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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The most loathsome character in literature?

There's no question but that what keeps us (keeps me?) reading through the 12 (!) volumes of Anthony Powells A Dance to the Music of Time is the obsequious character Kenneth Widmerpool, later Lord Kenneth Widmerpool, possibly the most loathsome and pathetic character in literature. From the time we first meet him, friendless and hapless but a narcissistic and stuck-up toady, even way back in boarding school, the butt of everyone's jokes (an epochal moment in the series is the episode where a young woman dumps a bowl of sugar on his head at a dinner party - hard not to picture him sitting there, unmoved, humiliated, ridiculous) through his time in the service during WWII and later in the House of Lords, through his sham of a marriage, he's always there and always pathetic - though also somehow beyond pity. But in this final volume Widmerpool undergoes a complete transformation - as does the society around him; we're now in the 1970s, a time of youth revolt, of hippies and cultists and the radical left tossing firebombs and staging campus upheavals. And Widmerpool is the midst of this - he's a chancellor at some English university and has this weird idea that he's allied with the students; he invites two student radicals to a fancy awards dinner, where they toss a stinkbomb during his address to the audience (he's so oblivious he can't detect that he was part of the target, not their ally), and we next see him at another formal dinner for an art association - he shows up wearing a crimson sweater under a sports jacket and looking like a seedy, aged artist - and, rather hilariously for him, tells people to "call me Ken." I guess the funniest thing is that, although we would expect to be at last in sympathy with KW, as he seems to have given up his pretensions and privileges and aligned himself with the progressive left, we find ourselves holding him in even great contempt and deeper scorn, as he now seems just a phony and opportunist (he has always been that) and unaware that the radical and mystical youth and "new generation" find him to be ludicrous and retrograde. Even when he (tries to) become a hipster, Widmerpool is the ultimate square.

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