Anthony Powell’s first installation in his ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ series sets the standard for the subsequent eleven novellas. Given it was written some twenty years before the final novella, it is a standard curiously consistent throughout the series. One wonders whether Powell diligently planned every miniscule detail of the series before embarking upon the actual process of writing.
Like all of the novellas in the series, ‘A Question of Upbringing’ is notable for possessing one extremely strong feature – a tender, almost obsessive, attention to the craft of the English language – and one extremely weak feature – a refusal to countenance the deeper philosophical questions of our existence, indeed to construct a storyline of any kind other than ‘this is life’. This is not to say that Powell completely ignores human existence – a series entitled ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ could hardly fail to comment on this subject. Rather, Powell’s observations on human existence are frequent but fleeting. Often they ring true, sometimes they are banal. Powell is not seeking to solve any ethical dilemmas here.
The great strength of ‘A Question of Upbringing’ is Powell’s attention to each carefully constructed sentence. His writing is elegant and often ornate – at times even pedantic. Indeed, many of his sentences are extremely long and permeated with an abundance of punctuation; yet they are read clearly and easily. It is an unusual and perhaps old-fashioned style of writing, but one that appeals, at the least, to me.
Though I may, of course, be completely wrong, I do seem to recall Powell’s work coming under some considerable criticism from Salman Rushdie. My recollections of Rushdie’s criticism are vague, but seem to revolve around a general complaint that Powell’s novellas are boring. I was not at all bored by ‘A Question of Upbringing’, but I can sympathise with Rushdie’s criticism (or at least, with my recollection of it). Upon reading the final page of this first novella, the reader is left with the feeling: ‘is that all?’ The answer, of course, is: ‘no’. There are eleven more novellas to follow, but nonetheless, reading the entire series does not entirely rid the reader of this uneasy feeling that perhaps they have wasted a large amount of time. Unlike Dostoevsky, Powell’s intention is not to ponder over the larger moral paradoxes of our existence, but rather to feed a whole series of reflections into our minds, presumably that we may bubble over them at our leisure, and extract from them what we will. He certainly has no blatantly ideological wheelbarrow to push, no sermon to deliver, not even any confusion over the vagaries of life. He simply depicts the lives of the narrator and his contemporaries, without passing judgment or seeking further enlightenment.
Frankly, at times I found the prudishness and conservatism of the narrator to be quite off-putting, but was magnanimous enough to put this down to the context of Powell’s own upbringing, and indeed the historical context of the novella. From this point of view, it can be said that Powell has done well to so accurately capture the concerns – mundane and childish as they may be – of the early 20th century English upper-middle class.
On the whole, I recommend ‘A Question of Upbringing’, if only because Powell’s writing style is unusual enough to warrant reading, and it is such a short novella (only 200 pages) that the reader has little to lose and much to gain.