A Buyer’s Market – Anthony Powell

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A Buyer’s Market is about Four Parties and a Funeral. Maybe that’s where Richard Curtis got the idea from. Curtis certainly chose the same kind of people as Powell, jolly upper crust young gentlemen and assorted dollies, flitting between their varsity classmates and their debutante balls on the fringes of Bohemian London.

A Buyer’s Market is the second volume of the epically entertaining A Dance to the Music of Time. Nick Jenkins, the narrator, has left university and washed up in London. He is working for a publisher of art books, and as in the first volume, his interest in art plays a role in the story.

In the first place Powell often describes the characters we meet by referring to pictures he knows, and that we can easily find on the internet. It’s quite fun looking them up, and he chooses some striking portraits. Also, amongst the characters are several who are artists themselves. Powell places these in the context of art history in a series of interesting digressions which can be quite challenging for the reader, but offer a new perspective on the contemporary art scene, and the development of modern ideas in painting.

A Buyer’s Market reintroduces most of the main characters from the first volume, A Question of Upbringing. This allows us to anticipate some of the plot developments, and enhances the comic elements of the novel, because it allows Powell to quickly pick up on themes from the first novel.

A Buyer’s Market starts at an exclusive dinner party, before the diners go on to a debs’ ball. It moves on to the ball itself, then, via Hyde Park to a louche party in Soho or Pimlico. Finally there is the funeral of one of the characters, and the ensuing wake.

Nick Jenkins, the narrator, is part of a London scene in which wealthy young girls are introduced to the world at balls and dinner parties so that they can find a suitable mate. We meet trembling mothers worried about the niceties of upper class behaviour, and grumpy old men who can’t understand what it is with this younger generation.

We witness the genteel bun fight as young men vie for the most beautiful or richest girl. The girls display themselves in gorgeous dresses, and there are men so splendidly arrayed their dinner suits seem to be sprayed on and lacquered into place. These are invited to every single party. Others only fill up last minute gaps. One such is Widmerpool, a misfit and social outcast we met in volume one. He is on the lowest rung of the pecking order, and humiliated in a moment of slapstick humour at the climax of the debs’ ball.

As a roving narrator Nick is able to move freely across society and the party in Soho involves quite a different group, or in some cases the same people in a very different setting. This party is a bacchanalia, symptomatic of the moral vacuum at the heart of Powell’s London, but much more honest about it than the genteel world of the debutantes.

I really liked the fact that this book, written before the Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is more discrete about sex than most of the novels written these days. The world Powell describes is full of divorced couples and rumours of adultery, but he never describes sexual intimacy. Powell only ever drops hints, even though A Buyer’s Market is in many ways a story about his own dawning sexuality, and includes references to a range of unconventional sexual appetites. In fact Powell’s discretion makes it much more fun, leaving the reader in fits of laughter, or occasionally for a moment, nonplussed.

Did he really say that? I asked myself after one particular spat between an angry artist and a jazz singer singing about fairies. Yes, his attitudes are of his time. Powell was writing when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and there’s no political correctness in this book.

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