Wednesday, March 3

The Acceptance World - Anthony Powell

The third installment in the Dance to the Music of Time sequence brings narrator Nicholas Jenkins to the 1930's. He has his fortune read by Mrs Erdleigh, a very certain woman introduced to him by his Uncle Giles; she declares that he will see her again in a year, and find love in the meantime, much to his scepticism. And indeed, after many an unhappy sojourn into affairs of the heart, Jenkins is reunited with school friend Templer's younger sister, Jean, separated from her husband, who after a time returns his affections.
Politics are more prominent in The Acceptance World, as Marxism enters the vocabulary of England's upper middle classes - a move seen most prominently in the conversion of out moded author St. John Clarke to the cause. The paranormal element first rising in Mrs Erdleigh recurs later when a Planchette board (which sounds something like a ouija board) is brought out, which occasion is also the first appearance of changing politics of the era.
While Widmerpoole appears only briefly, the change in him is significant. Once somewhat pallid and ineffectual, he now seems more certain and almost powerful, though no less pompous - it's when, during a school reunion dinner, he begins pontificating at length that old school master La Bas sustains a severe stroke. Widmerpoole is also the source of the title - he works for the Acceptance World, a company that accepts the debt of others, for a sum. Readers more astute than I have noted that it refers also to the characters of the novel accepting the disappointment of their lives as lived rather than their imagined future lives, idealised in youth.
Unimpressed with A Question of Upbringing, but more appreciative of A Buyer's Market, I am right back where I started. The Acceptance World left me cold and, with the sole exception of Widmerpool, disinterested in the fate of any of the characters. I can see the literary skill of Powell, but this is a purely intellectual appreciation. At no point did I feel gripped by the plot, captured by the characters, or invested in the outcome.
And yet I cannot help feeling as though the fault lies with me - that if only I were more literary, intelligent, or aware of nuance then I too would see this series as a masterpiece, and also be able to find the humour in what many have called "perhaps the finest long [20th century] comic novel that England has produced" (that specific quote, from Anthony Burgess, is on the dust jacket).
Perhaps the problem is that, though I lived there for some of my formative years, I'm not English, not upper class or even particularly class conscious, and have no knowledge of the real people or situations on which the series is based.
My mother says that repeat reading significantly increases one's enjoyment of the series. Frankly, just making it through all twelve once will be something of an achievement, but who knows - perhaps this time in December I'll be raving about the magnificence of A Dance to the Music of Time and eager to start at the beginning again. - Alex

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