Monday, January 12, 2009

The Great Dance: I of XII

Last month, I said that 2009's big project was to read Anthony Powell's A Dance To The Music of Time. Well, it's been awhile since I finished it, so I thought I'd share my thoughts about the first of twelve novels, A Question of Upbringing.

The first book sets the themes, tone, characters, and structure, right from the first page, actually. An older, wiser Jenkins is walking by a quarry, and is reminded of the great dance of the seasons, as painted by Poussin. This classical analogy unleashes a torrent of memories, as it takes him back to school, and we follow his recollections for almost 3500 pages.

In the first part of the first book, Jenkins introduces us to Stringham, Jenkins' "close" friend, Templar, the prototypical ladies' man, and Widmerpool, the confusing, complex awkward young man destined for all sorts of things. The narrator spends some considerable amount of time setting each character up and discussing their personality. The only bit of plot is a practical joke they play on one of the schoolmasters, which has some unfortunate consequences in the long run.

After this, Jenkins spends a couple months abroad in France, living with a friend of the family, and all the eccentric people in that house. Again, this is mostly just character development. The romantic aspirations and confusing thoughts of love begin to bloom within Jenkins' mind. It's in this section that the power of Widmerpool becomes more evident, a man destined for great things.

Finally, we join Jenkins in university, where he spends time with Sillery, a professor, and Jenkins takes a disastrous car ride that introduces us to three more people who will return at a later point in his life.

I think it's a mistake to think that there's going to be a ton of plot in this sequence of novels. The whole concept is that people and things move back and forth, in and out, like a great dance, the greatest of all, actually: time. It's all about the slow and gradual passage of time. There's no terrorists or atom bombs, or anything like that. This is about the human life in between the two World Wars.

I really enjoy just reading Powell's prose. He has a very specific style, with long sentences of intricate structure, but not labyrinthine. He tends to articulate complex thoughts in a precise way to make it perfectly clear what the narrator is trying to convey, very non enigmatically. This helps in sketching the myriad of characters to a "t". Considering this is going to be a cast of hundreds, it's necessary for every character to be sharply defined and not shapeless in anyway.

I don't really have a "review" for this novel. As a standalone novel, it's entertaining and presents the many themes in a very interesting and intriguing way. Characters are fully developed, motivations are clearly defined, and the prose waltzes off the page. This is a good novel. But... I don't know if I can review the first chapter of twelve. It's seems unfair to the whole project.

So, until next time, when I finish the second book, here's to Anthony Powell. I look forward to finishing this great mammoth.

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