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The Current State of June’s Reading Plans

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(or as we might call it, FAILURE!)

It’s not that I haven’t managed to read much this month – on the contrary, I’ve got through two chunksters and a number of other volumes. What has gone slightly wrong is the planned reading – I never have responded well to literary commitments, but thought I might get by with just a monthly read of a Pym and likewise a Powell.

(pic courtesy bubblecow.net)

(pic courtesy bubblecow.net)

However, June has not been a success. I haven’t gone near a Pym and have only just begun this month’s Powell, “The Kindly Ones”. So dare I risk making plans for July? Well, yes. I should finish the Powell not too far into July, and then I hope to read another Kerouac (“The Dharma Bums” – a re-read), then one of the Pyms, then “Hotel du Lac” for Ali’s Brookner read-along and then the other Pym. Phew! Then I shall have a lie-down in a darkened room.

Watch this space to see how things pan out! 🙂

Recent Reads: A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

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The_dance_to_the_music_of_time_c._1640

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.

upbringing

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”.

Reading Plans and Challenges for 2013

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I should confess up front that I’ve never really been one to plan ahead with my reading. I’ve always read on a whim, whatever my reading mojo feels it must read – and in fact if I feel I *should* read something it often puts me off. However, since starting to blog about books I have started to focus a little and plan my forthcoming reads a tiny bit – and I have often managed to stick to the plans! I greatly admire those who can decide what they’re going to read for the next month (or indeed the next 12 months) and then stay on track.

Having said that, I am going to set myself a few goals for 2013:

1. Read more books from the TBR – and conversely try to purchase a few less…

2. Heavenali and lots of other lovely LibraryThing VMC group members are having a Barbara Pym readalong for 2013 and so I shall be joining in and reading a Pym a month – as the books I have by Pym are on the TBR this will help with goal 1!

3. Simon at Stuck in a Book is having a group read of Julia Strachey’s “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding” in January – as I have already read this book once, I shall join in and this will help with goal 4:

4. Heavenali is hosting a month of re-reading in January – which I think is an admirable thing to do because as she rightly points out, “That first experience of a book can’t be entirely re-created, but it can be enhanced.”  I won’t commit completely to re-reading only, but I shall re-read as many titles as I can fit in alongside my new reading.

5. I have started to collect Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, aiming to get a set in lovely vintage orange Penguin. As there are 12 books, I’ve decided to commit to reading one a month. They are, after all, slim volumes and I think I should be able to manage this – and it is less intimidating than sitting down to read all 12 in one session!

So, to specific books for January:

gazelle

Some Tame Gazelle – the first of the Barbara Pym titles

powell
A Question of Upbringing – the first of the Anthony Powells

cheerful
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding – I have this lovely Penguin version

happy m
Happy Moscow – a new translation by Robert Chandler which is therefore a re-read (as I read the previous translation from the library) and a new read!

ivan denis
One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich – another dual purpose book as this is also a new translation

Other possibles on the soon-to-be-read-hopefully pile are in the picture below – whether I get to them or get distracted is another matter, especially as there are all the Christmas and birthday books to think of. I think I need a month off work to catch up……

jan possibles

Recent Reads: Bright Young People by D.J. Taylor

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The genesis of my reading of this book is a little convoluted, as it had its roots in a number of things. I suppose it could have started when I read an intriguing review of “Crazy Pavement” by Beverley Nichols on the 1900-1950 blog. But then, I’ve been gathering Nancy Mitford volumes for a little while, adding to the height of the tbr pile. Also, I picked up a copy of Frances Osborne’s “The Bolter” and many of the characters in this were ‘Bright Young People’. Finally, I succumbed to a copy of Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, partly because the Capuchin Classic looked so lovely and partly because it sounded fun.

So, with a developing interest in the Bright Young People of the ’20s, I did a little online research which led me to an article extracted from this book, “Bright Young People” by D.J. Taylor. It sounded fascinating and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy in a charity bookstore in Leicester recently (a lot cheaper than Amazon, for once, and in lovely condition). I hadn’t read any non-fiction for a while, so it seemed a good book to start on my return from the Leicester visit.

“BYP” is a study of the lives and loves and partying that took place among a group of mostly very upper class people during the post-World War 1 1920s. Some of the participants I had heard of – Cecil Beaton, Nancy Mitford, Stephen Tennant, Evelyn Waugh; but some were not so well-known to me – Brian Howard, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brenda Dean Paul, Gavin Henderson, Inez Holden. In the aftermath of the War, with a generation of men having been wiped out, the young of Britain were somewhat directionless. With the lack of structure and focus, and with all the old certainties swept away, the young began to party hard, gaining a media presence which was perhaps the first modern representation of the celebrity culture we see today. Taylor follows the group’s exploits through to the changes of the 1930s and war, even taking the story up to the present day and the eventual fate of most of the members.

This was a remarkably good read for a number of reasons. Firstly, I very much liked the structure of the book: instead of simply telling a linear tale, each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of the BYP – their parties, generational issues, gay issues, literature produced etc. This gives Taylor the opportunity to reflect in depth on their behaviour and achievements in a way that a more straightforward narrative would not have. Another strong point was the wealth of research material which had obviously been sourced. Taylor was blessed by several resources, one in particular standing out which was the diaries of the parents of Elizabeth Ponsonby. Both of her parents were inveterate recorders of their daily lives and thoughts, and the material from these painted a poignant picture of their relationship with Elizabeth, their attempts to help her find her way in life, their struggles with her debts and their despair at her lifestyle.

Another fascination for me was the connections the book uncovered with authors I’m already exploring. I recently read Cyril Connolly’s “The Rock Pool” and it turns out that the author had BYP connections and also that the  book was full of BYP in-jokes! Likewise, Anthony Powell’s autobiography is much quoted as a source in “BYP” as he was a friend and contemporary of Waugh and despite a more middle class background still mixed in the same circles. And Robert Byron, who I’ve been reading recently and knew as a travel writer and highly regarded Byzantinist, was surprisingly also a BYP. (I say surprisingly, but given the number of silly ass friends he has with him in “Europe in The Looking Glass”, it should have been obvious!)

A strong point of this book is its objectivity. I recoiled a lot from Frances Osborne’s “The Bolter” for many reasons, including the author’s obvious wish to justify her ancestor’s terrible behaviour and paint her as a victim (as well as its lack of real research and sources). Taylor is remarkably even-handed – although many of the BYP are not the sort who you’d like to spend a night with, he is neither judgemental or hagiographic. Instead, while relating the stories of these people’s lives, he is balanced and fair. It would be easy to condemn the BYP for shallowness and hedonism, but Taylor understands the reasons for their actions. He also very astutely realises that they have all the characteristics of any youth movement before and since – a rejection of previous standards, a refusal to conform to their parents’ wishes, a need to shock. And as with every such wave of rebellion, the participants (mostly) eventually grown up and conform in one way or another. In the case of the BYP, the advent of Nazism was enough to focus the minds of the majority of them on reality and indeed several members served their country in one way or another during WWII.

I felt one of the most apt paragraph came in the chapter dealing with BYP works of literature. Taylor states:

“Beneath… though, lies something much more disquieting. Unsurprisingly, the fundamental concerns of Bright Young People novels turn out to be those of the Bright Young People themselves: generational conflict; doubts about the value of human relationships; the resigned expectation of unpleasant things to come. The future, as conceived by a Powell, a Mitford, or a Waugh is never a rosy blur but something hard, sharp and ominous.”

This seems to me to highlight the frantic sense of desperation that underlay the period and its incessant drinking and partying. The end results were not pretty and many of the characters – Brenda Dean Paul, Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brian Howard in particular – suffered very sad ends. But the impact of the First World War cannot be understated – there had never been a War like it, and a whole generation emerged determined to break free of the kind of society that had allowed such destruction to take place. The tragedy is that in many cases they ended up destroying themselves.

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