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A Question of Upbringing (1951)

af Anthony Powell

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Serier: A Dance to the Music of Time (01)

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1,0112720,119 (3.63)2 / 151
A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME chronicles the lives of over three hundred characters, and is a unique evocation of life in twentieth-century England. It is unrivalled for its scope, its humour and the enormous pleasure it has given to generations. This first novel in the sequence follows Nicholas Jenkins, Kenneth Widmerpool and others, as they negotiate the intellectual, cultural and social hurdles which stand between them and the 'Acceptance World'.… (mere)
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2020 update: This review is somewhat superseded by my reading of future volumes in the series, where I have fallen utterly in love with Mr Powell's work.
There are a few ways a work can be dated. Anthony Powell's A Question of Upbringing falls into most of the possible categories. The novel is famously the first in a 12-book series, A Dance to the Music of Time, that not coincidentally recalls the greatest work on memory ever written, Proust's [b:In Search of Lost Time|18796|In Search of Lost Time (6 Volumes)|Marcel Proust|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1352231701l/18796._SX50_.jpg|21467164]. You can find my detailed reviews of those seven books on Goodreads, and I was excited for Powell because of the connection. Unfortunately, A Question of Upbringing does not sprint out of the gate like Swann's Way does; it might be a much speedier read, but it's also a shallower one. Or is it?

The novel is quite simple. Nicholas Jenkins attends his last year of highschool in 1920s England, unsure of his future and whether he can make a living out of his creative tendencies, spends a summer with school friends as their friendships start to fade, takes a "gap" trip to France where he is involved in arbitrating a tense tennis match between two surly Scandinavians, and then attends his first year at university, where not much happens of any note. As he depicts the uncertain connections between his schoolmates: reckless womaniser Peter Templer, aristocratic prankster Charles Stringham, and the uncomfortable but observant Kenneth Widmerpool, Nick ponders his future.

Powell seems to be self-consciously channeling Proust here - a generation after Proust's death - by setting up a dozen or so characters whom we're explicitly told will return later in Nick's life. And indeed, every world Nick enters feels already lived-in, with a deftness of description that is worth commenting upon. I quite enjoyed the novel, don't get me wrong, but I think Proust's shadow looms rather too large at this early stage.

For one thing, there's Nick's narrative voice. What makes Proust so utterly intoxicating is the gulf between the narrator and his younger self; it's also the source of much of the comedy, as young Marcel doesn't have any notion of what's really going on. The distinction here is far more blurry, and Nick already seems to be realising far too much far too early. Of course, the character of Nick seems to be more mature than the precocious young Marcel is intended to be, but the trouble is that it's hard to tell who is narrating this story - Nick as he goes along, or an older version? Nevertheless, every time narrator-Nick tells us of a character's future, or of his own future relationship with them (such as with Widmerpool), it only serves to distract from the task of describing them more adequately in the present. More to the point, despite the blurb's assertion that this is a "comic masterpiece", it is strongly advised to remember this is comic in the classical sense. Aside from an incident with a chamberpot, the humour lies in under-the-surface character notes, a beguiling sense of the world from Jenkins' point of view, and people at odds with one another.

And this is why I started this review by mentioning how things date. As someone who is fairly proficient in mid-century English literature and culture, I can absorb many of the little phrases which made a great deal of sense to people in 1950 who had lived through 1930. But so many of the phrases, as in any naturalistic conversation, don't have meaning to your average reader in 2016. I don't think many people in my generation - at least outside of central England - know that "going up" means to start university, "coming down" means to finish, and being "sent down" means to be released from school ignominiously. And that's just the tip of a rather broad iceberg. Powell was writing for a well-heeled, white, colonial readership, and that means this book just doesn't carry well into the 21st century. "But", I hear you say, "Proust was writing for those people a generation earlier, in French!". Well, yes, but Proust's work invites us to be historians, presenting a narrator who is caught between the different worlds of society; Jenkins mainly stays put. Besides which, the French - at least in Proust - are nothing if not exclamatory; Powell's Britons are bastions of diplomacy, and it's very hard to tell when anyone is showing emotion at all. Simply put, this is a book out of its time. The implications of Sillery and his coterie of students have almost completely receded into the mists, written as they are essentially shadows, sketch drawings designed to represent flesh-and-blood characters to readers already familiar with the type. I like to think of myself as somewhat aware of this period of history, but the apparently "sacerdotal" tendencies of the butler(?) Moffet, and the issue of the boy whose father may or may not have "worked"(?) for the railway line still confuse me. These are figments of an author's imagination drawn in vague snippets of conversation. Which I guess is what James Joyce did too, and more about that below.

Or perhaps it's that Powell uses limited dialogue. Even one of the longest conversations - at the very end of the book - is muted, despite significant plot revelations, and it's sometimes hard to tell which of the participants is speaking. Remarkably, during the entire chapter set in France, a few of the characters never get to speak at all. We are told about the vast party of residents in passing, and then proceed to spend most of the time on whether Widmerpool can speak French. At the end of the day, the book feels like a skim. And where this most has an impact, unfortunately, is in the women, Jean Templer in particular. Jean is evidently going to become a large part of Nick's life, and perhaps Powell is during what Proust did with Albertine - making her a cipher because that's all Nick knows about her right now. But, given Nick basically falls in love with her right away, it's frustrating that we barely hear Jean utter two words. If he's meant to have fallen for her ironically, because that's what 18-year-old boys do when they meet a girl for the first time after years of being at an all-boys school, I'm not picking up any hints of that.

Powell's writing can sometimes, frankly, be lazy. He introduces two characters by saying their names were, "respectively", X and Y. There's no need for that "respectively", as he's not adding any further attributes that need clarifying. At one point, he writes: For some reason, I felt enormously surprised to see [Le Bas] standing there. He had passed so utterly from daily life. For some reason? You just literally explained the reason, Mr. Powell! And, beyond all of that, I'd be remiss if I didn't stress that the final chapter suggests this will be 12 books about privileged straight white able-bodied men learning that life isn't always the pranks and philosophical debates that it was in highschool.

Now, let me backtrack. Because of course, I have no problem with that last fact. I yearn for the days of the early 20th century, when writers could churn out one or two books a year that were meant to be read, not overly critiqued. Agatha Christie is a great case in point: not every novel has to be - or should be - a masterpiece. Tell a story, tell it in your way, tell it to your ideal audience, because they aren't addicted to their iPad so they'll happily buy a book every two weeks. Those were the days, and I miss them greatly. I don't begrudge Powell doing what he's doing. And I have some faith, given how famous the work is. On some level, for instance, Powell seems to deliberately not be interested in describing his characters in great depth; they exist as types, types drawn from history and literature. They say (correctly) that Conan Doyle wrote good short stories and terrible novels, and Christie wrote good novels and terrible short stories. Perhaps Powell is the anti-Proust, and his work will get better with each successive novel. I surely hope so.

I also don't want to besmirch Powell entirely. His technique is, on the whole, very sensible. And at the close of the incident involving the crowded car ride (page 200 in my Chicago edition) there is an absolutely exquisite paragraph, one of the best paragraphs I have read in a long time. It uses all the things I've complained about, including short but weighty clippings of dialogue, to gorgeous effect. Oh, Anthony.

Before I depart, I must say a word about the edition. I lamented this with Proust also, and it's not a coincidence I mentioned Joyce earlier: publishing houses need to devote more money to annotations and amendments. I know we live in a dreary "more with less" economy, and that publishing of fine literature isn't exactly getting the Kardashian fans a-moving. But it's a cost saving now which will ultimately drive literature (and readers) further into the ground. For starters there's Powell's punctuation, which is very dated, particularly his use of colons. Then there are the ceaseless references which go unexplained, and which would already have been confusing, no doubt, to a teenager when the book was written! Beyond that, there are numerous passages in French which go untranslated, and I'm sure it won't be the only language by the time we're done. Sure, the engaged reader can do the work on all of the above (although some of the cultural references are so coded that it's hard to tell they are references), but the vast majority of the public are not engaged readers. Chicago's cover designs are delightful, but the book itself is merely an imprint of one of the earliest publications. So much so that, in this book containing the first three novels in the series, the page numbers start from "1" for each novel, so they can't even include a table of contents to direct you to the second and third ones! I have to say, I also think an introduction wouldn't go astray, given that this is a book in which multiple pages of a fairly short run are devoted to how many tennis balls there are at the manor, and in what quality they be. I recognise this is a vanilla edition; I'm not a ninny. But I'm not sure how much longer the protectors of Western literature can take that chance.

How much can we judge history?
Since we're going to be in the world of Powell for some time, loyal readers, it's a question we should probably ask throughout the review process. Is it fair to judge works of a different era for their values? Their beliefs? Their biases? How about for the limited nature of their audience, or for any ways in which our generation are restricted in terms of access, through no fault of the author's own? Well, probably not a lot. There's much to be said for reading something through an historical lens, and I argue this for many of my favourite authors from Shakespeare to Dickens. At the same time, we have to look critically at the work when it deserves it (i.e. if any racist or sexist biases appear) and, more to the point, we can't deny the limitations history places on a modern audience's ability to understand. Here I was assuming that "R.A." stood for "resident [or religious] advisor", as per my university days, when it fact it denotes a member of the Royal Academy! Anyhow, it's something to keep in mind as we barrel on through future volumes.

Powell and Art
Yes, I'm capitalising it, because Art may as well be a character in this great tapestry. In A Question of Upbringing, we see references to artists from Veronese to Millais, from classic sculpture to the Bayeux Tapestry, not to mention the Poussin work from which the cycle takes its name. Works of art are used to help describe characters, to foreshadow events, and to provide an authentic sense of the milieu in which these characters operate. It is one of the most Proustian elements of the novel, and also serves to appoint the Dance to its rightful place amongst the vast library of classical and modern works from which Powell draws his references. (It is, of course, another way of limiting the audience to the classically educated, but we've had enough of that.)

In closing, I will continue to read the Dance, at least until the end of the first three novels - the "First Movement", as this edition charmingly calls them. There is the suggestion that these four gentlemen will go out into the world and lead us into something rich and strange. Perhaps in retrospect these peculiar, privileged idylls will overflow with foreshadowing and pathos. So far, however, Powell seems to have yielded to the fault of many people trying to create a long-running storyline: building the foundations without putting up some bright scaffolding to hide the construction. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 24, 2023 |
Some gorgeous turns of phrase in that beautiful understated British way.

'There was also the question of money - perhaps suggested by Widmerpool's talk on that subject - that mysterious entity, of which one had heard so much and so often without grasping more that its ownership was desirable and its lack inconvenient.'

'One feels awful if one drinks, and worse if one's sober.'

( )
  beentsy | Aug 12, 2023 |
I found this book quite moving, especially the last chapter, which really brings to the surface some of the themes which underlie the whole book. The book is very well written, with a strong sense of style. Powell uses colons and semi-colons in a way that I have never seen before. I quite like his choices, though. ( )
  robfwalter | Jul 31, 2023 |
The writing is fantastically clever and dry as a desert. The only real drawback here is a glacial pace roughly equivalent to that of real time--setting up for a long game, I believe, but won't overpraise before I see it. ( )
  Adamantium | Aug 21, 2022 |
Very good. Starts a it abstract, but settles in quickly. Looking forward to living with these characters for a while. I know there are 12 of these, and I am destined to read them all. One thing, they all seem to be a manageable under-300-words in length. ( )
  BooksForDinner | May 31, 2020 |
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Forfatter navnRolleHvilken slags forfatterVærk?Status
Powell, Anthonyprimær forfatteralle udgaverbekræftet
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A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME chronicles the lives of over three hundred characters, and is a unique evocation of life in twentieth-century England. It is unrivalled for its scope, its humour and the enormous pleasure it has given to generations. This first novel in the sequence follows Nicholas Jenkins, Kenneth Widmerpool and others, as they negotiate the intellectual, cultural and social hurdles which stand between them and the 'Acceptance World'.

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