Books Do Furnish a Room
Hearing Secret Harmonies
I agree with much of the standard reception of these three books, the weakest in A Dance to the Music of Time. They condescend to soap opera antics too readily; they contain too much plot and too much emphasis on dramatic turns of event; they require one to believe that Widmerpool, Pamela, X. Trapnel, Murtlock and Gwinnet are interesting figures, none of whom can carry a plot--except perhaps for Gwinnet, about whom the least is said and who remains the most inscrutable.
But the plotting was always going to be a problem, because what could possibly follow on World War II? What could be as dramatic, what could earn that drama? Especially since the main character cannot be young, or in too close contact with the young, and therefore is in no position to experience what was new in that period.
I think there's a more general problem of age and experience, which is to say that one's life becomes in certain respects more meaningful as one ages, but less eventful*; if you are conventional and succeeding at conventional life, the days are a succession of variations on the same theme, and if one decides, as Powell had Jenkins decide, that family life is not a fit subject for discussion--Isobel becomes slightly more of a visible presence in the last three novels, but their children are never discussed at all--there simply isn't very much to say. The only people who make waves at this point are the ones who have made a mistake of some or another kind, and given the novels' attitude towards people who remarry--"sometimes it doesn't work out, oh well, and sometimes it takes three or four tries to find one that sticks"--who live together but don't marry, etc, it's going to take a significant amount to make waves. For goodness' sake: Jean Templer goes off and marries a South American dictator, and it barely gets discussed.
The writing of the novels themselves belies the excuse that there's nothing left to talk about: Anthony Powell begins the series at approximately the same age and life experience as Nick Jenkins in Books Do Furnish a Room when he takes up an interest in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The man who is behind the times and to whom nothing of particular interest happens anymore is the one who is just about the same as the one who writes so engagingly of the pre-war world. One may say, of course, that this is just so: one should expect that a large and self-contained chunk of life that had a very definitely end-point should submit itself to narrative quite easily, while the portion Powell lived while writing his books, lacking anything like a point or thrust, proves more difficult to write. The decision to omit the family from discussion as life might most intensely circle around family deprives one of obvious material. Nevertheless, it's hard not to leave the cycle wanting something more from its end than the explicit details of the Widmerpool-Pamela marriage; even "talking with the neighbors about the difficulties of the local quarry expanding" seems more promising.
*I had the very definite feeling several weeks ago of realizing that the large majority of internet controversies-of-the-day are being written about by people distinctly younger than me; I think the moderately self-aware person reaches a point at which they realize these controversies repeat themselves endlessly in only the most minor variations, none of them resolving one way or the other, and no one changing their mind. (Time changes most minds, but they don't realize that yet.) The energy wasted on these seems tragic, in its own way, but everyone finds a sustainable balance eventually, I suppose.
I remember a few years ago talking with an undergrad about what she was reading--Steven Pinker and the usual aspirant undergrad literature adventures--and realizing Pinker was just a placeholder for 'vaguely social-scientific book that promises to explain in excruciating detail some major aspect of being human, but fails to attain the needed rigor,' of which I have seen a dozen come and go since I was myself an undergraduate. That nothing original is likely to befall you is either a comfort or a curse, once you recognize it, but very intelligent people can go for a very long time without realizing it.