A Buyer’s Market is the second book in Anthony Powell’s epic twelve novel sequence Dance to the music of time. The first book – A Question of Upbringing – had a rather more conventional narrative style than this novel. This is not a novel where a huge amount happens – we meet again many people we were first introduced to in the first book of the sequence, and are naturally introduced to a number of new characters.
Our narrator Nick Jenkins who we last saw at University tentatively starting out on a London social life – is by the start of this novel in his early twenties and fully launched upon the London social scene. This social scene is that enjoyed by the privileged, educated classes of the late 1920’s – debutantes and spare gentlemen.
“Uncle Giles was fond of calling people richer or in a general way more advantageously placed than himself, against whom he could at the same time level no specifically disparaging charge, ‘well connected enough, I don’t doubt,’ a descriptive phrase which he would sometimes indiscriminately apply; but I suppose that the Gorings might truthfully have been so labelled. They used to take a house in Upper Berkeley street for the first part of the summer, though dinner parties were rare there, and not as a rule convivial. Most of the responsibility for Barbara’s ‘season’ fell on her aunt, who probably regarded her niece’s lively character as an alleviation of difficulties posed by her own daughter, rather than an additional burden on the house-hold.”
As A Buyer’s Market opens, Jenkins from some future point reflects upon the artist E Bosworth Deacon – whose painting he has come across at an auction, causing Jenkins to reflect again upon the past. He recalls a party in those early years after university where one of Deacon’s paintings was hung rather ignominiously in the hall. Taking the reader to back to those days – shortly after the events that concluded A Question of Upbringing, Powell spends something like 150 pages describing one long evening of social entertainment, where Nick Jenkins attends a dinner and then later a party at another house. Jenkins leaves the dinner party with Widmerpool who he last saw several years earlier in France, the two make their way towards a lavish party. Jenkins and Widmerpool then run into Stringham who they had known at school and the aforementioned Mr Deacon and his young friend Gypsy Jones – they all go to the party together. This novel – is full of people running into other people – someone only needs to be mentioned and they appear a few pages later. The party is full of people Jenkins has met or heard of before – including Sillery the university don who had appeared to be so powerfully connected in A Question of Upbringing, and Sir Magnus Donners who Stringham had gone to work for.
Jenkins seems to exist on the periphery of this London society, he works for a publisher of art books and lives in rooms in Shepherds Bush. As the novel begins Jenkins is again momentarily in love – this time to Barbara Goring related to the Walpole-Wilson’s who dinner party opened the novel. Following a house party at the castle owned by the Walpole-Wilsons where Jenkins is again joined by Widmerpool, hilariously encountered in the dungeons – Nick returns to London where he is drawn more and more into the society of Mr Deacon. At his antique shop, Jenkins meets his young protégé Barnaby and meets again Gypsy Jones with whom both Widmerpool and Jenkins become fleetingly involved.
Nick Jenkin’s life already seems destined to be shadowed by Widmerpool – he is even treated to an evening with Widmerpool and his mother – where we even get to know Widmerpool’s first name.
A Buyer’s Market is at times a slightly challenging read – I found it really quite readable – the writing is so very good after all. However Powell does couch what little action there is in really quite ambiguous terms and so I found myself having to re-read whole sections – and still had the feeling I had missed things. I’m hoping I will get more used to Powell’s writing style as I get further into the sequence. Many of Powell’s sentences are really very long and quite complex, but his writing is full of humour – and although not always easy really very engaging.