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Essential reading for a slow boat to China
on 1 February 2015
Anthony Powell's masterpiece centres around a handful of upper-middle-class characters, who make their way from schooldays to old age, passing through the Second World War and concluding in the 1970s. However, there are hundreds of incidental, lesser characters who weave their way in and out of the novels, carrying along the story of an entire generation.
The key character of the novel -- and the most interesting -- is Kenneth Widmerpool, who enters the novel as an oddity -- a lower-class boy at an upper-class school, not quite right in anything he does, mocked by other boys, and yet a puzzle to them. Over the course of the novels, we trace Widmerpool's rising fortunes, and see how his oddness, his accomplished fawning, his determination, his willingness to face any humiliation and survive any snub, take him to the very top of British society. Widmerpool is one of the greatest creations of modern fiction. Every other character in the novel is in some way seen in relation to Widmerpool, and helps in some way to shed light on the rise of a new force in British political life, the Labour Party. And as Widmerpool's fortunes rise, so the old ruling class, the landed gentry and the Old School, are shown in decline. New money replaces old, the status quo crumbles silently into dust.
A common criticisms of this series is that it is wordy. Powell is a writer who loves to expand on the minutiae of life, producing a flow of words which at times overwhelms the reader. Moreover, the books are repetitive, consisting largely of endless conversations between characters which don't always go anywhere, and merge into one another; but this is a group of novels to be read at leisure, rather than to be raced through. Take them along on a slow boat to China.
I recommend the novels very highly to anyone who loves to read well-written English, and who has the patience for the long haul.