taken up Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume English “valentine to Proust,” A Dance to the Music of Time.  And, a few months later, when I had turned the final page of Time Regained, I took his recommendation and turned to Powell’s magnum opus.

About three years ago, after buying an iPad in anticipation of a long trip to Australia, I decided to purchase the Kindle edition of A Question of Upbringing (the first in Powell’s series, originally published in 1951).  I figured that if I enjoyed reading it again, I could buy subsequent volumes while abroad.  And so I learned the danger of instant Kindle gratification, working my way through the entirety of A Dance to the Music of Time again in under two months.

Recently I learned that a television adaptation of Powell’s novels was produced by Britain’s Channel 4 in 1997, just three years before Powell died at the age of 95.  I was a little leery of the notion of twelve books compressed into a little over seven hours, but ultimately gave in.  I shouldn’t have worried.

Powell’s duodecad (isn’t that a lovely word?) owes an unabashed debt to Proust.  Powell’s novel is narrated by Nicholas Jenkins, who like Proust’s narrator is a shadowy figure in the novel’s action, often set apart, observing and recording, rarely taking an active role in the events he chronicles.  Powell is likewise concerned with the mores of an somewhat elevated stratum of society in which a small circle of characters interact, through an extended period of time, against a vast backdrop of minor characters who bring to life the period in which the action takes place.  Both novelists are masters of the comic in this respect, and what appears on the surface to be reportage turns out to be an often searing social satire.

Despite the humor, both works depict a society shattered by the onslaught of war.  In Proust, the old order of the Faubourg Saint-Germain crumbles during World War I; for Powell, a society teetering on collapse after that war is buoyed by the false promise of the Jazz Age before it undergoes a radical transformation during the Second World War.  (In “Such, Such Were the Joys…” George Orwell says that “after 1918 … snobbishness and expensive habits came back, certainly, but they were self-conscious and on the defensive.”)  And if any reader makes it to the ninth of Powell’s novels without recognizing the Proustian homage he has undertaken, Powell winks broadly in The Military Philosophers.  Assigned to escort  a party of Allied officers through Belgium and Normandy, Jenkins suddenly realizes that they are billeted for a night in Cabourg, the town on the Norman coast that was the inspiration for Proust’s Balbec.

This episode is one of the many that are omitted from the television adaptation, which is nonetheless a highly satisfying distraction.  It also, in reducing the action of A Dance to the major character’s themes, allowed me to appreciate the similarities and differences between the two great novel sequences more clearly.


Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, 1636

The obvious similarities are those that I have already suggested: the preoccupation with social mores, the chronicling of a society in profound transformation, the biting wit, in Powell’s novels, dished out with a reserve that is only an Anglophone echo of Proust’s irony. There is a preoccupation with artists and artistry in both epics: writers and painters are touchstones that give the novels not merely context but resonance beyond their immediate registers.  But Powell’s Jenkins doesn’t spend much time ruminating on events or building introspective cathedrals from them.

In the opening pages of A Question of Upbringing, the site of workmen gathered around a fire on a snowy day calls the Poussin painting to mind:

These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces, hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.

Leaping from classical allusions to schooldays, Jenkins is off on his memoirs with no further reflection: he dramatizes only, and never, or rarely, comments, analyzes, and dissects in the manner of Proust’s narrator.  Indeed, the moment in The Military Philosophers when he finds himself literally in the Proustian landscape is treated almost as summarily as the example above.

Proustian musings still hung in the air when we came down to the edge of the water. It had been a notable adventure. True, an actual night passed in one of the bed-rooms of the Grand Hotel itself—especially, like Finn’s, an appropriately sleepless one—might have crowned the magic of the happening. At the same time, a faint sense of disappointment superimposed on an otherwise absorbing inner experience was in its way suitably Proustian too: a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent; to rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.

This sense of disappointment may be common to both authors, but while Proust agonizes over lost opportunities and the inability of man to overcome what he called “the intermittencies of the heart,” Powell sometimes seems to shrug them off.  There is a war to be attended to here, and Nick, for all his passivity, moves on.  In the same circumstances, Proust would dive back through history to seek out the source, and would speculate endlessly about the future.

This is a key to the differences between the two authors and their epics and above all their conceptions of time: Proust’s arrow and Powell’s cycle, to use a metaphor that I’ve borrowed from Stephen Jay Gould.

Proust’s very title suggests the linear nature of his concept of time: it is something that has receded, taking history with it.  The famous episodes of involuntary memory, starting with the madeleine, give Proust so much joy precisely because they appear to arrest the inevitable recession and loss.  And in the novel, these moments are the keys that unlock Proust’s vocation as a writer, allowing him to not simply triumph and regain lost time, but in doing so to point towards the future.  For in seizing his vocation as a writer, in capturing and recording and ordering the past in his novel, he confronts the future (even if that future promises chiefly death and extinction).  By wrestling experience into art, Proust manages to retard the loss of time, and perhaps even extend his existence beyond death.  But time ever flies forward like the arrow.

By taking Poussin’s painting, with its eternal round frozen in mid-step, as the presiding spirit of his work, Powell tells us, in effect, that what goes around comes around.  If Proust’s narrator has trod the Norman shore before Jenkins arrives there, another will surely take Nick’s place in days to come.  Poverty (with his back to us in the painting) forces one to Labor (to his right); the reward of labor is Wealth, and wealth brings Pleasure.  Overindulgence in pleasure, foolish misjudgments like Widmerpool’s throughout the novel, will eventually reduce one to poverty again.  And so the cycle resumes.

For Proust, time produces infinite varieties.  We are not the same individuals we were yesterday, nor members of the same race that founded our nations in centuries gone by.  Traits persist across time; certain human types are to be found in every era and every country.  But manifestations change, and in the span of a single individual’s years, the process of decay mirrors larger social changes.  And yet art (and science: Proust’s novel is full of motorcars and airplanes and other manifestations of progress) can somehow redeem us from the inevitable spiral.  For Powell, we as individuals take part in an eternal round.  One partner drops out, another joins in, but the dance continues its cyclical momentum.  At the end of the final volume, Hearing Sacred Harmonies, the Britain that has been devastated by the war and the social upheavals that followed in its wake is being repopulated by Druidic bands of proto-hippies among whom Widmerpool dances ecstatically.  The generative force of Britain has re-emerged to begin the process all over again.

I’ve nattered on at such length that I’ve drifted away entirely from the television adaptation, so let me quickly end by recommending it to all.  H has never read the novels, and isn’t terribly fond of British television, though he indulges me grandly.  But he laughed all the way through, entranced by Widmerpool and bemused by the constant turning of characters in the wheels of fate.  For my part, I thought it an admirable job: it captured the essentials in a way that didn’t make me regret what it necessarily omitted.  Somewhere in the second or third episode there was a passing reference made to “Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant” and I felt a little twinge, but I let it go with the thought that the books stand ready to be read once more, any time I feel like putting my foot to the dance again.

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