British author Anthony Powell spent most of his life creating the 12-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time. The story is semi-autobiographical with narrator Nicholas Jenkins standing in for Powell. But the story is not about Jenkins/Powell. Although he shares 50 years of his life - from the early 1920s to the early 1970s - he reveals very little about himself: We never even learn the names of his children. Instead, the story focuses on the people in the narrator's life during these decades.
We meet many characters. Some exit Nick's life forever; some exit and return in a later book; and some die. The lives of the characters often intertwine - sometimes via implausible coincidences (Nick often runs into friends on the streets of the enormous city of London and in small villages in the UK). The story is told mostly in chronological order, with each book consisting of 3-4 set pieces that provide insight into the characters and the time. The narrative seldom ventures outside of England - even when the Nicholas and his friends serve in World War II.
The novels tell a story of English society during each era. Because most of the characters are upper middle class, the story focuses on the lesser aristocrats and bohemians. History happens off-stage, reflected in the lives of the people in the story. We hear of the world outside through gossip and conversations at a plethora of dinners and cocktail parties.
In this richly layered work, Powell addresses themes of marriage, relationships, divorce; of the connectedness between people and events; and of the varying philosophies that people use to make sense of the world. But mostly, it is about the changes that time brings to individuals and to relationships.
Reading this series can be a challenge. Hundreds of characters are introduced, and the reader cannot always tell immediately which will be significant later. The most interesting character is Kenneth Widmerpool - other the narrator, the only one to appear in every book. Widmerpool is arrogant, ambitious, and decidedly unlikeable, but rises quickly in business, the military, and politics. Widmerpool exists also to introduce his wife - the beautiful femme fatale Pamela. Like a venomous creature, Pamela lures men to her; then attempts to destroy them.
Powell includes a lot of dialogue, but it is good dialogue because Nick surrounds himself with Clever people.
Each book stands alone; but this is much better read as a complete series. Keeping track of the characters is a challenge, but it is more meaningful when a character appears after an absence of many years.
If you have the time to dedicate to reading the 3000 pages of this series, the rewards are great.