Character Creation by Metaphor: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time

Over the last several years, at literary cocktail parties perhaps, or their on-line equivalents, I’ve overheard various intriguing fragments of conversation regarding Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The fragments have been highly complimentary, seemingly to the point of hyperbole, along the lines of the jacket copy on my dog-eared, time-yellowed used bookstore edition: “many critics regard [it] as one of the greatest achievements in all modern fiction.”

Clearly, at some point, I had to give it a try. The first installment, A Question of Upbringing, takes place at Eton, Oxford, and in 1920’s London. It is indeed very good fiction, although I’m still not sure whether I’m ready to go along with the jacket copy. But this is top grade stuff, no question: intelligent, funny, gripping, and satisfying both as intellectual nourishment and entertainment. Take this passage introducing Stringham, one of the main characters:

When I came in, Stringham was kneeling in front of the fire, employing a paper-knife shaped like a scimitar as a toasting-fork. Without looking up, he said: “There is a jam crisis.”   
         He was tall and dark, and looked a little like one of those stiff, sad young men in ruffs, whose long legs take up so much room in sixteenth-century portraits: or perhaps a younger – and far slighter – version of Veronese’s Alexander receiving the children of Darius after the Battle of Issus: with the same high forehead and suggestion of hair thinning a bit at the temples. His features certainly seemed to belong to that epoch of painting: the faces in Elizabethan miniatures, lively, obstinate, generous, not very happy, and quite relentless. He was an excellent mimic, and, although he suffered from prolonged fits of melancholy, he talked a lot when one of these splenetic fits was not upon him: and ragged with extraordinary violence when excited. He played cricket well enough to rub along: football he took every opportunity of avoiding.

I love that paper knife shaped like a scimitar: hints of romance and violence echoing back to the crusades. And yet: “There is a jam crisis.” How could one not be fascinated by this short paragraph, which conveys volumes about the social milieu and the character in question?

Then we have the references to 16th century paintings & Elizabethan miniatures. These provocative images linger and expand in our minds, serving not only to give us a physical vision of Stringham, but also to emphasize his pedigree: he is a patrician, rooted in a grand tradition, with all the accompanying connotations of noblesse oblige, dry humor, and highly accomplished social skills that flow from that heritage. 

We experience Stringham as a humorous and breezily pleasant companion, but we also sense that he suffers deeply. He is an average athlete, a melancholic, far from perfect. He is unhappy, perhaps in part because of the weight of expectations and responsibility that go along with his upper-class lineage. Still, he bears the burden gracefully. In just a few paragraphs, Powell has provided us with a stunningly rich, textured, and sympathetic portrait.

Contrast the above introduction to this quick sketch of Le Bas, the boys’ overbearing schoolmaster:

Le Bas had in his hand a small blue book. It was open. I saw from the typeface that it contained verse. His hat hung from the top of his walking stick, which he had thrust into the ground, and his bald head was sweating a bit on top. He crouched there in the manner of a large animal—some beast alien to the English countryside, a yak or a sea lion, taking its ease: marring, as Stringham said later, the beauty of the summer afternoon.

This is a study of Stringham’s opposite: emphatically non-aristocratic, graceless, an awkward, alien misfit. There is something so right about it that we immediately recognize it as true. For me, the most important thing to note is that Powell is again using metaphorical imagery (yes, word-detectives, I know it’s simile he’s using—but remember, simile is merely a class of metaphor) to paint the distilled essence of a character. 

Instead of sad figures in Elizabethan paintings, we now have a yak or a sea lion crouching in the English countryside. These metaphors give us a vivid, poignant, and deeply resonant vision of a character who doesn’t belong, is impossibly out of his depth. And yet Le Bas has a certain beastly power, and is therefore a bit of a threat as well, which harmonizes perfectly with his role in the story. It’s a cutting introduction to a disastrous character, and yet the portrait is complex and not entirely unsympathetic. This is very well done.

Let’s appreciate another example:

Fair, not strikingly pretty, with long legs and short, untidy hair, she remained without moving, intently watching us, as Peter shut off the engine, and we got out of the car. Like her legs, her face was thing and attenuated, the whole appearance given the effect of a much simplified—and somewhat self-conscious—arrangement of lines and planes, such as might be found in an Old Master drawing, Flemish or German perhaps, depicting some young and virginal saint; the racquet, held awkwardly at an angle to her body, suggesting at the same time an obscure implement associated with martyrdom. . . any hopes or fears orientated in her direction were quickly dissolved, because she hardly spoke when Peter introduced us, except to say in a voice unexpectedly deep, and almost as harsh as her brother’s: ‘The hard court needs resurfacing.’

We don’t get to know this character, Jean, very well in this book—it’s possible she will reappear later in the series—so we don't find out whether the martyrdom imagery is actually “on the nose.” I suspect not, but it doesn’t really matter, because as it stands the metaphorical portrait is complex, contradictory, and interesting. The Old Master reference, the self-conscious arrangement of lines and planes, the way the tennis racquet seems intentionally held to create a certain impression, and the deep, harsh voice complaining about the tennis court—these are more than enough to intrigue us, and they fix this character indelibly in our imaginations.

A few more:

Loitering about the college in aged sack-like clothes and Turkish slippers, his snow white hair worn longer that that of most of his colleagues, Sillery could lay claim to a venerable appearance: though his ragged, Old Bill moustache (which, he used laughingly to mention, had once been compared with Nietszche’s) was still dark. He was, indeed, no more than entering into his middle fifties: merely happening to find convenient a fa├žade of comparative senility.

Up to that afternoon I had only seen Members hurrying about in the streets, shaking from his round, somewhat pasty face a brownish, uneven fringe that grew low on his forehead and made him look rather like a rag doll, or marionette: an air augmented by brown eyes like beads, and a sprinkling of freckles. His tie, a broad, loose knot, left the collar of his shirt a little open. I admired this lack of self-consciousness regarding what I then—rather priggishly—looked on as eccentricity of dress. He appeared to have known Sillery all his life, calling him ‘Sillers’, a form of address which, in spite of several tea-parties attended, I had not yet summoned the courage to employ.

The power of the visual metaphors that anchor these character portraits may in part be due to the fact that they’re not too on-the-nose. They are at once economical and vivid – one feels the shock of recognition – and yet, at the same time, they are complex, textured, and full of internal contradictions. In other words, they create an extraordinarily lifelike impression. Sillery in his sack-like clothes and Turkish slippers partakes of the essence of both Wild Bill and Nietszche; Members is a rag doll, a puppet, true—and yet he is bold, unselfconscious, and admirably courageous.

Excellent stuff. There is clearly much to learn from Powell about how to employ metaphorical writing to create vivid, unforgettable fictional characters. I can't wait to read the rest of the series.

Multiple First Person Point of View: The Pros and Cons (Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers)

English Passengers blends a funny and compulsively readable seafaring novel with a dark tale of the Tasmanian genocide. It’s an uneasy mix, I found. Whenever the story of Illiam Killian Kewley and his crew of Manxmen aboard the smuggling vessel Sincerity resumed, I felt a certain sense of relief. It wasn’t that the Tasmanian genocide threads weren’t well written — they were, quite, with sufficient tension and interesting, if not always very sympathetic characters. I guess it was that the subject matter was so bleak in the genocide sections that the humor in the sea story wasn’t quite enough to balance it. It may have also been my mood, given that I was sick with the flu for much of the time I was reading it. 

Anyway, I thought it might be instructive to weigh the pros and cons of Kneale’s choice to write the book in the first person from multiple points of view, as opposed to using a fully omniscient or alternating third person POV.


Among the advantages, it seems to me, is the fun of immersion in the personalities of many characters. We discover one character's amusingly harrowing proto-Hitlerian theorizing and explore the inner lives of a murderous convict, a sanctimonious vicar in the process of losing his handle on reality, a good-humored but increasingly beleaguered sea captain, and an entire cast of minor and supporting actors. It’s kind of like an extended role-playing game. We might be able to play a similar game with omniscience, but with first-person we can be sure that we’re experiencing these characters’ personalities in the most thorough way possible in literature: not only through their thoughts, but through their language, their actual voices. 

A second advantage, related to the previous one, is what might be called the “cultural tourism” aspect. By tuning in to the inner voices of his characters Kneale is able to present, in a subtle but pervasive way, their cultures. Thus we can extrapolate cultural mores from the Isle of Man by reading Captain Kewley’s rich manx dialect; we can learn something about nineteenth century British society by reading the pompous vicar and the dangerously theoretical Dr. Potter, who illustrates the sinister side of the same cultural hunger for teleological theories that produced Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. And, in Kneale’s most risky and perhaps least successful feat of ventriloquism, we can see the world from the perspective of Peevay, a representative of the mysterious and doomed Tasmanian aboriginal people.

The third major plus of the multiple-first-person strategy is that within each discrete section written from the limited perspective of one character, there are opportunities to illustrate the truth—a major theme of the book—that humans experience the same events in completely different ways. Kneale uses this contrasting perspective to great advantage in the hilarious escalation of competing paranoias that emerges between the vicar and Potter, in the wry and suspenseful story of how Captain Kewley and the crew keep the Sincerity’s illegal cargo from the passengers, and in the devastating account of how the historical encounter between whites and Tasmanian aboriginal people was experienced in a radically different manner by the two societies, and led inexorably to the latter’s extinction. Omniscience, unlimited in scope by definition, might have made these contrasts less striking, while an alternating third-person point of view, with its implied narrative presence, might have made them less compelling.


One downside of using the multiple first person point of view is the lack of allegiance to a single narrative voice. In difficult novels with a lone narrator, explicit or implied—Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky stands out as a good example—the reader develops a strong allegiance to the implied narrator. Assuming one reads past the first chapter, a certain amount of trust is surrendered to this implied narrator, whose comfortably consistent voice carries the reader, like a raft on a swollen spring creek, over difficult terrain -- and even off cliffs and spectacular Niagara-style waterfalls of death and perdition.

With a multiple-first point of view this soothing, unifying current is sacrificed, and what you have instead are many smaller rivulets, some capable of lifting the raft, others not quite strong enough to buoy it past snags and shallower stretches. There are certain voices that the reader finds more compelling than others. When one is forced to trade a favored perspective for another that is less congenial, one’s allegiance to the dormant voice may dwindle.

Not a fatal flaw, perhaps, but it is a challenge to capture and keep the reader’s allegiance when you introduce a new narrative voice every few pages. This is especially the case when there are several new or unsympathetic narrators in a row. In such cases the book may begin to feel too heavy to pick up, the urgency of the narrative having evaporated in the mists.

A related point applies to narrative tension or dramatic conflict. English Passengers doesn't lack momentum; quite the contrary, especially in the Sincerity thread. But with all the perspective-switching, that momentum is frequently cut off, stored away in the cryogenic freezer to be resurrected later in the book. The problem is that even vigorous tension, if ignored, will lose vitality and eventually dissolve as the pages turn. Perhaps the problem would be less acute if every thread had an internal plot dynamo equivalent to the Sincerity thread. But that is not the case, and the book’s narrative drive is eroded by its ventriloquistic diversity.

Understandably, telling a coherent story from many different viewpoints requires chronological gymnastics, especially since several of the threads take place decades apart. There’s a lot of jumping around, skipping from decade to decade, and backing up to see the same event twice. All this may be technically impressive, but it sometimes leads to confusion, a confusion that could easily be clarified with the use of a single detached point of view. I have no way of proving this, but I imagine the novel might have been a few hundred pages shorter if Kneale had been able to dispense with all the storytelling challenges that must have arisen directly from his choice to write in multiple first.

We’ve just stepped over the border into the land of fruitless speculation, which is probably as good a place as any to conclude this post. In the end, point of view is as much a matter of taste as anything else. It is well to keep in mind that there are both benefits and pitfalls to whatever strategy one chooses, and that in choosing one strategy we disavow the potential benefits of another.


Dramatic Irony in Fiction: Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See

Don’t you love it when you’re reading a novel and you find a passage of writing so good, so vivid or haunting or revelatory that you want to stop and read it again? I marked scores of such passages in All the Light We Cannot See:

“From afar, the smoke appears strangely solid, as though carved from luminous wood.”
“They drive a dusty track surrounded by square miles of dying sunflowers so tall that they seem like trees. The stems have dried and stiffened, and the faces bob like praying heads, and as the Opel bellows past, Werner feels as if they are being watched by ten thousand Cyclopic eyes.” 
“The tip of her cane shudders as it knocks against the runnels, finding every storm drain. She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

There are literally dozens of different craft topics I could have chosen to write about in this book – and in fact I’m planning to use parts of it in upcoming classes I’m teaching on the archetypal shadow and image systems in fiction – but I zeroed in on one particular issue that has been of interest to me lately, one which I noticed on the very first page: the use of dramatic irony as an engine for suspense. Consider these passages from the book’s brilliant opening:

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”
“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon. France.”

It’s a killer opening, not only because of the vivid, poetic prose – we know we’re in the hands of a talented wordsmith – but because we’ve been put on notice about what’s coming. We’ve been granted a wider view than the inhabitants of the town, and so we need to read on to find out what happens to these poor unwitting souls.

And then a few chapters in we have this passage. Our characters are children in a German orphanage:

“Every evening he carries his radio downstairs, and Frau Elena lets her wards listen for an hour. They tune in to newscasts, concerts, operas, national choirs, folk shows, a dozen children in a semicircle on the furniture, Frau Elena among them, hardly more substantial than a child herself.      
We live in exciting times, says the radio. We make no complaints. We will plant our feet firmly in our earth, and no attack will move us.        
The older girls like musical competitions, radio gymnastics, a regular spot called Seasonal Tips for Those in Love that makes the younger children squeal. The boys like plays, news bulletins, martial anthems. Jutta likes jazz. Werner likes everything. Violins, horns, drums, speeches – a mouth against a microphone in some faraway yet simultaneous evening – the sorcery of it holds him rapt.          
 Is it any wonder, asks the radio, that courage, confidence, and optimism in growing measure fill the German people? Is not the flame of a new faith rising from this sacrificial readiness?”

The dread is completely our own – the characters don’t feel it at all. They don’t need to, because we perceive what’s coming. Our dread grips us, and we have no choice but to read on.

Although most of the book is written in the present tense, in what you might call “alternating close third POV,” the omniscient voice established in the opening pages bleeds through at various points, always bringing with it the chill of dread:

“The walls creak; the window between the curtains is black; the town prepares to sleep. Somewhere out there, German U-boats glide above underwater canyons, and thirty-foot squid ferry their huge eyes through the cold dark.”
“Neumann One, who, if he were not scheduled to die ten weeks from now in the Allied invasion of Normandy, might have become a barber later in life . . . ”

In a sense this whole novel is built on dramatic irony, which is probably true of any story that begins with a sequence from the chronological ending before looping back to the beginning. Throughout the book we have a sense of an accelerating rush toward a foregone conclusion, an inevitable convergence on the terrible event that is described at the beginning of the book. This is the dreadful power of dramatic irony: the idea that we know what’s coming but we’re still unable to look away.

Of course, you have to be an amazing writer to pull this off, and Doerr does so with stunning effectiveness.