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Saturday, 24 March 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time (2 of 12)

Anthony Powell’s second novel in the dozen-volume sequence, A Buyer’s Market was published in 1952.  It’s set in the late 1920s and is again narrated by Nick Jenkins, who stumbles upon some of the work of the artist Mr Deacon in an auction showroom for sale. Deacon was a family acquaintance. Powell’s description of the assorted oddments up for sale is highly visual.

Nick is working in London for a publisher and attends various debutante balls with Barbara Goring. ‘This affair with Barbara, although taking up less than a year, seemed already to have occupied a substantial proportion of my life; because nothing establishes the timelessness of Time like those episodes of early experience seen, on re-examination at a later period, to have been crowded together with such unbelievable closeness in the course of a few years; yet equally giving the illusion of being so infinitely extended during the months when actually taking place.’ (p28)

Barbara never ‘touched strong drink, in spite of behaviour that often suggested the contrary.’ (p73) This is evinced at one outing when she pours the contents of a sugar dispenser over Widmerpool!

As Nick is very much a cypher, it’s not surprising he says ‘… for love of that sort – the sort where the sensual element has been reduced to a minimum – must after all, largely if not entirely, resolve itself to the exercise of power: a fact of which Barbara was, of course, more aware than I.’ (p29)

We are not privy in any depth to Nick’s inner feelings regarding any women in his life and any sexual encounter he might endure is not seen but inferred, if at all, behind closed doors.

Nick again encounters Widmerpool: ‘… while he retained that curiously piscine cast of countenance, projecting the impression that he swam, rather than walked, through the rooms he haunted.’ (p34)

Powell has plenty of telling moments: ‘Across the road the coffee-stall came into sight, a spot of light round which the scarlet tunics and white equipment of one or two Guardsmen still flickered like the bright wings of moths attracted from nocturnal shadows by a flame.’ (p97) Though the reader might question why ‘one or two’ – couldn’t Nick count them? Was it one or was it two?

Stringham also makes an appearance: ‘… you know parents – especially step-parents – are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children,’ (p110) he says of his mother’s current husband, Buster. Stringham seemed in some way entangled with a Mrs Andriadis, who gave popular parties. At her party is Mr Deacon, the artist, and Gypsy Jones, who has a strange attraction for both Nick and Widmerpool. By now, we appreciate that we’re going to see certain characters often as the narrative progresses over several books: ‘… was sufficient to draw attention once again to that extraordinary process that causes certain figures to appear and reappear in the performance of one or another sequence of a ritual dance.’ (p183)

Nick spent weekends in the country and lunched at Stourwater, home of magnate Sir Magnus Donners, where he again met Jean Templer; she was now married; his earlier feelings for her have dematerialised. Widmerpool, employed by Donners, make an amusing appearance during a tour of the Stourwater dungeons, though he wasn’t a captive, as Nick briefly surmised. Nick later managed to wreck one of his master's ornamental urns with his car (after it is rejuvenated following a flat battery). In the autumn Stringham eschewed the company of Mrs Andriadis and married Lady Peggy Stepney; the artist Mr Deacon died after his birthday party, and Nick apparently had his wicked way with Gypsy after Deacon's funeral in the back room of a shop, though the emotional and physical content leaves a lot to be desired, no pun intended: ‘The lack of demur on her part seemed quite in accordance with the almost somnambulistic force that had brought me into that place… such protests as she put forward were of so formal and artificial an order that they increased, rather than diminished, the impression that a long-established rite was to be enacted, among Staffordshire figures and papier-maché trays, with the compelling, detached formality of nightmare…’ (p268)

Several characters who appear here we will meet again in the next book, among them J.G. Quiggin and the author St. John Clarke…

Not a lot happens that is dramatic or pertains to the real life of the majority of the denizens of Great Britain; perhaps it’s because we’re viewing a microcosm, a certain bohemian section of upper-class English society, entirely bereft of emotion and sentiment. Yet there’s a fascination with the characters, their descriptions and their interactions that compels me to read on.

Note: The cover art for the series (1980s) by Mark Boxer caricatures individuals from the books. This one (on the left) is Sillery, who we met in the first book and appears here hobnobbing with names he can later drop into a conversation; he has a passing resemblance to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan!

Next: 3: The Acceptance World

Editorial comment

Again, there’s a dearth of chapters; four only. While I’m getting used to the lengthy paragraphs and long complex paragraphs, they really could have been improved by an editor.

In more than one book Powell uses the expression ‘Once in a way’ when he probably means ‘once in a while’. I can live with it.

He describes the car’s flat battery thus: ‘It was clear that the battery had run out.’ Maybe it’s typical of that time, but it’s odd.

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