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In our new column ‘A Book That Changed Me’, we’re asking some of our favourite authors to wax lyrical about a book that inspired their latest work or their writing practice. In this first instalment, Chris Womersley shares how his new novel The Diplomat (Picador Australia) was influenced by Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75).

The author Chris Womersley, wearing a white shirt, dark grey suit jacket and tortoise-shell glasses.

How did this book come into your life?

Although not completely certain, I think I read about A Dance to the Music of Time on a literary website a little over ten years ago. It was one of those here is a book you might not have heard of but probably should have type columns. I don’t actually know why it grabbed my attention, to be honest. I was at the time in a slight reading slump (although I am always in a reading slump—in the sense that I’m continually on the lookout for a novel that will sate for once and for all my literary hunger, if such a thing were even possible) and it appealed to me. God knows why. It doesn’t exactly sound gripping—a 12-novel sequence, set among the English upper classes and London middle-class bohemia, covering five decades from 1921 through to 1971.

On the surface it sounds very old-fashioned—and it is, in its way. But, of course, literature is news that stays news. It was—and remains—one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my life. The 12 novels are generally collected in four volumes—or movements, according to the seasons—of three novels apiece and, for me, reading the opening few pages was enough to feel that I was in the presence of a book to relish; some classic allusions, a melancholy reverie, beautiful writing. I’m a sucker for that shit. Sometimes you just know, don’t you, that a book has been waiting for you all along—or you for it. It takes a little while to read 12 novels, but I insisted on finishing each volume before ordering the next, so as to draw out the experience for as long as possible.

What is the book about?

Here’s where it gets tricky. Perhaps it’s best to quote the novel itself on this matter. ‘Like everything that’s any good, it has about twenty different meanings.’ A Dance to the Music of Time is about many things—and yet most of the ‘action’, as it were, consists of social engagements or the like in which aristocrats, hangers-on or seedy bohemians discuss distant family members, various affairs and marriages, politics and social issues. Even the novels that cover the period of Word War II are less concerned with battles or the progress of the Allies than the machinations of bureaucrats vying for power on the (English) home front—although there are some incredibly interesting and moving scenes involving the Blitz. I fear this makes the novel sound tedious, but I assure you it’s not—although admittedly, the later sections concerning what we might think of as a more tangible past (ie: the late 60s) are less successful. Powell, like his characters, was perhaps a product of a vanished time and struggled to adapt to that period quite so well.

The novels are narrated by authorial stand-in Nick Jenkins who, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, is an observer and analyst of proceedings rather than an active agent. But what an observer: Eloquent, wry, equal parts bemused and knowing.

Sometimes you just know, don’t you, that a book has been waiting for you all along—or you for it.

A Dance to the Music of Time (named after a painting by Nicolas Poussin) begins at Eton in 1921 and follows the varying fortunes of a variety of Nick’s classmates and their teachers and friends and family over the course of fifty years. Although concentrated on Nick’s immediate circle of half a dozen friends and acquaintances, there are more than one hundred characters. They rise and fall. Those who were derided when young become powerful later in life and those who were full of promise fail spectacularly to fulfil it. London is bombed, people are betrayed, everyone drinks far too much, the sixties land with a rise in neo-paganism. The times, they change.

A Dance to the Music of Time is about fate and fortune. Life can be a long and unpredictable game. There’s a lot of sex. Or talk of it, anyway—but only in a quintessential English roundabout fashion (‘Later that night mutual approval took physical expression’). It possesses the sly wit of Evelyn Waugh paired with Marcel Proust’s elegance and sombreness of tone.

What do you love most about it?

There are so many things to love about A Dance to the Music of Time—its vital characters (the villainous Widmerpool, tragic but endearing Stringham, the alluring sourpuss Pamela Flitton), its scope, its observations (witty, wise, perceptive), its glimpse of a time and world that is crumbling even as it’s being lived and recorded—but what I love most of all, and which might be considered the umbrella under which all of these things huddle, is that it’s immensely generous. Not only in its size and sprawling nature but in the way it allows so much room for its characters to move about and become their complete selves—for good or ill. ‘Wisdom is the power to admit that you cannot understand and judge people in their entirety,’ our narrator Nick observes at one stage.

Many of the characters in the novels are based on real people (George Orwell, Aleister Crowley) and, for those who might be interested, there’s an entire scholarship devoted to figuring out who’s who. For me, reading the books is akin to living an entire life, with all its unexpected vicissitudes of fortune. Characters vanish for long periods, only to reappear at unexpected moments, rather like (at least in my own experience) life itself.

How did it influence The Diplomat?

If all of the above seems an unlikely model or influence for The Diplomat—well, yes and no. Influence is not causal. Rather than a baton passed from hand to hand, it is perhaps more akin to a mondegreen that is itself misheard and mutates over time.

I was interested in examining the inner lives of characters about whom readers of Cairo would have a distinct preconception—and of challenging those preconceptions.

Let me first return to my 2013 novel Cairo, which was a coming-of-age story about a young man who gets embroiled in the 1986 theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV. The narrator of Cairo was Tom Button, an innocent who gets caught up in things he can’t quite control. One of the characters in Cairo was Edward Degraves who is, at least in Tom’s eyes (and probably his own), something of an outlaw. He’s a heroin addict and an art forger, self-composed and intimidating.

A Dance to the Music of Time made me think firstly of creating a sequence of novels (known as a roman fleuve)—although mine would take up the narrative of varying characters at times and places not necessarily connected with the events of Cairo. I was interested in examining the inner lives of characters about whom readers of Cairo would, thanks to Tom’s impressions, have a distinct preconception—and of challenging those preconceptions. As a result, the Edward of The Diplomat is quite different to the Edward we thought we knew from Cairo. At some stage there will be another novel in the Cairo sequence that takes up the thread of another character’s life. Which character and where is not yet clear—or at least not to me. Any ideas? Maybe I should conduct a poll?

If you could choose, in what way would you hope you or your book could influence other writers?

For me a novel is a more or less intimate connection between writer, narrator and reader. It’s a moment of communion. A note slipped under one’s door late at night. I do tend to enjoy work that can blend so-called high and low culture—there’s something about that I find innately satisfying. Any influence I exert I hope to be a bad one. Let’s make up some weird shit.

For me a novel is a more or less intimate connection between writer, narrator and reader. It’s a moment of communion. A note slipped under one’s door late at night.

Any other books or influences you’d like to mention?

Only everything I’ve ever read. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. Praise by Andrew McGahan. Raymond Chandler, Mary Gaitskill, John Cheever, Don Delillo, James Ellroy, John Berger, Seamus Heaney, Lipstick Traces, Marina Warner, Franz Kafka, The Waste Land, Michael Dransfield…

What’s next for you?

Weirdly, I’ll be doing one or two things at Melbourne Writers Festival this year. Feel free to come along and say hi!

The Diplomat is available now from your local independent bookseller.