For April’s entry in my 2008 Reading Challenge to try each month a classic author I’ve never read before, I picked A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell. It’s actually the first book in the 12-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and was first published in 1951.
In his 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, Anthony Burgess describes A Question of Upbringing as “a work we may not always like, but we cannot ignore it”. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but the fact that he’s named it as one of the ninety-nine says much. Even the most cursory of googles will throw up plenty of approving reviews. Time magazine even included it in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. A Dance to the Music of Time is clearly a highly-regarded series of novels.
A Question of Upbringing opens with its narrator, Nick Jenkins, in his final year at Eton. It is 1921. Jenkins describes several incidents which took place that year, and serve to introduce the characters who will reappear throughout the series: Charles Stringham, Peter Templer and Kenneth Widmerpool. After finishing at Eton, Jenkins visits with Stringham, and then spends a few days with Templer. He next goes to stay in France, ostensibly to improve his French, before taking a place at Oxford. There he meets up with Stringham once again, and joins Professor Sillery’s coterie of possible future movers and shakers. The novels ends with a car crash: Templer on a visit drives his car into a ditch while carrying Jenkins, Stringham and some others as passengers.
As plots go, not much happens in A Question of Upbringing. Admittedly, it’s a relatively thin novel – 223 pages in my Fontana paperback edition – and it is only the first of twelve books. It’s an introduction, chiefly to the characters. Powell’s prose, in fact, focuses on the people, often at the expense of everything else. There are no sweeping passages of landscape painting as you’d find in Lawrence Durrell, or even John Jarmain. Jenkins analyses everyone he meets, and every action or utterance they make. It’s as if you’re standing before a large painting, armed with a magnifying glass and peering through it with your face no more than inches from the canvas. There is no clue to the “big picture” in A Question of Upbringing (which seems slightly weird, when compared to modern-day blockbuster high fantasy series).
The period in which the novel is set also invites unfair comparisons with PG Wodehouse or EF Benson. But A Question of Upbringing is no comedy of manners. The cast might all be upper-class twits – as Burgess points out, “Powell cannot take the lower classes seriously” – but Powell does draw his characters with a sharp eye, and he takes them very seriously.
The writing throughout is mannered, but very good. There is some strangely old-fashioned grammar – a tendency to run on sentences using colons, for example; but it doesn’t impede reading. Burgess’ pyrotechnics might be memorable, as are Durrell’s lyrical purple passages; but Powell is not so flamboyant. There are some striking images – A Question of Upbringing opens with a description of snow falling on a workmen’s brazier, which effectively sets the motif for the entire twelve-volume sequence.
I enjoyed and appreciated A Question of Upbringing. Which makes it the first success of this year’s reading challenge. While I’ve no plans to dash out and buy the other eleven books, should I see them in some second-hand book shop or charity shop: then yes, I will buy them and read them.
Besides, I’ve a feeling A Dance to the Music of Time improves a great deal as more of the big picture is revealed…