(Nicolas Poussin, The Dance to the Music of Time, c.1634–36, oil on canvas, in the wonderful Wallace Collection, London; image found here)
This is the first of the twelve-book series A Dance to the Music of Time, of which I’m reading a book a month along with heavenali and others… I have just squeaked in before the end of January, the first month...
I started A Question of Upbringing directly after Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, and was struck by the different approaches of the two works to the question of memory and our attitudes towards the classical past.
Stoppard’s play is peopled by classical scholars, who trawl texts to learn about the Golden Age of the classical Greeks and Romans. Although so much classical literature has been lost in the maw of Time, and although what remains may be fragmentary or corrupted by inattentive copyists; although their interpretations are tinged by their romanticising of the past, and although they project anachronistic ideas onto those ancient cultures, these Oxford professors cling to the belief that with sufficient knowledge, care and intelligence they can reconstruct and understand the books and the lives of the past. Or at least they say they do: in practice they acknowledge the impossibility of doing so and turn the exercise into a sort of game. Stoppard also shows that every age is at once one person’s Golden Age and another person’s Time When the World is Going to Hell in a Handcart and Things were Much Better when I was a Boy. So any idea of a Golden Age is subjective, a fantasy.
A Question of Upbringing opens with the narrator, Jenkins (I don’t think we learn his first name in this book, do we? But it’s Nicholas, like Poussin) contemplating a very ordinary scene – some workmen pausing in their task of working on drainpipes to warm themselves round a bucket of coke:
For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier; mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays.
Here Jenkins imagines the sort of romanticised Golden Age which some of Stoppard’s scholars seek, and having pictured it, gives his source: Poussin and the artists of the classical Baroque. His nostalgia for a past which never existed is steeped in theirs, and acknowledged as such. Jenkins is very much a creature whose idea of the present is permeated by the past, specifically its art. During the course of the novel it becomes clear that he is knowledgeable about art, comparing Stringham to a ‘stiff, sad young man’ from a sixteenth-century portrait or to Paolo Veronese’s Alexander, and Jean Templar to a ‘young and virginal saint’ from a Flemish or German Old Master drawing – with what accuracy we may draw our own conclusions. He is also acutely visually aware, describing the outward appearance of every character he meets in meticulous detail. How people look is an important clue as to who they are – at least, this seems to be his philosophy.
(Paolo Veronese, The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565–67, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London; found here; that’s Stringham in the red)
The paragraph continues:
The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
It is telling us how to read this novel, and the eleven which follow: to look for patterns, for visual clues and for archetypes or echoes of a greater culture; to expect repetitions and reappearances and circles. (And to trust the author!) The structure of A Question of Upbringing itself describes a sort of circle, starting in an educational establishment and an encounter with Jenkins’ Uncle Giles, moving outwards to London, Templar’s villa – which reminds Jenkins unexpectedly of paintings by Claude Lorrain – France, and then back to another educational establishment and ending with Uncle Giles again.
Both Stoppard and Powell concern themselves with the past and our idealisation of it, Stoppard by deconstructing the myth of a Golden Age and the knowability of the past, Powell by showing how the past shapes our perceptions and interpretations of the present. They also address memory. In The Invention of Love memory is fragile and fluid, coloured by experience and desire; there is no ‘truthful’ memory but each subtly – or not-so-subtly – re-imagined moment has its own integrity and utility for the person who is recalling and in doing so inevitably re-making it. Stoppard’s protagonist, the poet and scholar A.E. Housman, pauses on the banks of the Styx to think about his undergraduate years in Oxford, but he cannot bring that time to mind with any certainty. Stoppard dramatises this unreliability of memory by having many of the lines or fragments of dialogues or scenes repeated, sometimes by the same characters who originally uttered or enacted them, sometimes by others, or in an altered form, as if mimicking the way that the mind replays and reworks memories.
Powell’s approach to memory is more straightforward. Jenkins moves from considering Poussin and the dancing figures to his schooldays:
Classical allusions made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces, hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.
Ta-dum: cue beginning of reminiscences. Jenkins doesn’t express any doubt here about the accuracy of his memory, which is astonishingly clear regarding even the tiniest minutiae. This requires a certain suspension of disbelief in the reader, for who can really quote word-for-word the conversations and gestures of thirty years ago? But Powell is less concerned with the mind’s vagaries than with, as I mentioned above, showing how people are shaped by the past. He chooses to tell Jenkins’ story retrospectively despite the implausibility of the method, so that he can frame events with a commentary supplied by the man who experienced and was made by those events, who can use the understanding he acquired subsequently to interpret actions and words which may seem insignificant but in fact are telling. It gives the novel a sense of being very consciously and carefully ordered even if a sense of the whole has not yet been provided us.
heavenali’s review of A Question of Upbringing is here.
(Claude Lorrain, Port Scene with the Embarkation of St Ursula, 1641, oil on canvase, National Gallery, London; found here)