Thursday, January 17, 2013

Widmerpool? But Who Knew?

Who were your best friends in the neighborhood when you were a child? Your best friends in grade school, high school, college? How many people from each of these groups do you ever see today?

My answers are none, none, a few, a few, and almost none. Your answer may depend on how much your community(ies) represent the kind of community depicted by Wendell Berry’s Port William membership and idealized at one of my favorite blogs, Front Porch Republic.

My community? Not so much.

That is, of the hundreds of people who passed through my life in the first twenty-five years, I see almost none of them today. Raised in Minnesota, then in Connecticut, I went to boarding school in New Hampshire and college in Massachusetts before settling at age 23 in the town I live in today. I have owned same house for 35 years. So my community is not defined by my early life but by where I am rooted today.

Tomorrow, I am in New York City having lunch with a friend from prep school and dinner with a friend from college—but really mostly because I am writing a memoir and these encounters help stimulate my memory.

But seriously now, didn’t you swear at high school graduation that you would never ever lose touch with Bill and Bob and Biff, or Milly and Muffy and Mary and Maddy (pictured), as the case may be?

How do you account for the turns of life’s revolving doors—positioned as if in a hall of mirrors? How do you account for the people you live your life with?

These are questions evoked for me by re-reading “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell. The first novel of twelve in the cycle, A Question of Upbringing, introduces us to narrator Nick Jenkins and three schoolmates from an Eton-like upper-crust boarding establishment somewhere in England: Peter Templer, Charles Stringham, and Kenneth Widmerpool.

Although Jenkins begins “messing with” (sharing afternoon tea and other odd meals with) Templer and Stringham, and Widmerpool is the ugly duckling oddball they all make fun of, it is Widmerpool who survives until the end of the series. Some of you may be crying spoiler here. But seriously, there are almost 3,000 pages in the “Dance,” and it is really never about who dunnit or who’s going to survive it.

It’s all about those revolving doors.

There are over 300 (400 by another estimate) characters in “Dance” and many more Widmerpools—characters who don’t seem at all important in volume 2, then pop up again in volume 3, 5, 6, and 12.

“Dance” is not about the circle of life, but about the many many intersecting orbits of planets and suns and asteroids and rogue planets that make up our cosmos.

It’s mind-blowing.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.