Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Penguin no. 1728: A Question of Upbringing
by Anthony Powell

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 outward like the Seasons, moving hand and hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to appear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps to control the steps of the dance.

Nicholas Jenkins observes a group of workmen on a street corner, warming themselves before a fire in the softly falling snow. The scene reminds him of Nicolas Poussin's 17th Century painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, with its linked figures traversing an endless circle as Time looks on and accompanies them on his lyre. It is the first of many references to paintings in this book, each there to help the reader visualise the scene, but also perhaps giving some indication of Powell's conception of his readership. Jenkins' thoughts cascade through the snow, the workmen, Poussin's painting, Time, and death, until he finds himself looking backwards and reflecting on the years shortly after the Great War when he was on the brink of adulthood.

It is a difficult book to assess on its own as it serves as the introduction to a story which spans several decades, and which unfolds in a series of twelve books published between 1951 and 1975, known collectively by the title of Poussin's painting. I made the mistake of reading the fifth, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, at random, but it is clear now that these books need to be read in sequence order. This first book reflects on the fluidity of relationships, the drift of friends and acquaintances into and out of the narrator's life during the final years of boarding school and early years of University. The pattern of such movements are viewed as describing the structure of life, but it is a pattern discernible only in retrospect. His recollections focus almost exclusively on the lives of those he has known rather than on himself, but these stories are inevitably fragmentary, restricted to the sections interwoven with his own. Their lives are in effect sampled, and it is a technique which highlights the subtle changes in personalities and relationship through time.

When Jenkins reflects on his final years at school it is Kenneth Widmerpool he thinks of first, even though he was never a friend. With his unusual and ill-fitting clothes and his lack of natural ability, Widmerpool was inevitably an outsider. He longs to be noticed, and works with determination and perseverance towards the elusive goal of success, but to no apparent end. He seems at first to be a character deserving of pity, but this would not be his own conception of himself: when Jenkins meets him again a few years later in France he is surprised by Widmerpool's complete unawareness of an inferiority Jenkins never questioned .

The older Widmerpool is a far more confident and pompous figure, defining achievement and success narrowly, determined to let nothing get in his way. He is humourless and rational, appraising everything for its contribution to wealth, status or security, and without any sense of pluralism: he sets himself up as a critic of anyone who would choose a different path. In his world there would be no value placed on art, music, poetry, or imagination. It was impossible to read this without thinking of Paradise Postponed, and Leslie Titmuss; Widmerpool must surely have provided some of the inspiration for John Mortimer's character.

Widmerpool seems a marker of a changing world and the modern fixation on progress. He shares with Quiggin, another acquaintance from a less affluent background, an uncouthness, a sense of grievance and resentment, and an inclination to criticise others. But there is also a sense of momentum about them both, and a faculty for industry with which they compensate for any lack of talent. In this they seem to offer a contrast with Jenkins' wealthy friends, Peter Templer and Charles Stringham. Despite their advantages, both Templer, with his affectations and desire to impress, and Stringham, with his sharp mind but bored disposition, seem ineffective and directionless, perhaps burdened by their eccentric families. Jenkins seems to occupy a space between the two extremes.

There is little plot, with the narrative concentrating on a parade of characters, many of whom must reappear in future volumes. It has a melancholy air, a lament for the passing of time and the ending of friendships, but it achieves its purpose: it has me wondering about the characters, and keen to read on.


  1. I ve read this and the second in the series ,I think Powell is a beautiful writer and Jenkins is one literatures great character ,all the best stu

  2. Thank you for your blog, Karyn - I'm new to it but find it very interesting! I've read all of the books in the series - Powell's writing is wonderful but now and then I can't help feeling irritated when people constantly bump into each other at restaurants, parties etc. Many such coincidences certainly happen in real life but somehow they look out of place when it's a question of a plot in a novel...And can somebody please explain to me why on earth Widmerpool is being taken so seriously by the other characters? Isn't he just a pompous ass?
    All the best,Sanderson



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