Thursday, November 6, 2014

Old Non-bestseller: Venusberg, by Anthony Powell

Old Non-bestseller: Venusberg, by Anthony Powell

a review by Rich Horton

Another trip into the archives for a review I wrote nearly 20 years ago about a book by one of my very favorite writers. It wasn't a bestseller, though I think it got respectful notice: Anthony Powell was, I think, known as an up and comer. He was one of a remarkable cadre of writers to come out of Eton at about the same time: his exact contemporary was the great Henry Yorke, who wrote as Henry Green; while Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell, and Cyril Connolly were two years older, and Ian Fleming (a rather different sort of writer, excellent in his own way) was a few years younger. (Another friend of Powell's, born in 1903, though not an Old Etonian, was Evelyn Waugh.)

Powell was born in 1905 to a very upper middle-class, or somewhat lower upper-class, family (the nuances of British class divisions are sometimes a little hard to decipher for me). I suppose as Powell`s wife was the daughter of an Earl, and Powell himself attended Eton and Oxford, his background is more upper-class than not, a milieu certainly reflected in his novels. Powell spent a brief time in publishing (at Duckworth's, which also published his first few novels), a brief time in Hollywood, and then, after service in the War, he wrote for Punch and for various other journals, as well as of course writing novels. Late in his life he published four volumes of memoirs and three volumes of journals. (Powell's wife, by the way, Lady Violet Powell, was a fine writer herself (of memoirs), and she was the niece of Lord Dunsany, the sister of the notorious Lord Longford, and the aunt of Antonia Fraser. As well as being a descendant of Wellington (or perhaps of a Wellington in-law).)

Powell's most famous work is the 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), which is purely and simply one of the towering achievements of English letters. It treats the decline of English upper-class society between the two wars, and during and following the Second World War. It is nominally social comedy, and at times very funny indeed, but there is a distinct thread of regret mixed with realization that the society involved needed to change, and that most of the "decline" was a result of weaknesses inherent in the people involved.

Prior to the second World War, Powell published 5 novels, of which Venusberg is the second, published in 1932. These early novels are in some sense rehearsals for the themes and situations of Dance, but they are completely independent. They don`t seem dated to me at all, but they can be difficult to find. (This may be changing -- the University of Chicago Press recently reissued Powell's first novel, Afternoon Men, and perhaps a new edition of Venusberg will come along sometime soon.) I got Venusberg from my local library`s interlibrary loan program, and the edition I read, published in the States in 1953 or so, is a curious omnibus of Venusberg and another early Powell novel, Agents and Patients (1936).

This novel is the story of one Lushington, an English journalist who is sent by his paper to visit an unnamed Baltic republic, obviously modeled on one or more of the three, then-independent, Baltic states. He encounters a variety of quite unusual characters: American and British diplomats, emigre Russians, locals, expatriate Britons, and so on. He falls in love (or as much in love as he seems capable of) with an Austrian woman, the wife of a local Professor, but of course fate intervenes, and Lushington returns home eventually, alone.

As with all of Powell`s novels, the plot is the least of the points of interest. The novel is composed of short chapters, describing, in very humorous terms, the characters and the unusual situations into which they stumble. Powell is notorious for the economical but striking descriptions of his characters, and this talent of his is evident even in this early novel, though it is much developed in Dance. The characters in this book are generally likable (not always true of Powell`s characters), but they seem lost. They seem unable to commit themselves either to a career, or to other people. In this book, the young Powell is satirically observing these characters, of whose milieu he was a member. In his later novels, with the experience of life and a long war intervening, his purpose is less satirical, more ironical, and more understanding.

Obviously, I heartily recommend A Dance to the Music of Time, although it is quite a project (it took me 15 months to read, reading a trilogy at a time, then taking a few months off.) The early Powell novels, such as Venusberg, are perhaps not quite at the level of Dance, but quite worthwhile themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment