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So, being of sound mind etc, I decided when planning my January (and 2013) reading that I would set myself the task of reading one volume a month  of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence of 12 novels. Once I had announced this, Laura very kindly pointed me in the direction of a LibraryThing group who are doing the very same thing, which is lovely as I don’t feel quite so isolated! The first book is “A Question of Upbringing”, mine being a slim orange Penguin version of just over 200 pages.

Our narrator for this 12 volume journey is Nick Jenkins, who opens the first book by witnessing a scene of workmen by a brazier which reminds him of the painting “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Poussin. Powell states his case here beautifully so we are clear from the start of his intentions for the sequence of books:

“These classical projections, and something from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.”

The book is structured in four long chapters, each of which introduce us to people in the life of Nick Jenkins and who are presumably going to turn up in later volumes. We are in the year 1921 and Jenkins is at public school, where he is befriended by older and slightly more experienced boys Charles Stringham and Peter Templer. There is also Widmerpool, a bit of a misfit, who recurs throughout the book, and the unfriendly housemaster Le Bas. Later chapters cover a visit to Templer’s family home, an ‘educational’ holiday in France and Jenkins’ years at University. There is no sense of real continuity here – the chapters are episodic and take a kind of snapshot of a particular era of Jenkins’ youth, so we can get to know his setting and his associates.

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A number of characters swim in and out of view – Jenkins’ eccentric Uncle Giles, a man of business Sunny Farebrother, the manipulative Professor Sillery and Jean Templer, with whom Jenkins fancies himself in love. As the boys start to grow into men, their differences become more pronounced – Stringham and Templer’s friendship basically breaks down, Widmerpool shows himself to be a person of unexpected character, and Jenkins starts to mature a little and understand some of the realities of life.

Of course, it’s a well-known fact that Powell (writing in 1951) based these books on his own life and the reader can’t help seeing Jenkins as Powell himself. (There is a list of the main characters and their historical influences on Wikipedia, which is useful!) Surprisingly little information is let out about Jenkins as the book progresses – he is keen on books, likes reading and writing, has no real direction or plan in life and ends up taking history at University. Wikipedia points out, “Little is told of Jenkins’s personal life beyond his encounters with the great and the bad” and this is true – even in this first book, he seems something of a cipher, simply there to tell us the tale. Powell himself comes across as something of an outsider, an observer rather than a participator, and this is reflected very much in our perception of Nick Jenkins.

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But this is not your conventional novel when it comes to character development and we learn much about the people in it obliquely, rather than directly. Powell was connected with the Bright Young People of the 1920s (although somewhat younger than many of them) and there are hints of this milieu in QOU, although their antics are never spelled out. But Buster and Mrs. Foxe (mother and stepfather of Stringham) are straight out of BYP, with their property in Kenya and implications of living the high life. I found it amusing (and quite telling) when Jenkins loaned Quiggins (another misfit) a copy of Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, a key text of the BYP – perhaps hinting at what is to come in later volumes? It is as if Jenkins is gradually being drawn into the wider world, that of London, parties and society, more of which will be revealed as his life (and the books) go on.

“Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become.”

I did find at first that I took a little time to adjust to the writing style of this volume (in the same way as when I read my first Powell, “What’s Become of Waring”) – it seems a little dry at first but as I kept reading I realised how rich his use of language is. This is very obviously the first book in a planned series, introducing us to the characters who will dance in and out of the narrative, much like people do in our real lives. I enjoyed it more and more as the book went on, and I’m looking forward to seeing who turns up in book two, “A Buyer’s Market”.