A Dance to the Music of Time is a series of novels, spanning some 1.1 million words, that describes close to six decades in the life of its narrator, Nick Jenkins. It took the English novelist Anthony Powell, who created the character as a fictional alter ego, a quarter of a century to write, and its 12 volumes trickled into print between 1951 and 1975, at the rate of roughly one every two years. Despite its intimidating length, there’s something to be said for not reading Dance piecemeal but all at once, lest the more fleeting of Powell’s 400-odd characters lose definition and one ends up, five volumes in, wondering who on earth Horace Isbister is. (You didn’t know? He’s a fashionable painter whose aggressively realistic portraits Jenkins must stoically endure seeing on the walls of the people he visits.) It takes several weeks of sustained and slightly deranged concentration to follow Jenkins, his friends, their lovers, and an ever-expanding group of comrades at arms as they engage, irk, possess, and lose one another in a chain of meetings, couplings, and concatenations that is finally broken, in somewhat sinister fashion, in 1971.

Dance offers a wide view from a single life. We follow Jenkins from his school and university days in the 1920s, through the bohemian and gilded circles he inhabits as a young publisher and novelist, and into his World War II years as a junior officer posted to Northern Ireland—keeping England’s extremities safe, as it were—and then as a liaison with various European governments-in-exile in London. The final volumes are set in Britain’s postwar literary and artistic circles. Despite forays to Italy, the United States, and rural England, Dance is perhaps the supreme London novel of the 20th century, an examination of the human behavior that defines the upper echelons of this brash, resilient, often pitiless place. Powell deals at length with the characters who make it so—among them the impecunious egotist and literary impersonator X Trapnel, and Pamela Flitton, a woman of dark malignancy who devours Trapnel, among other lovers, and dies of an overdose in a hotel room. All the while, we advance toward the series’ conclusion amid gongs of mortality and the savage rituals of a New Age cult. “Less original novelists tenaciously follow their protagonists,” Evelyn Waugh wrote of the series in 1962. “In the Music of Time we watch through the glass of a tank; one after another various specimens swim towards us; we see them clearly, then with a barely perceptible flick of fin or tail, they are off into the murk.”

Powell was inspired in his choice of title by the 17th-century French artist Nicolas Poussin. Over repeated visits to London’s Wallace Collection, Powell would linger by Poussin’s painting A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the seasons, represented by four classically draped figures, move to the music of a lyre being plucked by a naked, winged graybeard. Powell pictured Poussin’s quartet as members of a modern society, “stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly,” as he wrote in the series’ opening volume, A Question of Upbringing, “while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.”

Movements, figures, and set pieces are the constituents of Powell’s Dance. Its themes are power, ridicule, subterfuge, and sex. Jenkins’s experiences are so close to those of Powell that Dance cannot be considered only a work of fiction, and yet it is too stylized a crossover to be called an autobiography, and many of its characters aren’t neatly identifiable with a single real-life person. The last two books in the series, Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies, are about voyeurism, and they recall Jenkins’s uncanny focus as an observer and his reluctance to reveal his own intimate feelings. As Powell wrote in his actual memoirs, “not everyone can stand the strain of gazing down too long into the personal crater, with its scene of Hieronymus Bosch activities taking place in the depths.”

What’s long been needed is a biographer to take a serious estimate of Powell’s own depths—this man who, as one friend complained, could not be misunderstood because he didn’t “give anything to go on.” Hilary Spurling, acclaimed biographer of Matisse and a trusted friend of Powell in his old age, has now taken on such a task. Powell’s great series dominated his life; it exhausted and defined him. He lived to see it toppled from the acclaim it enjoyed in the early 1960s and dismissed as an irrelevant tale of class connections. Spurling’s Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time is aimed not only at explaining Powell, but also at laying the ground for Dance’s rehabilitation.

Powell was born in 1905 into a troubled household whose outward character was set by his father’s military career. Philip Powell was a British Army officer who never achieved senior command and was prone to terrible rages. His wife, Maud, was 15 years older, mystically inclined, and shunned society rather than be mocked as a cradle-snatcher. An only child frequently on the move from one garrison town to another, young Tony needed “an energetic imagination to people a sadly underpopulated world.”

For many young Englishmen of Powell’s background, institutions rather than family were the bedrock of identity. His mother adored him, but she was dominated by her selfish, impecunious husband, who rejected his son at every turn. In 1919, at the age of 13, Powell was sent to Eton, and the school became “a kind of virtual extended family whose members…stood in all his life for the actual relatives he hadn’t got.” If boarding at Eton gave him his first sense of belonging, studying history at Oxford proved to be an anticlimax; he was too poor to be in the smart set (his contemporary Robert Byron gave lunch parties for 30 in his rooms, whose 18th-century paneling he painted duck-egg blue) and frustrated by the absence of girls in an environment where misogyny and homosexuality were dominant modes. At least Oxford’s lengthy vacations gave him an opportunity to travel, not just to classic undergraduate destinations like Paris and Vienna, but also to see his parents in Helsinki, where Major Powell was attached to a British military mission.

After introducing this as-yet-undistinguished member of the near-miss generation (“too young to enter” World War I, as a contemporary put it, but “too old to inherit the peace”), Spurling describes Powell’s life in London after Oxford disgorged him with a second-class degree. Living in seedy digs amid the pubs and brothels of Shepherd Market, in the autumn of 1926 Powell was hired by Duckworth & Co., a publishing house whose eponymous founder was “close to detesting books with all his heart.” Powell’s main job turned out to be rejecting manuscripts, but he found time to improve himself by reading Conrad and James. He also began to befriend some contemporary novelists, including a young Evelyn Waugh, who at the time was studying carpentry when he wasn’t drunk.

While his publishing job kept him solvent, Powell started to write fiction in his spare time, hoarding characters and milieus for use on the page. Of the summer of 1931, which Powell spent in Toulon, a Mediterranean fleshpot seasonally infested by London bohemians, Spurling writes that it was a “prototype for the many hectic gatherings that would punctuate the Dance, where coincidence regularly assembles a disparate bunch of people, shakes them up together and deposits them.”

Powell was at this time feeling his way toward the literary style that would achieve maturity in Dance. He published his first novels, Afternoon Men (a love story with satirical overtones) and Venusberg (a slight tale set in a fictional Baltic capital based on Helsinki), in the early 1930s, and both captured what Spurling calls his “reluctance to ratify borders between the comic and the serious.”

A series of women were now teaching Powell love. They included Nina Hamnett—16 years his senior, who picked him up after they met in Paris and gave him what Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother) called “a liberal education”—and the communist Marion Coates. Coates was the estranged wife of a fashionable Canadian architect; Powell was captivated by “her gravity and composure…unexpected sensuality and English rose looks,” and the two began a brief affair that would produce the most powerful erotic charge in Dance.

A woman named Jean Templer darts in and out of Jenkins’s life in the course of the third volume, The Acceptance World. She’s pale and a little mocking, with dark, luxurious lashes. Over dinner in a convivial group at the Ritz, while the snow falls outside, Jenkins convinces himself he’s not interested. But after the Armagnac, he and Jean find themselves sharing the back seat of a car, which Jean’s brother is driving at speed through the slushy London streets, past a billboard in which “the electrically illuminated young lady in a bathing dress dives eternally through the petrol-tainted air.” After registering this vision, Jenkins takes Jean in his arms:

Her response, so sudden and passionate, seemed surprising only a minute or two later. All at once everything was changed. Her body felt at the same time hard and yielding, giving a kind of glow as if live current issued from it. I used to wonder afterwards whether, in the last resort, of all the time we spent together, however ecstatic, those first moments on the Great West Road were not the best.

It has long been known that Coates was an inspiration for Jean. Spurling’s new revelation—which seems to carry the authority of Powell’s family—is that the fictional affair’s “painful aftermath,” in which Jenkins is horrified to discover that Jean hasn’t been true to him, was inspired by the distress that Powell received at the hands of his own wife. In 1934, the author married a “sceptical…infinitely discreet and endlessly inquisitive” aristocrat named Violet Pakenham. She went on to have an affair with another man, whose identity she never divulged. When Powell found out after the event, probably in 1946, he “plunged into a black hole of depression, exhaustion and almost insane overwork.”

Despite several miscarriages, the wartime separations, and the distress caused by Violet’s infidelity, the Powells’ marriage, in Spurling’s account, was full of resilience and humor. With time came a harmony of interests—from raising their two sons and improving the Chantry, the country house they bought in 1952, to the joint effort of sustaining Powell’s literary output, which, besides his novels and memoirs, included hundreds of book reviews. As the Powells’ elder son, Tristram, put it, Violet was the “right arm of my father’s imagination.”

It was during Spurling’s visits to the Chantry in the 1970s—when she was writing a handbook to Dance—that she and her husband got to know the Powells. “The pattern was always the same,” she later recalled. “We arrived for lunch and then walked round the lake, returning around 4 o’clock to find Violet…on the sofa in the library with a tea-tray on the low table in front of her…here they capped and recapped each other’s stories, checked dates and sources, bounced ideas, jokes, and memories off each other. Their antiphonal exchange was…unlike I’d ever heard before.”

By the time Powell asked Spurling to be his biographer, “on the understanding that nothing whatever was to be done for as long as possible,” they were friends. The result is a perceptive and sensitive portrait that has benefited from Spurling’s access to Powell’s papers, but one that averts its gaze from the crater of “Hieronymus Bosch activities.”

Spurling herself hints at themes that a less tactful biographer might have developed. A lifelong insomniac, Powell suffered intermittently from depression, which he and Violet personified as an angry dwarf, complete with beard, boots, and bobble hat. Whether these bouts, which sometimes shaded into a death wish, amounted to a depressive personality isn’t clear, nor are the long-term psychological effects that the “abominable” Philip Powell had on his son. That Tony himself was capable of epic meltdowns was demonstrated when Evelyn Waugh’s son Auberon savaged a collection of his reviews, leaving him “unbalanced with grief and rage,” as his friend V.S. Naipaul wrote. For all her depiction of the marriage as essentially happy, Spurling allows that problems lurked “beneath the surface” when she visited the couple in their later years.

Powell’s psychological fragility evidently found an outlet in maniacal activity, such as the time he “slashed, scythed and chopped” through the undergrowth at the Chantry, though this doesn’t compare to the monstrous collage of human figures cut out of magazines, catalogs, and Christmas cards that he created in the boiler room of the house. Spurling writes that “there is something elemental, even horrifying about the scale and impact of this torrential outpouring,” which seems to have functioned, “like gardening, as a means of disarming the conscious mind so as to gain access to the turbulent, unplumbed depths below.”

There is another witness who can help us understand Powell, of course, and that is Jenkins. Over the years, he has been unjustly reduced to the status of a window onto events, his name often joined to the epithet “colorless.” While Jenkins rarely introduces new topics of conversation or takes decisive action, the analytical and profoundly humorous way he sees the world defines him as a believable, even attractive, character, albeit one whose facial expressions we don’t see, whose laugh we don’t hear, and whose feelings we are rarely trusted with.

But while Powell professed to dislike his alter ego—“I know Jenkins is awful,” he told Violet, “but he’s more to be pitied than blamed”—for the reader, the important thing is that he is trusted by so many of the other characters in Dance. People are constantly sharing confidences with him that he betrays to no one but us. He’s a good man to have around when it comes to putting drunks to bed or for calming the situation when an irate husband confronts his wife and her lover. To call Jenkins dull is to miss the point of his character; while he rarely judges the moral performance of others, he doesn’t seek the society of those he doesn’t like, and we enjoy the rakes and ne’er-do-wells he does know. Although his social set is rarefied, Jenkins isn’t a snob; nor is he a homophobe or a misogynist. He likes and is kind to foreigners. He gives absolutely nothing away of his relationship with his wife, a skeptical, discreet, inquisitive aristocrat named Isobel Tolland.

Jenkins is so alert to the doings of other people—whether it’s a flustered author entering a room with his hand extended “as if to grasp the handle of a railway carriage before the already moving train gathered speed,” or the glance of a woman “catching sight of another woman who reminds her of herself”—that he makes Nick Carraway seem unobservant. And given the prevalence of egotists in the series, it’s nice to be in the hands of someone who isn’t self-absorbed.

Jenkins provides peerless descriptions of the comic set-pieces that punctuate Dance. One of these is a lunch party given in the late 1920s by the industrialist Sir Magnus Donners. His castle, Stourwater, has been expunged of all suggestion of medieval horror, and Sir Magnus has blanketed his personality with conversation of such banality that Jenkins almost supposes him to be “teasing his guests by acting the part of a bore in a drawing-room comedy.” Only the vaguely disturbing set of his mouth suggests inner ferment—that, and hints that Sir Magnus’s sexual tastes involve domination.

Lunch in the great hall (where Jenkins is seated next to Jean Templer) is suddenly disturbed by the infiltration—to use a favorite Powell word—of Dance’s most-loathed character, Kenneth Widmerpool. Most of us know a Widmerpool, a person whose ruthlessness, self-centeredness, and hideously ingratiating manner prove—mystifyingly—to be no impediment to worldly success. The tax that Powell levies on Widmerpool is to humiliate him at regular intervals.

As an employee of Sir Magnus’s conglomerate, Widmerpool has drafted a speech that he has brought over for his boss’s approval. The necessary amendments are made; then it is time for everyone to go home. The castle’s perfectly manicured inner quadrangle is the setting for Widmerpool’s undoing in full view of the departing guests as he is betrayed by his little Morris motor car, which refuses to start while his face reddens behind the grimy windscreen.

Sir Magnus, the ground crunching under his tread, stepped heavily across towards the spot.

‘Is anything wrong?’ he asked, mildly.

The question was no doubt intended as purely rhetorical, because it must have been clear…that something was very wrong indeed. However, obeying that law that requires most people to minimise to a superior a misfortune which, to an inferior, they would magnify, Widmerpool thrust his head through the open window of the car, and, smiling reverentially, gave an assurance that all was well.

But this manifestly isn’t the case, and the other guests give the Morris a push. Eventually it coughs into life, but Widmerpool has lost his composure and commits a final, catastrophic error of pilotage:

The Morris suddenly shot backward with terrific force…running precipitately into one of the stone urns where it stood, crowned with geraniums, at the corner of the sunken lawn. For a moment it looked as though Widmerpool and his car would follow the flower-pot and its heavy base, as they crashed down on to the grass, striking against each other with so much force that portions of decorative moulding broke from off the urn…. The engine of the Morris stopped again, giving as it did so a kind of wail like the departure of an unhappy spirit…

By this time Jenkins is in another car, being driven away from the scene. He glances back and catches

a glimpse of the absolutely impassive face of Sir Magnus, as he strode with easy steps once more across the gravel to where Widmerpool was climbing out of his car. The sun was still hot, its rays caught the sweat glistening on Widmerpool’s features, and flashed on his spectacles, from which, as from a mirror, the light was reflected.

Farce as fluidly and cinematically written by Powell forces the reader to muse wonderingly, even with sympathy, on the victim and his mishap, and on the strange, unspoken power of the narrator. It is a surprisingly radical power that produces a different end result than the unalloyed pleasure delivered by P.G. Wodehouse’s scenes of spiteless anarchy. The difference between Jenkins and Bertie Wooster is the difference between the adult and the child. Jenkins is an educated voyeur, alive to the moral ambiguity of his position, and the praise that the British politician and writer Harold Nicolson heaped on “the bland cruelty of Mr Powell’s style” only gets to half of the man. For Powell, callousness and compassion are close neighbors.

By the late 1960s—before its final volumes were even written—the prestige of Dance was in decline, the archaic manners and Tory leanings of its creator seemingly irreconcilable with the left liberalism that dominated the literary avant-garde. It was almost a badge of honor to disparage the series, Spurling writes, as, for example, the Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin did when he came across it, pronouncing it “elitist, class-ridden, an English upper-class comedy of manners written by a snob.” One by one, Powell’s prominent allies turned against him: first Malcolm Muggeridge, the most famous broadcaster of his generation; then Philip Larkin, the poet of middle England; and finally—though Powell didn’t live to see it—V.S. Naipaul.

Though Rankin has since revised his opinion of Dance, there is now little general awareness of a novelist who never, even in his heyday, rivaled Waugh in the public affection. Politics hasn’t helped, for the unfortunate fact is that Powell distrusted liberalism and loathed the European Community, positions that in our time of gathering insularity link him to a variety of unsavory types. For all Hilary Spurling’s success at presenting Powell in his milieu, the rehabilitation of Dance itself is a much greater challenge. The series is long. It is about an elite that no longer exists. For Dance to surmount accusations of irrelevance, attention must turn to the work’s essential qualities, which put it near the apex of modern literary achievement.

Powell succeeds in Dance because, over such a vast span, his characterizations remain his alone; he rarely falls back on an established or conventional type but treats his characters, especially those who conduct themselves most grotesquely, with the same essential seriousness. This, again, is a product of Powell’s exceptional powers of observation; every human is visibly unique and is treated on his or her own terms. More fundamentally, Dance succeeds because it transcends its origins—which are, like those of any work of art, inevitably parochial—and touches the reader by appealing to the values of human solidarity and wonder.

We are accustomed to thinking of Jenkins as the conduit of these values; very occasionally he is surprised by them, and we in turn are touched by his very human surprise. Toward the end of The Military Philosophers, the ninth book in the series, Jenkins escorts Allied military attachés through newly liberated France, when he spots an overturned staff car in the grass by the road:

The camouflaged body-work was already eaten away by rust, giving an impression of abandonment…decades before. High up in the branches of one of the poplars, positioned like a cunningly-contrived scarecrow, the tatters of a field-grey tunic, black-and-white collar patches just discernible, fluttered in the faint breeze and hard cold sunlight…. [An] old and bearded Frenchman appeared plodding along the road. He was wearing a beret, and, like many of the local population, cloaked in the olive green rubber of a British army anti-gas cape. As our convoy passed, he stopped and waved a greeting. He looked absolutely delighted, like a peasant in a fairy story who has found the treasure. For some reason it was all too much. A gigantic release seemed to have taken place. The surroundings had suddenly become overwhelming. I was briefly in tears.