Sunday, April 1, 2012

The gift that keeps on giving

For Christmas I gave myself a copy of the complete 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. I had read most of it 30 years ago, but the volumes were hard to find, so I read them out of order. I thought that accounted for my difficulty in remembering who was who.

But this time around, reading it in perfectly chronological order, I find myself floundering again. Partly it’s because some characters, like Alfred Tolland (the name of an uncle and his nephew), have the same name. Partly it’s because a single character sometimes has more than one name, like Alf Tolland (one of 10 Tolland siblings), who is also known as Erridge, Erry and Lord Warminster. Partly it’s because a noble title often refers to several people who have held it at different times. And then there’s the issue of musical spouses, so a reference to someone’s wife might mean one woman in one volume and quite another in a subsequent volume.

Discouraged, I began consulting Professor Google from time to time to refresh my memory. And I came upon a citation for a 330-page “handbook” to the series, called Invitation to the Dance. Aha! I thought. I bought the handbook, by Hilary Spurling, and discovered that a good 200 pages of it consists of a listing of the characters, along with brief identifications. And the introduction, written by Powell himself, notes comfortingly that “throughout the course of a twelve-volume novel, four or five hundred characters, a million words, even the best disposed reader can forget the detail of what went before.”

Four or five hundred characters! It’s not me, it’s them.

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