Saturday, March 06, 2010

The early steps of the Dance, or, The young Anthony Powell

Finding myself in need of a bit of literary comfort food last weekend, I turned to my old standby, Anthony Powell. Rather than diving back into my perpetual re-reading of A Dance to the Music of Time, however, this time I opted for one of his earlier novels, Venusberg (1932).

Venusberg, Powell's second novel, is much like his first, Afternoon Men: slight but worthy, showing equally the influence of Hemingway and Waugh, its spare prose and emotional aridity reminiscent of the former, the satire they serve clear kin to the work of the latter. While Dance is frequently very funny, the early novels are a reminder that, had Powell chosen, he might have become as straight, and nearly as vicious, a satirist as Waugh: in these books his eye for absurdity is married seamlessly to the affectless, listless cynicism that Waugh attributed to their entire generation.

For example, this bit of dialogue, between two English expatriates, Da Costa and Lushington, in an Eastern European nation, could easily have come from Waugh:
"And how are the Communists?"

"Splendid. They blew up the new gas-works the other day. At least that is supposed. Either that or the works manager, who was, it appears, a very erratic man. As everything is blown up it is hard to say. It is a pity, because architecturally they were of considerable beauty."

"Do you ever come in contact with the Soviet legation?"

"Not as a rule. But you ought to. I met one of their secretaries the other day at a tea-party. We were both lodged in a corner and he thought I was an American engineer on his way to some mines out in Russia and I thought he was a French author on his way back. They have invented an entirely new form of boredom, like the worst moments of being in the boy scouts at one's preparatory school. He was a fine example of it."
This exchange, too, between the same two men, feels distinctly Wauvian:
"That was Pope. I've arranged for him to valet you. He doesn't have much to do and he said he'd like to take the job on. I inherited him from the last man who was here. He's a curious fellow, as you see. Rather a character."

"But I don't like characters."

"I know you don't. Neither do I. But we can't always have what we like."
What I found most interesting, however, reading Venusberg for the second time, was a passage late in the novel that comes after Lushington's secret lover has been killed inadvertently by a political assassin:
Lushington stood and looked through the doorway of the bedroom. Here then was that rather astonishing mystery about which so much had been said that, when the fact itself was there, no further comment was possible. For the moment no near-at-hand formula seemed at all adequate. This was something well-defined and at the same time not easy to believe in. It seemed absurd, overdone. Lacking in proportion, like other people's love affairs. Here were all the signs of a loss of control. A breakdown of the essential machinery. The sort of thing no one could be expected to be on the look-out for.
That paragraph reads like nothing else in the novel, and, to my memory, nothing else in any of Powell's pre-war novels; rather, it reads like an early, slightly hesitant working out of the more serious approach he would take to matters of love and loss in Dance.

Many of the basic elements of the style Powell would reveal in Dance are there. Powell would both polish his style and significantly broaden his emotional range by the time he wrote Dance, but this passage makes surprisingly clear the fact that the seeds of the later work were already present before he'd turned thirty.


  1. This is a fascinating post - because although I have read A Dance to the Music of Time - and know a little of Powell here and there from general reading - I have never read any of his other work or really thought about his development as a writer and those who influenced him etc - he has been hanging around in my radar as something of an unconsidered trifle - so thanks for the motivation - I think I will try to increase my knowledge.

    Excelley interesting review,

    Thanks for sharing