I first tried writing fiction about thirty years ago. Thankfully none of my attempts are extant, but if I tell you that I was absorbed at that time with reading Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume fiction cycle A Dance to the Music of Time, you might guess what the writing was like. On the other hand you might not, because hardly anybody reads Powell these days. At any rate you would have groaned through elegantly wistful reminiscences of school days not unlike my own, and grimaced at characters crudely modelled on Powell’s X. Trapnel and Kenneth Widmerpool.
Powell published A Dance between 1951 and 1975, and my admiration for him went far beyond the pleasures of his elaborately ironic account of literary, political and military life from the second world war until the Flower Power era; it was his stamina and precision that astonished me. Who can match Powell in tracking his characters in such detail over half a century? For me the most impressive technical feat was Nick Jenkins, the Everyman narrator through whom the entire content of twelve novels is conveyed as either first or second hand reports. Remarkably, we know almost nothing about Nick Jenkins at the end of the cycle; he has been our eyes and ears, and that is about it.
When I began writing my novel The Play’s the Thing I wanted to pay homage to Powell but I didn’t intend to repeat my grovelling mistakes of thirty years ago. What I did was to model aspects of my character Alex Noble on Nick Jenkins: Alex begins and ends the novel, and he appears at various points not as a central character but as a device to help develop crucial plot elements. I created the idea of Alex playing the corpse in the Bandicoot Ridge Community Theatre with exactly this in mind; Alex is in the action but he’s not part of the action. And although we do learn something of Alex, his experiences serve as a backdrop to the story, not as drivers of the plot. This much, I felt, was sufficient as my thank-you to Anthony Powell; to speak through the single voice of Alex, as I considered at one point, would have tipped homage into flattery.
This little essay is from my anthology On Becoming a Butcher in Paris. If you would like to have a free e-copy of the entire 15,000-word collection, email me at stuartcampbellauthorATgmailDOTcom (replace the AT and DOT with @ and . so that I know you are human) and I will send you a copy and add you to my email news list.
Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .
One thought on “A Dance to the Music of Flattery”
I am oh-so-intrigued (writer’s imagination on overdrive) at the idea of a narrator over 12 novels who remains unknown to the readers at the end of the day – the eyes and ears alone, as you have described. Wow. Nothing replaces reading widely – being well read – when it comes to writing.