Monday, August 16, 2021

Anthony Powell, A Question of Upbringing (1951)

Here we go, folks!  This is the first in Powell's twelve-book series A Dance to the Music of Time.  I'd been meaning to check this out for a long time, but I feel like I was a little traumatized by reading In Search of Lost Time; the idea of embarking on another massive multi-volume novel filled me with trepidation.  This isn't as long as Proust, but it's not too far off.  Altogether, it's several thousand pages, all told, easily giving it a place on wikipedia's list of the longest novels.  Yeesh.  But you've gotta maintain that adventurous spirit, so I dove in.  And really, I needn't have worried: there are certainly Proustian aspects to this, but this first book at least is A LOT more accessible and...well, fun.

You may know that the series title comes from this painting, by Nicolas Poussin:

I dunno; somehow you--or I, at least--feel like such a massive undertaking should be based on a more massive painting. But at any rate, it's clear that the narrator's name, Nicolas (same non-standard spelling) is no coincidence. The novel chronicles his experiences and, more broadly, British middle- and upper-class life in the mid-twentieth century. If that doesn't sound like your thing, well, it's probably not. But if it does, it definitely is.

So what happens here? Well, as it opens, it's 1921 or thereabouts, and ol' Nicolas Jenkins is a high school student rooming with two others, Charles Stringham and Peter Templer. There's also a slightly older student named Kenneth Widmerpool (though his first name is never mentioned in the book; I just saw it on wikipedia), who none of them particularly know, but who is kind of strange and apart and who I think is going to play a big role later on. So there's that. Later, he visits both Stringham and Templer at home. He goes to France, staying at a kind of boarding house to try to improve his French. Later, he's at university. He and Stringham and Templer all start to drift apart, though I'm sure they'll all appear in future volumes. And that's about that. It ends rather abruptly.

As previously noted, there are definitely Proustian elements: it's an intensely social novel, with a lot of attention given over to character interactions and penetrating psychological insight.  But unlike in Proust, you aren't drowned in so many details about characters that it's impossible to ever get a holistic view of them.  Also, there's actual humor here, which is a contrast.  People who don't like the novel will complain that there are all these details even about minor characters who probably aren't ever going to appear again or play any sort of pivotal role.  I can understand how, in the long term, this might get a little irritating (we'll see!), but for now, I think it's fine.  This is a portrait of a society.  That's what it is, and Powell's approach makes the sense of verisimilitude very strong.

I should also note that I'm just so impressed by the confidence of Powell's style: everything is delineated in a totally self-assured, precise way.  Like, we all punctuate our speeches with false starts and ums and ahs: imagine a person speaking in very sophisticated, complex sentences with absolutely none of that.  That's the impression I get here.  And again, I can imagine how this could start to wear on one a little after a while, but for now, I am extremely cool with it, and very ready to start the second book.


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