Sunday, July 23, 2017

My first Powell dance: A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell (1951)

….The day was drawing in. For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined.

It's an odd sensation when  we come to realize that friends of our youth also served for good or I'll as models for navigating the passage to adulthood.

Powell's narrator Nick Jenkins begins to see this in the course of several eventful episodes detailed in A Question of Upbringing.

The novel is written in the first person. But Powell saves time and the reader's patience by keeping introspection to a minimum. Jenkins talks to Templer and Stringham; they chew over fellow students, family members, and masters in the ruthlessly scientific way adolescents do.

After the initial "school" chapter, Powell sends Jenkins off to visit several families. The last chapter gets Jenkins to the university. Here he meets new and warring constellations of individuals.

A Question of Upbringing is a closely observed social novel. The milieu is today called the "cosmopolitan meritocracy." Power elite, old boy network, ruling class... Whatever term we use, Powell gives us a view thru the microscope.

The book is free of melodrama.  No school bullies, no college widows, no blackballing.

Jenkins enjoys learning, while Stringham and Templer seek the wider world. An oddball named Widmerpool makes a few appearances; Jenkins and his friends have a hard time triangulating his social position.

A few excerpts will give the reader a taste:

….Mr. Templer possessed a few simple ideas upon which he had organised his life; and, on the whole, these ideas had served him well, largely because they fitted in with each other, and were of sufficiently general application to be correct perhaps nine times out of ten. He was very keen on keeping fit, and liked to describe in detail exercises he was in the habit of performing when he first rose from his bed in the morning. He was always up and about the house long before anyone else was awake, and he certainly looked healthy, though not young for his age, which was somewhere in the sixties. Sunny Farebrother continued to impress me as unusually agreeable; and I could not help wondering why he was treated by the Templers with so little consideration. I do not mean that, in fact, I gave much thought to this matter; but I noticed from time to time that he seemed almost to enjoy being contradicted by Mr. Templer, or ignored by Jean, whom he used to survey rather hungrily, and attempt, without much success, to engage in conversation. In this, as other respects, Jean remained in her somewhat separate world. Peter used to tease her about this air of existing remote from everything that went on round her. I continued to experience a sense of being at once drawn to her, and yet cut off from her utterly.

….It is not unusual for people who look exceptionally robust, and who indulge in hobbies of a comparatively dangerous kind, to suffer from poor health. Stripling belonged to this category. On that account he had been unable to take an active part in the war; unless – as Peter had remarked – persuading Babs to run away with him while her husband was at the front might be regarding as Jimmy having “done his bit.” This was no doubt an unkind way of referring to what had happened; and, if Peter’s own account of Babs’s early married life was to be relied upon, there was at least something to be said on her side, as her first husband, whatever his merits as a soldier, had been a far from ideal husband. It was, however, unfortunate from Stripling’s point of view that his forerunner’s conduct had been undeniably gallant; and this fact had left him with a consuming hatred for all who had served in the armed forces. Indeed, anyone who mentioned, even casually, any matter that reminded him that a war had taken place was liable to be treated by him in a most peremptory manner; although, at the same time, all his topics of conversation seemed, sooner or later, to lead to this subject. His state of mind was perhaps the outcome of too many persons like Peter having made the joke about “doing his bit.” In consequence of this attitude he gave an impression of marked hostility towards Sunny Farebrother.

….Later in life, I learnt that many things one may require have to be weighed against one’s dignity, which can be an insuperable barrier against advancement in almost any direction. However, in those days, choice between dignity and unsatisfied curiosity, was less clear to me as a cruel decision that had to be made.

….This ideal conception – that one should have an aim in life – had, indeed, only too often occurred to me as an unsolved problem; but I was still far from deciding what form my endeavours should ultimately take. Being at that moment unprepared for an a priori discussion as to what the future should hold, I made several rather lame remarks to the effect that I wanted one day “to write:” an assertion that had not even the merit of being true, as it was an idea that had scarcely crossed my mind until that moment.

….This was about the stage when I began to become dimly conscious of what Short was trying to convey when he spoke of Sillery’s influence, and his intrigues; although, as far as it went, a parent’s discussion of her son’s future with a don still seemed natural enough. Sillery, I thought, was like Tiresias: for, although predominantly male, for example, in outward appearance, he seemed to have the seer’s power of assuming female character if required. With Truscott, for instance, he would behave like an affectionate aunt; while his perennial quarrel with Brightman – to take another instance of his activities – was often conducted with a mixture of bluntness and self-control that certainly could not be thought at all like a woman’s row with a man: or even with another woman; though, at the same time, it was a dispute that admittedly transcended somehow a difference of opinion between two men. Certainly Sillery had no dislike for the company of women in the way of ordinary social life, provided they made no personal demands on him. I was anxious to see how he would deal with Mrs. Foxe.

Meanwhile, I continued occasionally to see something of Quiggin, although I came no nearer to deciding which of the various views held about him were true. He was like Widmerpool, as I have said, in his complete absorption in his own activities, and also in his ambition. Unlike Widmerpool, he made no parade of his aspirations, on the contrary, keeping as secret as possible his appetite for getting on in life, so that even when I became aware of the purposeful way in which he set about obtaining what he wanted, I could never be sure where precisely his desires lay. He used to complain of the standard of tutoring, or how few useful lectures were available, and at times he liked to discuss his work in great detail. In fact I thought, at first, that he worked far harder than most of the men I knew. Later I came to doubt this, finding that Quiggin’s work was something to be discussed rather than tackled, and that what he really enjoyed was drinking cups of coffee at odd times of day. He had another characteristic with which I became in due course familiar: he was keen on meeting people he considered important, and surprisingly successful in impressing persons – as he seemed to have impressed Truscott – who might have been reasonably expected to take amiss his manner and appearance.

….There are certain people who seem inextricably linked in life; so that meeting one acquaintance in the street means that a letter, without fail, will arrive in a day or two from an associate involuntarily harnessed to him, or her, in time. Le Bas’s appearance was one of those odd preludes that take place, and give, as it were, dramatic form, to occurrences that have more than ordinary significance. It is as if the tempo altered gradually, so that too violent a change of sensation should not take place; in this case, that some of the atmosphere of school should be reconstructed, although only in a haphazard fashion, as if for an amateur performance, in order that I should not meet Stringham in his new surroundings without a reminder of the circumstances in which we had first known one another.

For some reason, during the following day in London, I found myself thinking all the time of Le Bas’s visit; although it was long before I came to look upon such transcendental manipulation of surrounding figures almost as a matter of routine.

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