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A Dance to the Music of Time: The Kindly Ones

Book Six of the Dance finally presents scenes from narrator Nicholas Jenkins’ childhood, set in the remote manor where his military father is assigned in the days before World War I. Jenkins describes the petty intrigues and peccadilloes of the household, culminating in a visit from longtime family friends General and Mrs. Conyers, which is interrupted first by the nude appearance of a disturbed housemaid, then by the appearance of Trelawney and his flock of robed cultists, and finally by the arrival of the abrasive Uncle Giles, who bears the news that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Serbia. Leaping ahead to 1938, Jenkins relates a stay at the cottage of his friend Moreland; from there the two men and their wives are collected by Jenkins’ old schoolmate Templer and taken to dinner at Stourwater, the massive estate owned by industrialist Magnus Donners. Having lately taken up photography, Donners shoots the guests as they drunkenly enact tableaux of the Seven Deadly Sins. The dissolution overwhelms Templer’s wife, and Widmerpool, clad in military costume, further dampens the mood when he plods onto the stage to discuss business. Time passes, and in the summer of the following year comes the report that Giles has died at a seaside resort. Jenkins travels there to see to the arrangements and encounters Bob Duport, the ex-husband of Jenkins’ former lover Jean. Also in residence at the hotel is the now-decrepit Trelawney. The funeral coincides with the signing of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, which virtually guarantees that England will be drawn into war. As the nation mobilizes, Jenkins’s expectant spouse moves to the country, and he seeks an officer’s position, first petitioning General Conyers, then Widmerpool, to no avail. Moreland reveals that his wife has left him for Donners, and a distant relative promises to get Jenkins assigned to a regiment.

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At the beginning of this series, I was slightly troubled that the narrator spoke so little about himself and his background, but as it went on I adjusted to its rhythm so much that I was almost disappointed when Powell unexpectedly flashed back to Jenkins’ childhood. The brief pause in the progress of the narrative was worth it, though, for the carefully constructed comic tour de force that provides a climax to the opening chapter. The alleged haunting and the millenarian activities of Trelawney establish a mood that comes to perfect fruition when Jenkins’ mother assumes the Rapture has arrived in the person of her naked housemaid: “I thought it was the end of the world." Powell almost immediately dispels the fun with bad tidings, of course. Jenkins is obviously choosing this moment to reminisce about the start of the first World War because the second is so close....Read More