Monday, March 24, 2008

book review: A Question of Upbringing

When you start an epic journey like the 12 volumes Dance to the Music of Time there is a sense of trepidation. That is heightened by the pre-reading knowledge of the books you have with the author Anthony Powell being described as a British Proust. Getting through seven volumes of Proust was a challenge so 12 might be too far.

But all of those fears start to dissipate the minute you start reading the first chapter. There are similarities to Proust with the descriptive power and the core cast but there is a major difference – things happen quicker.

The idea of this first book is to introduce the world of the narrator Jenkins. Things start at school will one of the oddest characters of the books the proud but natural victim that is Widmerpool running through the mist to the school house. Inside Jenkins is enjoying sausages cooked over an open fire by his wealthy friend Stringham.

They are interrupted by Jenkins’s Uncle Giles who is trying to gather information about the family trust fund to gain a bit of cash. As Uncle Giles leaves the final character enters in the form of Peter Templer who has the job of explaining to the housemaster Le Bas that it was the Uncle and not Stringham or Jenkins who was smoking.

The rest of the novel moves from school to the time in-between University with Templer deciding not to bother with education and head straight off into the City. Stringham goes to visit his father in Kenya before joining Jenkins at Oxford. Widmerpool also turns up in France learning the language in the same place as Jenkins but he is clearly the lowest on the wealth scale, has a slight chip on his shoulder but is the most quietly determined to better himself.

Jenkins time at Oxford introduces him to another powerful figure, the don Sillery, who encourages Stringham to leave university and enter business. Stringham needs little encouragement after he Templer ruins an evening for them but shows them the delights of his motorcar and a couple of his City chums. As a result of Stringham’s departure to work for an industrialist Sillery has created a potentially powerful ally. That just leaves Jenkins who seems to meander through the rest of his studies.

Although most of the book is spent with people taking their leave of Jenkins there is never a sense of melancholy. The same people come and go through his life as they move upwards leaving him slightly behind. Jenkins does not seem to be so clear about what he wants to do. That is an attractive trait because it means that as he travels through situations the reader goes without too much idea of the destination.

Having read this book with a sense of possible trepidation it was a pleasure and Powell is a storyteller that sets out a scene with the emphasis very much on people. Each chapter is a detailed anecdote and although location plays a part it is the emphasis on the various different people that make this story tick and his cast of characters are a fairly enjoyable lot to read about. Ranging from lone runners like Widmerpool to the arguing Swedes and the wealthy Stringham and oily Sillery this first volume does enough to get you set for a journey you now are happy to take.

Version read – Flamingo paperback


Lisa said...

Thanks for reminding me about these books. I've read glowing reviews from other bloggers, but I've never read any of these books. They sound great. I must try to find them before I forget about them again!

Simon Quicke said...

Lisa I know what you mean I only remembered in the library and they only had book 7 but I got it out all the same to make sure I did not forget again!
Good luck finding them.