A. N. Wilson at the TLS:
One of the jokes underlying The Canterbury Tales is that, while each of the miscellaneous pilgrims, in all their distinctiveness, comes before us with unforgettable clarity, the narrator himself, who first encounters them in the Tabard Inn at Southwark, is everlastingly shadowy, and when he attempts to tell a tale of his own, the innkeeper, Harry Bailey, rejects his effort with the words “Thy drasty ryming is not worth a turd”. Something comparable is going on in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a roman-fleuve which could not be further from autobiography, if that word is taken to mean self-revelation. Widmerpool, the thrusting bore who blunderingly exercises power over so many of the other characters; Mr Deacon, the unfashionable artist who seems like a wounded throwback to the 1890s; Mrs Erdleigh, the mystic fortune teller so many of whose prophecies come true; Gwatkin the Welsh bank manager, who fantasizes about being a great military leader: all live in our heads as clearly as do the Wife of Bath or Chaucer’s Miller. We learn the bare minimum, however, about Nick Jenkins, Powell’s narrator, beyond the outward sequence of his life, which, to judge from the author’s subsequent memoir To Keep the Ball Rolling (1976), appears to have been all but identical to Powell’s own trajectory – Eton, a spell as a publisher interrupted by dull war service, and then a jobbing life, reviewing books and writing the fiction in which he is the least defined character. A biographer of Powell might be expected to winkle out the secret life of the man, to make “Nick Jenkins”/Anthony Powell less opaque to us.