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Time’s Terpsichorean

Anthony Powell’s million-word, 12-volume novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, is one of the great achievements of postwar English literature, attracting near-universal praise for its subtle and textured evocation of England between World War I and the 1960’s.  Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, looks on quizzically as a representative cavalcade of 20th-century characters cavort across the pages of history, at times following anciently ordained patterns, at others striking out on their own to amusing or bizarre effect.

In the painting of 1640 by Nicolas Poussin that inspired the sequence’s name, a naked, winged, controlling Father Time strums a cithara and looks on enigmatically as dancers representing the seasons revolve, facing outward, holding hands, while a celestial chariot races through storm clouds above, and cherubs blow soap-bubbles to remind viewers of the impermanence of things.  Poussin paradoxically suggests continuity and cosmic lucidity, but also the ever-present possibility of upset; dancers may perform pavanes or tarantellas, but in the end even the most corybantic must come back to the circle.  Powell wrote in a comparable baroque-classical vein, as if striving to rationalize randomness, impose order on an increasingly disorderly England.  Nicholas Jenkins preoccupies himself with Robert Burton’s...

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