Anthony Powell’s masterpiece will change your life

Simon Russell Beale played Widmerpool, left, in a Channel 4 adaptation with Miranda Richardson

If you had a bruising week, you might like to know of some great literature which will, at a future date, do for you what great literature is supposed to do: change your outlook on life.

A friend said to me the other day: “A Dance to the Music of Time is just like life itself: the same people keep on weaving their way in and out, turning up again in odd places; nothing is ever surprising about this except that we keep on being surprised by it.”

A Dance to the Music of Time, if you are unfamiliar with it, is Anthony Powell’s 12 novel sequence that charts English life though a disparate but related group of characters from the 1920s to the 1960s. Do not be put off by the almost Wagnerian length. Each novel is self-contained and can be enjoyed on its own. The novels should be read in order, I think, as they get steadily better, climaxing with the 11th, which is set in Venice at a literary conference. The 12th brings everything to a peaceful close.

The narrator, Nick Jenkins, is stalked through life by the absurd, even grotesque, figure of Kenneth Widmerpool. But Widmerpool is also a dangerous character, and at the same time a highly successful one in the world, even though he is relentlessly humiliated by circumstances; yet he always seems to rise above what Fate throws at him. He is a monument to the sort of egotism that conquers despite everything through sheer force of the will.

Dance is a very moral roman fleuve because it alerts us, gently and subtly, to the monstrousness of egotism. Everyone, it is said, has their own Widmerpool. I have to say that I have known several in my own not very long lifetime, people who have been impenetrable egomaniacs and who have nevertheless carried all before them.

Quite a few of our politicians have been compared to Widmerpool. Some have thought Gordon Brown resembled him. One might point out that our current Prime Minister has certain shades of Widmerpool, and like him, went to Eton.

The other great character is Pamela Flitton, a terrifying combination of passion and frigidity. Whether this character is based on someone real, whom Powell knew, is of course a matter of hot debate. Many think the sequence is an elaborate roman a clef, and there is a web page that tells you who is really who. The late Lord Longford (the novelist’s brother-in-law) once claimed that he was Widmerpool. Few others have sought this distinction.

What I love about Dance is its low-key quality, and its depth. Some of its scenes are haunting in their profundity without ever being overdramatic set-pieces. Likewise the jokes are very funny indeed, and last a long time, because they are barely funny at all. It takes a long time to get a Powell joke, but when you do, it stays with you forever.

I recommend Dance as something that will change the reader’s life; it is best not to read it when you are too young; but in mature years, read Dance and discover the pattern of your own life.