So I don’t have a strong association with this collection of novels outside of the fact that they appear on the MLA’s Top 100 Novels (in English) from about 20 years ago. This list has sort of always been in the back of my mind as I figure out what to read. But, it’s 12 novels, which is a lot to commit to. I decided to use an Audible credit at some point to buy the first three collected as “First Movement” and these are what I am reviewing here. Simon Vance reads them, and depending on your sense of Simon Vance as a reader, they are very successful audiobooks for a few reasons. The issue of course is that Simon Vance is also the voice of a few other series I listen to so there’s some funny blending. So forgive me if these reminded me a little too much of the Master and Commander series, The Vampire Chronicles, and Her Majesty’s Dragon series.
Anyway, it turns out these books also have a little infamy in certain circles. My wife tells me that in college (she was a history and English major) every would-be intellectual boy would insist she read these, and she of course ignored them. So I won’t be recommending them to her, but it’s interesting that these were taken up by literary bros in some various ways.
The books themselves take on a fictionalized version of Anthony Powell’s life beginning in secondary (public) school and make their way forward. In a lot of ways they are similar enough to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in my limited experience with that, including having a Swann-like figure in the opening scenes of the first novel in the visage of Nick Jenkins’s uncle. By I think the forward motion of the novels and their more structured sense of time and plot move them away from Proust (except in some elements of style — Powell would have certainly read the CK Scott Moncrieff translations. But these books feel more like Edith Wharton and Colette by way of Proust.
Book 1: A Question of Upbringing
The opening book begins in high school for Nick where he and several of his fellow classmates can be found tormenting a slightly disfigured middle class boy Widmerpool and terrorizing their school master. The novel begins with the central image, a reflection on the painting by Nicolas Poussain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Dance_to_the_Music_of_Time_(painting)) that you’ve likely seen and using it as a metaphor to recall his own childhood. There’s a beginning scene in which the uncle visits Nick and his classmate and smokes a pipe much to their horror. They are banned tobacco and they worry that his unannounced visit and lingering stench will get them in trouble, especially since they too smoke and have been long suspected of such, and this all proves true. They are put under additional scrutiny.
The school scenes of this novel give way to travelling scenes and cosmopolitan discussions of literature and art, and the kind of intellectual upbringing that many young people put themselves through, with their strongly held but largely unconsidered opinions.
Book 2: A Buyer’s Market
The title of this one refers to a crass understanding of marriage prospects, and this novel largely circulates around the driving questions of sex, love, and marriage seen from the perspective boys who know their schooling, their artistic aspirations, their connections, and their money allow for a lot of liberty and flexibility in planning their long term romantic futures, and of course the ever present short terms romantic desires. Because they have no careers or prospects (in any specific way just yet) they focus on what their brains and egos and bodies will allow them to focus on, getting laid. And thus begins a long series of events where they face the eternal choice between hooking up with “sluts” or focusing on marriage.
Book 3: The Acceptance World
The acceptance world, as a metaphor, refers to the world in which the new generation of young, educated, middle-class, well, people are accepted into the fold of adult life. In this novel, Powell’s main character Nick has written a novel and is moving through the kind-of literary world with a fresh sense of self. He’s still trying to figure out life and love and how he fits into this new world.
The central thrust of this novel is about the dying of the old order and the coming of the new. This transition is situated most squarely on the shoulders of an older writer St. John Clarke, who is probably in the form of John Galsworthy, according to my research. I haven’t read Galsworthy and I guess I will now, but he’s shown here as a realist, but sentimental writer who clearly represents a dying Victorian/Edwardian sensibility, in a world that’s becoming more modern (read: modernist).
This novel was written in 1955, so of course the awareness of the literary impact of Modernism is well known. But it’s also interesting to me because as influential as Modernism was, and how much of it still permeates today’s writing (and how the question of how Modernist these novels are remains unsettled in my mind), it was still a relatively small thing.