I was lucky enough to start reading the books, each one as they were showing up from about the fourth at the British Council Library. Imagine how this added to the enjoyment as you could rush to the library to book your turn, the anticipation and I was never disappointed. Except perhaps the last one. I didn't feel he had got the comeuppance of Widmerpool quite right. That is the delight the books are so readable.
My enormous enjoyment in reading each eagerly anticipated novel was slightly diminished every time Mrs. Erdleigh "laid out the cards", or planchette quoted Karl Marx, or the mantra "The essence of the all is the godhead of the true" was intoned, or Scorpio Murtlock humiliated Widmerpool. It was interesting to speculate whether Murtlock was a satiric portrait of Aleister Crowley, but one was left wondering whether Powell actually believed in all this nonsense. Mrs. Erdleigh after all predicted Pamela Widmerpool's end. Most disconcerting. It took me decades to discover that the title of St John Clarke's (John Galsworthy, Hugh Walpole?) "Match Me Such Marvel" was a quote from John Burgon's immortal lines describing Petra-"A rose-red city half as old as time". Nothing ever reproduces or replaces the unique experience of a first reading of Proust or Powell, notwithstanding the further insights which come with later readings following on accumulated erudition touching on the life and experiences of the author, and the world and people being described.
I must admit a real fondness for Dance and Powell's other novels and I now reread them all in one go every 10 years or so. For a college lad from Lisbon in the 70s, those well-thumbed and dog-eared Penguins - the early ones, complete with those wonderful Osbert Lancaster covers - were doors to a world I well knew would never be my own. But still it was nice to take a peek. And they are still among the many books that furnish my room, many homes later. At the same time I really didn't like the account of his privileged sort of war. A general sees him struggling through a volume of Proust, categorises him as a linguist and, eureka, he's whisked from the front to be a liaison officer with exiled, allied nationals. I wonder how many bilingual or multilingual squaddies had to brave the bullets in battle.
“A Dance to the Music of Time” is a masterpiece - and one of the best literary experiences I have ever enjoyed. Profound, funny, dramatic, and remarkably accessible and easy to read. I read all 12 volumes in 2010. Anthony Powell is a master. Although the books can be read and enjoyed individually, and on their own terms, the real pleasure is in reading all twelve books, and enjoying a narrative that takes place over a seventy year time span. Kenneth Widmerpool is one of the most memorable characters I have ever encountered in a book.
What I find interesting is that some people find Powell's "reputation" is still in the balance. Well, to my mind, the only question is - was he a good writer, and my answer would be that there can be no doubt about that in the slightest. It is the fate of most deceased writers to go through vogues of popularity then periods of ignominy, until the cycle repeats. For very, very select few their star always shines, and out of Powell's peers Waugh and Orwell are probably the two that will remain constantly illuminated; but such lack of visibility does not somehow decrease the quality of what was produced.
I would state that Powell was the best writer in English of his time. In a 12 volume series, produced over many years, one struggles to recall a badly constructed line. His prose should be studied as someone who was an absolute master of his craft. I always thought back then as I stated that as his satire is less strident than Waugh's, that as his social commentary less visible than Orwell's, his works will date far more quickly than theirs have. It could be than in 100 years his novels are barely read, indeed it's probably likely to be the case, but then, as I say, I think we will lose sight of an exceptionally able wordsmith, whose nuanced prose deserves more attention and respect than I think it receives.