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On Venusberg by Anthony Powell

By (September 1, 2015) No Comment

Anthony PowellPity the early books of a writer known for a later masterpiece, for they have little hope of being read as themselves, for themselves. With Anthony Powell, the acknowledged masterpiece is his twelve-volume roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, which casts a deep shadow over his seven other novels, five of which preceded the first volume of Dance.

This introduction won’t be entirely free from that tendency, but we can still do Venusberg the justice of considering it on its own. His second novel, it was published in October of 1932, when Powell was not quite twenty-seven years old. Having two novels under one’s belt before age thirty would in itself seem a substantial achievement, but at a time when novel-writing was, as Powell put it in his autobiography, the “ambition of every reasonably literate young man,” it merely marked Powell as one of a set: his Eton contemporary and friend Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green) published his first novel, Blindness, at twenty-one, and his second, Living, at twenty-four, while Evelyn Waugh, who had become one of Powell’s close friends in their post-university years, had already published a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a pair of wildly successful novels by twenty-seven.

If Powell’s youthful productivity wasn’t exceptional, his early books were. Waugh’s more biting, anarchic novels came to define the satiric strain of ’30s British writing (as opposed to the “committed” writing of Orwell, Auden, and others), but Powell’s early novels, re-read now, offer substantial support for critic Martin Seymour-Smith’s assertion that Powell was the “best comic novelist of his generation.” The books share a milieu with Waugh’s: the privileged world of disaffected, mostly feckless young people attempting to establish themselves in life, work, and love. Where Powell’s novels differ from Waugh’s, and are today ultimately more satisfying, is in their sympathy. Waugh’s books are arguably funnier (though some sections of Dance hold their own), but they also have an angry, cruel, even nihilistic strain. Waugh’s satire is scorching, leaving little behind but blasted ground. Powell, on the other hand, while refusing novelistic happy endings, presents a more hopeful outlook: his early novels tend to include at least one character who yearns, if fitfully, to live a life with meaning. As Seymour-Smith puts it, “Powell is thoughtful as if he were trying to define what social sanity might consist of.” That his characters are thwarted, that meaning eludes them, doesn’t invalidate the attempt.

Venusberg marks an advance on, or broadening from, Powell’s debut, Afternoon Men, in two ways. First is the prose: whereas Afternoon Men is deeply under the spell of Hemingway’s clipped modernism (and, as Powell himself took pains to point out in his autobiography, the less-recognized influence of e. e. cummings), shows us our first glimpse of Powell’s more baroque, more involved prose style. When Powell describes scenery in Afternoon Men, it’s deliberately flat:

It was light outside and the houses were curiously grey, like the back-cloth of a scene on the films. Everything seemed unreal and temporary. The air was still fresh but it was going to be another hot day.

Venusberg’s scene-setting is more detailed, its prose more elaborate:

There were streets and houses among the docks and looking between these it seemed that ships were moored in the thoroughfares of the town itself, so that quite suddenly Lushington thought again of Lucy, vividly, as if she were standing beside him as they moved forward. These ships among the buildings recalled her to him, bringing back a day they had spent together in the country when, coming through some trees towards the sea, funnels and masts appeared before them a few fields away, rising out of hedges and ploughland, jagged and coloured gaudily against the green, damp, English morning. These unlikely hulls by some configuration of an estuary had seemed cut-off and permanently land-locked, part of the strangeness of the countryside. Liners built up among the hedges. The day had been doubly notable for Lucy’s release from the higher pessimism and the ships here now reminded him of her as she had come through the trees with him and stopped all at once, her hair blowing across her face as they stood and looked at the painted funnels.

Freed from asperity, this is prose that is beginning to move like thought, to wend back in on itself and make discoveries along the way, an approach that will reach its apotheosis in the watchful narrative musings of Nick Jenkins in Dance. It also helps us begin to understand Powell’s protagonist, Lushington, revealing how observant he is, the first step toward helping us see him as something different from, and more thoughtful than, his giddier peers.

In this second novel, Powell also expands his setting and thus his stock of characters.

Lushington is a young newspaperman burdened with sincerity in a world that deliberately devalues it, and although he could have come straight from Afternoon Men, the book strips him from that world when he is sent as a foreign correspondent to a fictional Baltic state. From the moment he steps onto the boat, Lushington is caught up in an Ernst Lubitsch–style whirl of emigres and exiles, debauched nobility (including the questionable Count Bobel, whom Powell based partly on a count he met on a European train who, when the taps ran dry, shaved in beer), and other tarnished remnants of a fading world. It’s a long way from the dives of Soho and Fitzrovia, and it gives Powell scope to unleash his remarkable talent for grotesquerie, a talent whose more corrosive aspects are substantially leavened by Powell’s keen appreciation of human oddity. Without resorting to Dickensian tics, Powell manages the impressive feat of generating a host of characters so idiosyncratic, distinct, and funny that when they reappear later in the book we prepare to be amused before they so much as enter a room. In being sent overseas, Lushington—whom Anthony West, reviewing the novel for the New Yorker, described as fated “to get from life the things he doesn’t want”—is being pulled away from Lucy, the girl he’s in love with, and delivered to the man that she loves, his erstwhile friend Da Costa, a directionless young man who has used family connections to land a job on an English diplomatic legation in the Baltic. Lushington’s troubles are compounded when he falls for and immediately begins an affair with Ortrud Mavrin, a beautiful, married Austrian woman he meets on the boat. A kiss leads to a discussion of cabins, and Lushington says,

“I am lucky to have a cabin to myself. Don’t you agree?”
“Does it roll there more than it is rolling now? What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I think it does.”
“It rolls very badly on the side I am on too.”
“You share a cabin with your friend, of course?”
They did not speak for some minutes. The wind was increasing and had begun to blow shrilly through the rigging, which creaked and strained insistently. The lights were still on in the smoke saloon. The two Counts would talk for some time yet. He said:
“Would you like to come down to my cabin and see if the boat rolls as much on that side as the side that you are on?”
“Yes,” she said. “It would interest me to see.”

The dry humor, the intertwining of sex and secrecy, and the downplaying of desire even as it drives the action—all would become reliable marks of Powell’s comedy, familiar to any fan of Dance.

Waiting on land are not only Da Costa (and the constant reminder of Lucy that he represents), but also Mavrin’s professor husband and an importunate, self-dramatizing manservant with whom Da Costa saddles Lushington:

“By all means call me first. Very likely Mr. Da Costa does not get up until lunch. But is it necessary to be as early as this? This is an unearthly hour.”
“I’m afraid it would be very inconvenient to call you at any other time sir. I am sorry.”

Powell spins these complications into dozens of richly comic set-pieces, strung together by the thinnest of plots. Early on, Lushington gets a briefing from Da Costa on the country in which he’s found himself:

“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.”

That’s typical of the arm’s length at which Powell keeps politics in the book. They’re a source of oddity and humor rather than meaning, treated with the lightness and combination of irony and confusion typical of the Englishman abroad, an attitude that would soon be rendered obsolete by the war, when events in those distant, mountainous places that the English often considered too silly to take seriously finally came home to roost.

The most memorable comic scenes in Venusberg, however, are moments of misapprehension, when Lushington finds his romantic position misunderstood. Count Bobel, projecting, assumes he is a rake and brings two women of questionable virtue to Lushington’s hotel room (even as he asks about the availability of the young woman manning the front desk). More painful is when Ortrud Mavrin’s husband decides to take Lushington as his confidante: he has psychoanalyzed his wife, he says, and realizes that she shows signs of being in extramarital love:

“But to return to the problem of domestic life: I will not ask you to guess who it is that I have in my mind, but I feel sure that you would guess correctly.”
“Oh but, on the contrary, I feel sure that I should not.”

The conversation unfolds as they stroll across a bridge, and Lushington’s panic takes on a comically paranoiac dimension: “An apprehension was raised in Lushington’s mind that the Professor might have hired a gang to throw him into the river from this point.” It’s not, however, Lushington, but Da Costa whom the Professor has in mind, leaving Lushington fighting an awkward combination of relief and bruised ego as he finds himself forced to falsely defend the honor of his lover. (The scene calls to mind the infinitely more excruciating revelations from Bob Duport that Nick Jenkins endures in Dance.)

After a number of dances, some hangovers, a ski trip, and a couple of unexpected deaths, Lushington finds himself back in England, having gotten the girl after all—if not, by then, the girl he wants. While Powell’s satire may not have the coruscating edge of Waugh, at the end of Venusberg does it after all leave us in much the same place? Although I’ve suggested otherwise, that’s not an unreasonable position. But I prefer a different reading, one that acknowledges we’ve come to care for Lushington and argues that if there’s not necessarily an abundance of hope in his efforts to connect, there is at least hope in the attempt. I base that preference largely on one short paragraph—a paragraph that also serves to tie Venusberg to Dance.

No matter how much we legitimately praise Powell’s novels of the 1930s, there’s still no question that A Dance to the Music of Time, from its very first pages, represents an almost unimaginable advance in skill, commitment, and perception. But there is a point in Venusberg where that previously unseen ability briefly shimmers into being. As Lushington’s time abroad is drawing to a close, and he is ruing the inevitable end of his love affair and a return to his muddle with Lucy, the hitherto comic instability of the Baltic country manifests itself in a surprising act of violence. Lushington is confronted with deaths that hit close to home:

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.

Lushington himself is growing here, seeing something that, while painful now, has the power to take him out of himself into a larger existence. That, amid loss, is the potential, the hope, that at least partially redeems the surrounding bleakness.

That paragraph reads like nothing else in the novel, and 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 here: a circling around matters of feeling that, though far less developed or finicky than that of Henry James, nonetheless calls him to mind in its dogged attention to indefinable shades of emotion; a reticence that in its very insistence reveals the storms underlying it; a deliberate, occasionally awkward vagueness of image; even a well-turned, aphoristic phrase—“Lacking in proportion, like other people’s love affairs”—tossed in as if it were a long-agreed truth. The years between Venusberg and Dance would see Powell polishing his style and significantly broadening his emotional range, but this passage makes clear that the seeds of the later work were already present before he’d turned thirty.

The publishing history of Venusberg is unusual enough to be worth a brief recounting. On publication in the UK, it received, as Powell put it in his memoir, “well disposed notices (with the habitual undercurrent of disapproval from those who disliked books being ‘modern’),” and it sold acceptably well. The onset of the Great Depression, however, caused the initial plans for it to be published in America to be scrapped: as Michael Barber put it in his biography of Powell, while Afternoon Men had sold “creditably for a first novel by a foreign writer,” its sales weren’t so strong as to compel publication of the second book in such challenging circumstances.

Venusberg wouldn’t make it to American readers until 1952, and even that was via unusual means. It began with a letter, sent cold to Powell by Robert Vanderbilt, proprietor of New York’s Holliday Bookshop, on February 21, 1952:

Dear Mr. Powell:
As proprietor of this bookstore, and another called Periscope Book Shop (of this city), both of which specialize in importing current English books, the idea of publishing something often comes to me. The best idea I have is to re-issue one of your novels.

Many a bookseller has had such an idea, but few have managed to carry it through with quite the success of Vanderbilt. After an extensive, cordial correspondence with Powell (collected in 2011 in a limited edition volume, The Acceptance of Absurdity, edited by John Saumarez Smith and Jonathan Kooperstein), Vanderbilt published a two-in-one hardcover of Venusberg and Agents and Patients, with original cover art from Osbert Lancaster, in November, 1952.

At that point, the publishing story begins to be an interesting demonstration of the difference in the literary marketplace between 1952 and today. In its first three months on the market, the book–which, remember, was a one-off by a bookseller, with none of a traditional publisher’s budget or marketing muscle behind it–garnered reviews from Newsweek, the New York Times (a review characterized by Vanderbilt as “like a publicity release and quite long”), the New Yorker (the aforementioned Anthony West review, which Powell said, “absolutely staggered” him), the Atlantic, New York Herald Tribune (a “rapturously favorable” review by Elizabeth Bowen), the San Francisco Chronicle, and Vogue. The Cincinnati Inquirer, meanwhile, had replied to Vanderbilt’s query with, “By all means send a copy”–though, as Vanderbilt noted, “no Cincinnati bookstore has ordered a copy.”

As that suggests, bookstores were a bit tougher than review outlets. Vanderbilt explained to Powell that while “the jobbers have it on consignment,” getting it into stores outside New York was proving tough: “For example, San Francisco has only three copies, Chicago hardly more.” The all-important Scribner’s store refused Vanderbilt’s suggestion that they devote a window to the book, but they nonetheless took five, while of course Holliday’s own stores stacked it high. Ultimately the publicity proved effective, and soon Holliday was receiving reorders from wholesalers for bookstores around the country. In the end, he reportedly sold more than 3,000 copies–more, according to Michael Barber’s biography, than Scribner’s had managed with the first couple of volumes of Dance.

At least one of those copies, however, made its way back to Holliday. As he explained to Powell in a letter on February 11, 1953, he had recently received “as small blue note saying the following”:

Gentlemen: I ordered and received (for which I paid $4.00) a copy of Venusberg. After reading 11 pages of this book I knew it was not the kind of book that I could give as a birthday gift to an elderly, churchgoing lady. It is also not the type of story I enjoy or admire. The book shop from where I purchased it is not carrying any copies–it was a special order–so therefore I cannot expect them to refund my money. Therefore my request to you is will you allow me to return it to you and I shall be satisfied with the refund of the wholesale price. It is in the same perfect condition in which it was delivered to me. May I say in addition I think it a vulgar, salacious book and one which I do not care to read further. (Eleven pages are more than sufficient).

Sounds a bit like a minor character from one of Barbara Pym’s novels, doesn’t it? Powell, unsurprisingly, was amused, and replied with an anecdote of his own:

I remember when I was a publisher [with Duckworth] the illustrated catalogue designed by myself elicited a letter saying “as I have a household of children and young servants I should be obliged if you would not deliver your cess on my door.”

Disgruntled moralist aside, the appreciative reception of the book was surely gratifying to Powell, twenty years after he’d originally sent it out into the world, and just as he was settling in for the long haul with Dance. Venusberg had, as the New Yorker review concluded: “triumphantly weathered its first two decades, and should now take its place among the minor classics of English humor.” Another six decades on, it’s available again, ready to be enjoyed as the light, clever comedy it is and as the first sounds of the orchestra tuning up for the Dance.

Levi Stahl is the editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald E. Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany and the promotions director at the University of Chicago Press. He blogs at www.ivebeenreadinglately.com, and you can find him talking about books on Twitter as @levistahl.

A version of this essay appears as the introduction to Anthony Powell’s Venusberg, published by the University of Chicago Press in October of 2015.