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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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.

Anthony Powell -A Question of Upbringing

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Stringham and Templer manage to get their housemaster Le Bas arrested by impersonating him on the phone. It’s an amusing trick that epitomises this group of effete Englishmen.

We meet them in A Question of Upbringing, the first volume of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. These spoilt young men, at public school with narrator Nick Jenkins, are wealthy and pretty decadent, smoking in their rooms, cooking toast and sausages over an open fire and sneering at Widmerpool.

They will never make the cricket team. Only Widmerpool would want to. He is enthusiastic and useless, and was marked as an outsider from the first day at school, when he arrived in the wrong kind of overcoat. Stringham and Templar have more in common with Oscar Wilde than WG Grace. They are not the backbone of Empire, just the rotten fruit of the English upper and middle classes.

Powell’s choice of these characters is significant. He has written a comic novel aimed at the dark underbelly of English pretension. Nick observes this world without really partaking in it. He visits Stringham and Templar at their parents’ homes. One is a businessman living in a garish seaside villa. The other has inherited wealth, a house in Berkeley square and a stately home that is too cold to live in.

It’s like a darker version of PG Wodehouse. There are jolly hockey stick young girls, and impecunious uncles. There are servants and spinsters. They have boats and racing cars. There are military people with medals who play polo. There are divorced parents and tea planters in Kenya.

Nick’s father is involved in the Paris Peace Conference at the end of WW1, which puts him at the heart of the British establishment. These people go to university and work in the city. It’s a life of privilege with servants and foreign travel. Nick spends the summer in France so he can learn the language. This is an interlude in which we learn more about his nascent sexuality. We are treated to some beautiful portraits of French snobbery and arrogance. The women are dominating, like Wodehouse’s best, or they are delicate ciphers of unattainable female beauty.

At university he joins up with Stringham again. We meet a new range of characters, including Sillery, an obsequious and parochial don who lives for the connections he can make and the influence he can wield. He spins his web at Sunday afternoon tea parties where he shows off promising young poets or talented graduates taking the first steps in influential careers. They are like butterflies to add to his collection.

Quiggin is a scholarship boy from the midlands, and therefore an outsider, tolerated in their little world, but not really able to make a mark. Members, a poet who happens to come from the same town is embarrassed by this geographical connection which Sillers takes great pleasure in pointing out.

It is a snobbish and class ridden world. This is emphasised especially in an ill-fated car trip when the boys pick up two young women from the town. The gulf between them is immense. Apart from servants, these are the only working class people we see. It’s a closed and privileged world.

A Question of Upbringing is an episodic novel, moving from Nick’s school, to his friends’ houses, to France, and then on to university. It is a narrative approach that works really well because Powell never has to dwell too long on any one place or person.

This is not a novel that contains lots of action, but the cast of characters is varied and they are full of flaws and idiosyncrasies. We see some of the characters only during a few moments they spend with Nick, so they are stereotypes or caricatures, there simply for what they represent. There is the promising graduate off to work for a northern industrialist, the lower class outsider, the manipulative don. Powell uses them to lift the lid on English hypocrisy and on the hidden levers of power.

Powell has an interest in art and often uses paintings to evoke aspects of character or setting. I like this approach. At times he can be verbose and digressive, though not excessively so. Usually he is concise and to the point, precise in his evocation of character, and often quite funny.

I’m glad I read this book. It had been on my shelf ignored for years. A Question of Upbringing is part of a three volume section entitled Spring, so I have two other novels to look forward to. Great stuff.

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair has been described as the best novel about Waterloo ever written, but it actually tells the stories of Becky Sharpe and Amelia Sedley, two young women who, in the opening chapter, find themselves graduating together from Miss Pinkerton’s school, and whose paths intertwine in the years that follow. They do both find themselves in Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo, and that battle does take place during the novel, but this is a story about the seamy side of the British Empire, and not about the glorious and warlike so-called heroes who built it. In fact the men of Empire, with the exception of Major Dobbin, are portrayed throughout as weak and foolish, corrupt, lascivious, fat and stupid. And even good old Dobbin – the best of the bunch – well his name speaks volumes.

The school “graduation” of Becky and Amelia epitomises the themes of the novel. Wealthy Amelia is given a signed copy of Johnson’s dictionary by the domineering and selfish headteacher, who snobbishly claims a close acquaintance with Johnson himself. Penniless Becky is denied a copy: in Vanity Fair money and status are all, and she has neither. But the soft hearted sister of the headteacher relents, cannot be so cruel, and passes a copy of the dictionary to Becky through the coach window as they are about to depart. Becky opens the book briefly, then disdainfully throws it down onto the lawn: a shocking and rebellious act that sets the tone for her character. Becky dismisses Amelia’s concerns about upsetting Miss Pinkerton, shouting, Vive la France! Vive l’Empereur! Vive Bonaparte!

Yes – Becky is a villain, and a cold hearted one at that. But this little scene provides a significant context. She lives in a society that thinks itself a whole lot better than her, but is in fact stamped through with corruption, like Blackpool through a stick of rock. Thackeray invites us to take an alternative perspective on Becky: how else is the penniless daughter of an emigré French artist to make her way in society? Who will help her to find a husband, help her to find respectability and security? Amelia will have support from her family, will “come out” in due course, and meet the right people, but Becky will need to fight every inch of the way. So whilst she is a scurrilous, shockingly immoral character, she has no other choice. Thackeray makes this clear at the beginning of the novel, in a way that challenges Victorian orthodoxy – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate . (From the hymn All things bright and beautiful, Published in 1848, a year after this novel.)

However, for most of the novel Thackeray adopts a more conventional moral approach. In the later stages he presents Becky both through her actions, and through the vivid use of reptilian imagery, as an out and out villain. Nevertheless, her final acts, which Thackeray allows to pass without comment, show compassion and common sense, though not hypocrisy, and she leaves immediately for Bath and Cheltenham, dens of evil and vice.

Becky’s ascent through Georgian society is typical of the picaresque novel, and offers an amusing and effective condemnation of the Britain of the time. She dallies with Amelia’s brother Jos, fat cowardly and lazy, but rich as Croesus on the proceeds of the Raj. He disappoints – too cowardly to seize his opportunity and Becky moves on to the Crawleys, members of the minor nobility who she takes for all she can. She marries into the family, but they snobbishly disinherit her husband, and ignore her. The poverty that results from this plagues Becky and her husband Rawdon, though Thackeray does not show much sympathy. Becky’s dalliances with rich men are at first ignored by Rawdon, the colonel, who is led like a sheep. In the end he disowns her at the moment when she has finally gained him an office in the Empire – a sinecure in the West Indies with a fat salary. She is left alone, and escapes to Europe where she becomes a member of the louche set that hang around foreign spa resorts, gambling. She is at her happiest here – a true Bohemian, as Thackeray says.

Meanwhile life for the Sedleys – the nouveau riche – is not easy. Bankrupted by losses consequent to Napoleon’s return from Elba, Amelia’s father is reduced to poverty, and she becomes the victim of the kind of snobbery that affected Becky in the opening chapter. But Amelia is a romantic idealist, worshipping her dead husband George, even though he is not worthy of such adoration. When Amelia and Becky meet again in Europe the truth is revealed.

Thackeray was an admirer of Henry Fielding and there are clear similarities between Tom Jones and Becky: they are both outsiders, though Tom is mostly an innocent victim of circumstance and his own weaknesses, whilst Becky is the arch manipulator. Thackeray’s narrative voice is also similar to Fielding’s – full of interjections, ironical comments and intimate asides to the reader. There is a vast array of characters, though many are caricatures: the whole novel is introduced as a puppet show in the opening chapter with descriptions that are reminiscent of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, and the novel has that kind of vitality and variety. It’s easy to think that PG Wodehouse might have drawn on some of the elements of Vanity Fair for his own novels.

Vanity Fair – a cultural icon, and a long read, but well worth it if you are determined and interested.

Aberystwyth Mon Amour – Malcolm Pryce

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Aberystwyth Mon Amour is a light hearted pastiche of the Philip Marlowe novels written by Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep and so on.  It’s set in Aberystwyth, a remote town on the west coast of Wales, and replaces Chandler’s mafia with the druids, and his hard liquor with ice cream cornets and ninety nines!

It’s quite a feat to transpose the culture and mood of the Los Angeles criminal underworld to a small Welsh coastal town and make everything somehow fit – so there are all kinds of odd quirks and to some extent unacceptable plot elements to Aberystwyth Mon Amour.  Nevertheless it does work in many ways even though, or maybe because, the whole premise is so ridiculous. I have just put the book down, but don’t ask me to explain the plot.  Well, I’ll try.

Myfanwy, the gorgeous Welsh night club dancer approaches Louie Knight, private detective, to ask his help finding her missing cousin, George the Boot.  During his investigations he discovers a plan to re-colonise the Welsh Atlantis – the sunken city in the Irish sea off the coast of Wales.  Various bullying and corrupt Welsh school teachers are building an arc and selling tickets.  They have a history with our heroic detective.  It involves cross country runs and forged parental notes – and a death.  The work of Brainbocs, an incredibly intelligent Welsh schoolboy, is a key to the plot.

There is a hunchback dwarf who is very protective of the workings of a town hall clock.   There is the historical misadventure of the Welsh Vietnam – the abortive attempt to conquer Patagonia – the accompanying war crimes and the war veterans gathered in groups as down-and-outs on the beaches of Aberystwyth.  There is Bianca, the tart with a heart, and Iola Jones the museum manager and missing person.  There’s Eeyore, Louie’s father – the man who sells donkey rides on the beach.  And there’s Brainboc – and how will they float the arc? That is the real burning issue!

Well you kind of get the picture?  It’s a ridiculous load of nonsense with a pretty complicated plot that’s really subservient to Malcolm Pryce’s often witty and usually entertaining pastiche of the stereotypes of film noir and the verbal tics of Raymond Chandler’s hard-bitten prose.  There are times when its so inventively weird that it’s completely bonkers.  And lots of it is Welsh of course – stove pipe hats and other sorry Welsh costumes are involved along with all the paraphernalia of British sea side holidays – sticky rock and bad weather.

I have to admit to having had this book on my bookshelf once years ago and not being able to get past chapter one.  I gave it to a charity bookshop but a friend recently recommended it, and lent me his copy.  Maybe it was mine coming back?  He’s a keen second hand book reader!

In any case it was a lot better than I’d originally feared though I did skim the last twenty or so pages as it was no longer gripping me, and most of the jokes had been played out by then.

Number 11 – Jonathan Coe

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Number 11 by Jonathan Coe is a satire about modern Britain.  It tells a series of stories that are linked by the characters of two girls who first holiday in Beverley at the beginning of the century.  Each section is connected in some way to the number 11, and each focuses on a different aspect of modern Britain.

The book opens in Beverley, where her grandparents live, with a seminal moment for Rachel, the narrator.  It is the Iraq war, and she hears about the death in mysterious circumstances of Dr David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector.  This is the first death Rachel has experienced, a loss of innocence and a first engagement with the dirty business of politics.

Later Rachel returns to Beverley with her friend Alison.  She meets the mysterious Birdwoman – a frightening and intimidating personage living in isolation at the end of a country lane.  Rachel finds out that appearances can be deceptive.  Next we move to Birmingham and to Alison’s mother, a singer with limited success, who is invited to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here.  After that a university lecturer attempts to rediscover his childhood innocence by tracking down a film that was broadcast one day in the 1970s.  The next section focuses on a literary prize and a short detective story.  Finally Alison becomes an au-pair, or home educator for one of the very wealthy families redeveloping Chelsea by excavating huge basements for home cinema complexes and games rooms.

There we are – a sort of episodic novel, though the episodes are only very loosely tied to the two main characters – Alison and Rachel.  So we have Alison’s mother as the focus for one story, Rachel’s English tutor’s husband as the focus of another.  At each change of narrative we move further and further into the world of modern Britain, from the poverty of working people in austerity Britain, to the elite world of Arts prizes and unearned wealth.

In a way Number 11 is really a series of short stories with quite tenuous links between them.  I’m not usually a fan of the short story genre I have to say, but this book does work.  The narrative voice is simple and clear, and each story holds the interest of the reader, though the more fanciful concluding episode was my least favourite.

Coe’s targets are fairly clear – people trafficking is in there, the hypocrisy of the media and  the dishonesty of media portrayals; reality TV, the cruelty of the press and the ruthlessness with which press barons and vested interests pursue their own ends; the immense chasm that has opened up between the very wealthy few and most of the rest of us.  All of these receive their fair share of scorn.

This is not a book that made me laugh out loud, though I did smile on more than one occasion.  It is an easy read, a fairly light hearted account, yet with some serious points.  One of the characters is distinguished by a philosophical dislike of comedians and of satire: he criticises satire because it allows us feel good by making us laugh at evil, but allows us to get away with doing nothing about it: as if laughing itself was the cathartic experience that removed all need for more direct emotional expression.  I kind of get that idea, and feel the same about this book.  I enjoyed it, but what should I do now?

 

 

 

Tepper Isn’t Going Out – Calvin Trillin

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Tepper Isn’t Going Out – a novel.  Perhaps novella would be a better word?  Or satire?  This is a very short book by humorist Calvin Trillin, who was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humour in 2013 at the age of 78.

I’ve read Thurber – he invented Walter Mitty, and this novel is similar.  It’s lightweight, lighthearted and quite fun.  At times it made me laugh out loud.  It’s a great holiday book – short chapters for those brief holiday reading moments, and that short holiday concentration.

On the other hand it’s also limited – the characters aren’t really developed, at times they’re ciphers, they’re mostly caricatures – but that’s what to expect from this kind of book.

Murray Tepper likes to park, in fact he likes to sit in his parked car and read the newspaper, much to the annoyance of the fellow New Yorkers who can’t find a parking spot. He listens to passers-by, chats, gives out advice, becomes a minor celebrity.  We meet his family, briefly and amusingly.

The mayor is a stickler for rules, and somewhat irrational. He isn’t happy with Tepper’s parking habits.  There are some quite amusing sections in the mayor’s office; it’s a brief exploration of some of the absurdities of the American political system.

Eventually there are crowds seeking Murray’s advice – there might be disturbances.  The mayor decides to act.  Lawyers descend attempting to clear Murray off the streets.  It becomes a question of freedom of speech, of freedom of association. There are court cases.

I found this book after scouring my bookshelf for more unread books – still on my economy drive.  Surprisingly I’d never noticed this before tucked between two larger tomes.  I’m fairly glad I found it.  It made me smile.

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