Thursday, 3 June 1999

Anthony Powell: A Buyer's Market (1952)

Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 264

The second volume of Powell's Dance to the Music of Time bears a distinct resemblance in theme to the third volume of Proust's Remembrance of Thing's Past, The Guermantes Way. They both concern the young narrator's entrance into fashionable society. Nick Jenkins is a far more normal person than Proust's narrator, and English society in the twenties is more conventional than its French counterpart.

Powell seems to be interested, in this book and A Question of Upbringing, in the way in which background and education moulds our characters. This is actually in contrast to Proust, who barely mentions education once in thousands of pages. His narrator picks up a literary and artistic education without apparently attending school or having a tutor; all the childhood memories he has are about family.

A Question of Upbringing showed us how the central characters in the Music of Time are shaped by their education. Though their paths had already started to diverge by the end of that book, Jenkins, Stringham, Templer and Widmerpool have not developed much from the mould imposed upon them by a public school education. But in A Buyer's Market, their underlying personalities begin to come out, and the differences in their situations, talents and abilities begin to create four different lives for four different people.

The differences between three of them (not Templer, who has at this point passed out of Jenkins' life entirely) are shown by their relationships with two individuals: industrial tycoon Donners-Brebner, employer of Stringham and then Widmerpool, and acquaintance of Jenkins; and the painter Deacon.

You get the impression at the end of A Buyer's Market that we are still preparing, after two novels, for the real events of the sequence: these will include the stock market crash and its aftermath in part three, and the Second World War starting in part six.

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