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Anthony Powell: Inspired by Proust (©martyn goddard/rex/shutterstock)

“But surely you have some bent? An ambition to do well at something?” That is Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, asking narrator Nick Jenkins what he is going to do with his life. They are both 18, in France for a summer between school (implicitly Eton) and university (Oxford). Nick suggests he might one day like “to write”, an idea that has crossed his mind only that moment.

“To write?” said Widmerpool. “But that is hardly a profession. Unless you mean you want to be a journalist . . . It is precarious . . . there is certainly not much social position attached: unless, for example, you become editor of The Times, or something of that sort. I should think it over very carefully before you commit yourself.”

A Question of Upbringing is the first of the 12 novels of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series which follows Jenkins, Widmerpool, their boarding house contemporaries Peter Templer and Charles Stringham, and a chorus-line of dons, painters, editors, mess-mates, clairvoyants, lords, ladies, liggers and Dicky Umfravilles as they make their way in the worlds of art, books and politics.

Widmerpool, as he promised that summer at La Grenadiére, is the most ambitious of them all. We see the pouchy, persecuted young Widmerpool, humiliated by having ripe bananas thrown in his face and sugar castors emptied over his head, as he becomes a stickling martinet, increasingly powerful and power-crazed. In book after book he appears: at the Ritz; behind a grate halfway up the stairs at a country-house party; in uniform during the Phoney War; picking at cold tongue and mineral water in restaurants as he fretfully nurses his digestion.

Nick does become a writer and Widmerpool never gets any closer to understanding why. “Who exactly buys ‘art books’? . . . It doesn’t sound to me a very serious job . . . You should look for something more promising.”

Widmerpool makes alliances — broken when it is to his advantage — but never friends. “Who was that awful man?” asks the composer Hugh Moreland, when Widmerpool drives him and Jenkins home one night. To Bob Duport, a rotter in his own way, Widmerpool is an “absolute bugger . . . a hundred per cent bastard.” The worse Widmerpool is, the more disloyal, devious, single-minded, charmless, the more irresistible he becomes. “We haven’t had Widmerpool for a few hundred pages,” you find yourself thinking, “we must be due him any moment now, popping little pills against his gastric troubles.”

Powell was as surprised as anyone, writes Hilary Spurling in Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time, her masterly new biography of the author, “when Widmerpool showed signs of taking on a momentum of his own . . . acquiring in the end, like Shakespeare’s Falstaff or Dickens’s Mr Micawber, an identity beyond his fictional origins, becoming even for people who had never read the Dance the essence of a harsh, officious and manipulative greed for power.” Spurling quotes a review by David Piper of Temporary Kings, the penultimate book in the Dance: “In him [Widmerpool] Powell has isolated — and named for ever — a recurring elemental irritant of human intercourse. Everyone has their Widmerpool . . . Who is your Widmerpool? — awesomely, whose Widmerpool are you?”

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