A Question Of Upbringing (Book One, A Dance To The Music Of Time) By Anthony Powell (New Year’s Resolution, Book Thirty)

9780226677149Am I keeping up with my New Year’s resolution obligations? I’m not sure. Maybe someone with a head for math and calendars can help.

I might be cheating a bit here. The volume I purchased is actually entitled, A Dance to the Music of Time: 1st Movement. It contains the first three of twelve books in total. I just read the first book in the volume, rather than the entire volume.

Back in 2002, I was in a used bookstore in a downtown-ish neighborhood near the Iowa capitol building in Des Moines. It was next to a decent Greek restaurant whose owner was suitably impressed that I knew, without being told, the pronunciation of moussaka. Rather than explain about my Greek aunt and the large Greek population where I grew up, I let him think I was just exceptionally well learned and sophisticated. Anyway, the bookstore had a copy of Powell, this copy, I think (though with a different cover, I believe). I lost that copy over the course of the intervening eleven years and never got very far, despite enjoying what I read.

So while I was in Barnes & Noble, with a gift card and a coupon, searching for a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar that did not have an absurd amount of pink on the cover, I saw Powell on the shelf below and knew that this was the book I must purchase.

That’s a lot of words and I haven’t even gotten to the content of the book itself yet. A lot of words and a lot of excuses.

The book itself is a bit of Remembrance of Things Past meets Brideshead Revisted. And a bit of Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, too, for good measure. Public school (which, this taking place in England, means a private school) takes the place that university held in Waugh’s novel, being where the major protagonists meet each other. The book lacks the melancholy of Waugh’s chronicle of the impact of a wealthy Catholic family on a budding artist and the interiority of Proust’s roman a clef’esque narration. Jenkins, the narrator of A Question of Upbringing is as much an observer as Marcel (the character in Proust’s novel, not necessarily Proust himself) and also has a tendency to miss certain things because of his (in this book, at least) youth, but doesn’t have that deep introspection. This book, unlike Remembrance, is not, ultimately, all about him.

Powell captures the forces that divide old friends, writing especially well about the way we watch a group pull away from each other. Jenkins remains friends with two characters, Templer and Stringham, but watches somewhat sadly as Templer and Stringham cease to be friends. Not unfriendly, mind you. Just seeming to permanently leave each other’s orbits.

It was a speedy read. Not just in that the first book in the volume was just 230 pages, but in being a good, compulsive read. I sat down with it in the cafe section of the bookstore, opposite my father-in-law, and prepared to read a few pages and found myself seventy pages through (or nearly a third done) when we left. It is not a magisterial accomplishment like the aforementioned books by Proust and Waugh, respectfully, but it is a very good achievement.

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