Portrait of Edd Dumbill, taken by Giles Turnbull

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Life as a novel

Over breakfast this morning, I was reflecting on the unruly collection of intractable situations life presents to me right now. Many of these are sufficiently outrageous that they would make excellent material for a novel. Yet were I to write about the current crop of gremlins, any competent editor would throw it out for poor plotting and a desperately confusing array of characters.

If one were to insist on full disclosure of the intricacies of real life, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings would seem a mere novella. Of course a novel must entertain more than merely describe, and a good story is made more by what is omitted than included.

For me, one work of fiction excels in holding the balance well between detail and narrative pace. Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is a 12-volume sequence of novels following the life of Nicholas Jenkins, and his associated friends and family, spanning most of the twentieth century from 1914 to 1971.

Looked at crudely, a lot of not very much happens throughout Dance. But it is just this that is so evocative. The sequence follows Jenkins and the other characters through every stage of life. Powell captures well the way in which certain experiences or acquaintances become symbols of portions of our lives, while others become a recurring thread interwoven through our entire existence.

I read Dance at least once every decade, each time finding it increasingly poignant as my own life proceeds. While some fiction is fantastic escapism, it is the realism of Dance that entrances me. Its characters surprise, disappoint and frustrate in turn, none of them just caricatures. In it you won't find a hero, but you may well find yourself.

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