Thursday, 4 October 2018

Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Tune of Music of Time is a challenging journey, because it is too long—spanning across 12 volumes. But I have now started reading the first volume, A Question of Upbringing.

Nicholas Jenkins is the narrator of the entire 12 volume series. In volume one the focus is on his life as a student in a nameless public school. In the opening scene, Jenkins witnesses a group of workmen in the street and is reminded of Poussin’s famous painting A Dance to the Music of Time. This excerpt gives a taste of Powell’s writing style:
For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world — legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea — scattered, uncoordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear. 
As Jenkins points out in the last sentence of the above excerpt, the thought of Poussin’s painting makes his mind go back in time to his final year at an unnamed public school, and he finds himself contemplating the instant when he first set eyes on a fellow student Kenneth Widmerpool, who he regards as a muddled and unpopular figure. He also thinks of a visit from Uncle Giles and the practical joke that Stringham played on school’s housemaster.

Jenkins’s penchant for indulging in long reminiscences of past events brings a Marcel Proust like feeling to the novel. But Powell’s writing style is not Proustian; his sentences are shorter and easier to read.

No comments: