Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Re-Reading A Favourite Book: A Question of Upbringing

A month or so ago I posted about re-reading Peter Hoeg's Borderliners for a group's "education" reading theme.

But I also took the opportunity to re-read the first novel in Anthony Powell's 20th century literary cycle Dance To the Music of Time  whose twelve, browning, 1970s paperbacks sit on my shelf. I loved them when I first read them. But would I still? Well here goes. If I had often wondered about picking them up again, this seemed as good a reason as any. The first novel in the cycle - A Question of Upbringing - could fit the "education" theme quite well.

In a drastically different world from Hoeg's story of institutional power and abuse, Powell paints a portrait of a time and place where the possible seeds of influence are sown by the connections formed in a privileged educational establishment.

 Set in early 1920s England, the book establishes some of the "Dance" cycle's central characters - notably its narrator Nicholas Jenkins and the persistent-in-more-ways-than-one Kenneth Widmerpool, a perpetual outsider destined for greater things. They meet at public school (probably modeled on Eton) where, unlike in Hoeg's world of abused children, it seems that in this educational institution an unpopular teacher is as likely to be pilloried as any pupil. Ultimately each young man moves on, either to study at Oxbridge or into business, the law, or the City. Their paths occasionally recross until Jenkins realises that some have diverged so far from his own and into completely other circles that the immediate bonds of friendship seem broken.

In some ways Powell also offers that continuous assessment of class and status during that time that we English are so famously obsessed with. (Are we really the only ones?) The title - "A Question of Upbringing" - may say it all.

...And did I still enjoy reading Powell? Oh yes. It required a step down from "adrenaline thriller mode"... and a recognition of an earlier style of writing... but I still love that elegant understatement and wit that is Anthony Powell at his best.

No comments: