The Acceptance World – Anthony Powell

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The Acceptance World is the third in Powell’s twelve volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, which I began to read a couple of weeks ago. I have powered through 700 pages so far. It’s both entertaining and compulsive.

Unlike many page turners The Acceptance World never leaves you feeling you’ve been tricked into wasting hours just to get to the end of some tortuous but meaningless plot. Instead this sequence of novels gives Powell loads of space and freedom to explore the spoiled and decadent characters wandering the streets of London between the wars. It’s packed with implicit social and moral comment.

It’s a world of gossip, snobbery and betrayal. Darwin prowls through the pages of this book, with its self seeking characters and rampant infidelity. It’s the survival of the fittest writ large, the selfish gene.

The title of this volume, The Acceptance World refers to Widmerpool’s new job. It has something to do with accepting responsibility for debts incurred that might not be paid. Gambling on trade and exchange in other words. London has not changed.

But the real significance of the title is moral. As the narrator grows older he, like the other characters, comes to accept his place in this world. It’s a grey and dull place, not perfect in any way. Nick has not found romantic love, or happiness at work, because there is one particular business project that he can’t seem to resolve to his satisfaction. Around him friends from his school days drift into unhappy marriages and alcoholism. Only Widmerpool, a figure of fun at school, seems to have the determination and will to succeed, to carve out a place for himself.

The Acceptance World is set during the depression but in London the elite still go to parties, employ servants and drive to their houses in the country. Once again we see  into the politics and philosophies of the time. Former university pal Quiggin is now a Marxist demonstrating on the streets. Artists models move freely between the worlds of the rich upper classes and bohemian London. Uncle Giles appears once again, an enigmatic failure, strung out this time on astrology and the dark arts.

We never see the novelist St John Clarke, but he is a constant presence in the novel. The poet Members, and the literary critic Quiggin vie to be his secretary, cheating and plotting to gain this sinecure which brings with it some limited kudos. So much for Quiggin’s Marxist principles or indeed any principles at all. In the end he runs off with an artist’s model who has abandoned her stockbroker husband, bored with the tedium.

Powell again uses the world of the arts to broach thematic issues and identify the qualities of different characters. St John Clarke is a successful novelist with a minor reputation. He writes sentimental novels or melodramas which Nick scorns. When others applaud his work, we know that Nick thinks these people are shallow and lack good judgement.

There are other references to literary criticism which are also sharp and incisive. Powell dismisses contemporary text based criticism – I A Richards – as well as Marxist approaches to literature. Elsewhere he places visual artists in the context of art history. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book which offers an interesting mid-twentieth century perspective on cultural history.

The Acceptance World is very funny in places,. An after dinner speech in the final chapter made me laugh out loud and long. As with A Buyer’s Market, Powell’s second volume, it is because we know these characters so well already that their sadly predictable behaviour is funny, and this predicability draws us deeper into Nick’s vision of the world.

Nick. It was only as I began to write this review that I realised the name is probably a homage to Nick Carraway, the protagonist narrator in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. They live in the same kind of environment: privileged, upper class, wealthy, corrupt and immoral. They have the same diffident and limited personalities, the same willingness to reflect on the characters around them and the same tendency to leave judgements to the reader. They live in a world where dreams have died.

I am really enjoying this series. You should read it.

By the way, if you are interested in an homage to The Great Gatsby then read Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This linked review only mentions Gatsby once but so much of this novel is derived from characters, situations and themes in The Great Gatsby that it’s almost a retelling. It’s set in New York, as Gatsby is, and is about cricket!! Old Sport, as Gatsby would have said.

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