By Ray Greenblatt
Anthony Powell (1905-2000) is primarily known for his 12-volume series of novels A Dance to the Music of Time. It took him some twenty-five years (1951-1975) to develop this massive work covering fifty years in the lives of his many characters. From its publication came fame, riches, and a BBC series. After reading this accomplishment, I grew curious to know what he had first written in the 1930’s.
I chose to read Venusberg (1932) to see if Powell’s style had changed over the years. Indeed it had: before the high seriousness of the Dance series, he had used comedy as his major device.
Since people are the mainstays of any novel, let us meet them first. Powell sometimes tosses a number of characters at the reader; however, his acuity in defining them helps make each person memorable. Lushington, a journalist, is our protagonist. “He was a serious young man with a pink and white face who believed implicitly in eventual progress on a scientific basis although he had had Anglo-Catholic leanings in his City days.” (5) Powell sees religion as just one of the many interchangeable traits that make up a twentieth century person. “An almost absolute business inability and perhaps some hereditary flaw in his character had led him to journalism and being ambitious he hoped one of these days to become dramatic critic on a paper with a decent circulation.” (5) People seem to stumble into jobs pretty much by chance.
Lushington’s friend Da Costa, working in the Venusberg embassy, was the man Lushington was going to visit. “A dark young man with a greenish, horse-shaped face, stood beside him, also watching the sea, his mouth a little open as if at any moment he were going to laugh.” (37)”Da Costa like Lushington was shy. But whereas Lushington’s shyness took the form of creeping about rooms pretending that he was really not there at all, Da Costa’s manifested itself in shouting loud and laughing and upsetting things to counteract this feeling of personal inadequacy.” (5)
Pope, Da Costa’s butler, nearly steals the novel for his eccentricities. “Pope had an unhealthy complexion, strangely discoloured, mineral rather than flesh, and hair so fair that it was nearly white.” (38) “Pope always found difficulty in leaving a room expeditiously. Undisciplined, he gave out vitality in such wrong directions as Da Costa with enormous force.” (67) In a moment of extreme tension, “at the other end of the line Pope gobbled in a kind of ecstasy of fright and refinement, at intervals making a sort of clucking noise as he poured strings of unconnected, ingratiating words into the transmitter.” (136)
Many of the minor characters are also intriguing. Waldemar is a captain in the army and friend of Da Costa: “Waldemar, regarding him as a typical Englishman and as such prepared for the worst, was a little afraid of him. Waldemar himself was a quiet, studious young man whom circumstances rather than taste seemed to have brought to the high calling of arms. He was shy and his tunic was a great deal too tight and whenever Da Costa asked him whether or not he would eat a certain dish he always said ‘Perhaps’ as a polite method of throwing the onus on Da Costa.” (44)
Powell can also depict the nature of children well. Little Panteleimon is a five- year-old: “Little P’s face was large and round and he stood there, leaning, with all his weight on one leg, gazing in front of him with an expression of convinced and dogged cynicism. “ (93) Then Powell goes more deeply as the mother confronts him: “Little P fixed her with his fishy wide eyes and moved away slightly, crossing one leg behind the other and pointing his toe in the First Position. He was an elderly, world-weary child dressed in the travesty of a sailor suit.” (93)
II – Humor
Already we have been getting hints of humor in the way Powell expresses himself. Some of the humor borders on pathetic often with a comic double punch line. Da Costa was going to take a job with a relative but “his relative, as it happened, retired soon after his arrival but this was due to a personal whim and was unconnected with Da Costa’s shortcomings.” (7) “He had never been in love before, except slightly with one of his first cousins, who was already engaged to a man in the Treasury.” (6) “But she was a girl who felt that life should be full of meaning and she broke with her second husband, a film producer, because he adapted one of the minor classics too freely.” (10)
Many of the people are just downright silly. The French minister’s wife: “She came from Rennes and almost all the fun she got out of life was being rude to the German minister whose surname happened to be of some international significance.” (64) Lushington has been having an affair with a German woman:
“’I do not know,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you will remember me when you see your English girl again.’
‘But you are coming back with me to England.’
‘Oh yes. I forgot.’”
Play on words is another device Powell uses effectively:
“’Woman has become her own master.’
‘And very often someone else’s mistress.’”(118)
At an embassy dinner the American minister says:” ‘Isn’t this party great? It takes you back somehow. The pictures, the armour, the old paneling. Even the dresses and the uniforms. Why we might be at the court of Catherine the Great or the Roi Soleil. Don’t you get me, Lushington? See how I mean?’
‘This sandwich takes me back further than the armour.’”(130)
And there are physical moments: “Da Costa, all legs and arms, sitting in an armchair, as if his limbs had been thrown there without arrangement.” (56) “His wife, whose immense proportions seemed as if they might at any moment evade the neo-classic creation she was wearing.” (125) “His overcoat hung on him quite loosely as if it were suspended from a hook somewhere beneath his neck.” (75) “There were two doors at the entrance, one of them so heavy that only very strong people could get into the hotel at all without help and even those who managed to push it open, unassisted by the hall porter, were often swept back into the street at the very moment when they had seemed on the point of gaining admittance.” (35) “
Other moments of humor are more sarcastic, ironic: “Her father, a captain retired from the Marines, who had lost his wife’s money by judicious investments, lived in a bungalow on the south coast with his eight children and this used sometimes to make him appear a discontented man.” (10) “The girls at the next table were not interested in Waldemar either as they and the manager were equally familiar with the rates of army pay.” (47) “The American minister, who with the help of the German leading-lady was energetically lowering his country’s prestige at the far end of the room.” (49) “Baroness Puckler, who said that in the days before the war when anarchists were an adjunct to any public function of any importance, no royalty would have dreamed of taking so much trouble to remain alive.” (87) Even a couple deaths at the end of the novel did not suppress the humor.
III – Style
Anthony Powell’s novel is only 152 pages long with 37 chapters, which averages four pages per chapter; some of those chapters are one paragraph. These techniques blend to make the plot move quickly. Strangely enough, the title Venusberg is never used in the book; we must conjecture that that foreign city is where men and women are searching for love.
He employs vivid participles to good effect: “A group of cavalrymen stood behind him, leaning romantically on their sabers, mopping and mowing at their friends in other parts of the hall and assisting the room’s chiaroscuro with a solid background of red breeches.” (124) He often juxtaposes opposites in one sentence to subtly demonstrate the vagaries of life: “The boat was small. It smelt of cocoanut oil and was to call at Copenhagen on the voyage.” (24) Sometimes he totally omits details, as we do in life: “’To speak of morals,’ said the host, ‘have you heard the latest story about Madame Gomez?’
It was a good one.” (71)
And Powell’s run-on sentences capture life’s awkwardnesses: “Art and letters exhausted, Pope began to roam among the litter of his personal reminiscence, exploring the cramped furtive lanes of memory, winding this way and that through the tinsel by-ways of his past, petting and cosseting his ego, warming it at the glow of innumerable self-congratulatory episodes that had, it seemed, lighted the road.” (74)
But for me metaphors are his most powerful stylistic tool, assisting to convey his humor. Regarding people, “His presence, slowly getting to work like the warming up of an engine.” (41) Lushington gets a job: “But there was a circumstance that gave to the appointment some of the tang of a stale joke, a flavour used-up but at the same time forceful and disturbing like a tune running tiresomely in his head.” (5) “She looked at Lushington under her heavy lashes and he became aware of contact with her. She dropped her eyes suddenly, like pulling down a blind with a snap.” (20) Sometimes the image becomes an abstract artistic one: “The younger one turned and looked at him too and in profile her cheek bones and long, blacked eyelashes made an angular pattern against the varnished walls of the dining room.” (18)
Things and places also come into three-dimensional focus. “This last person carried a heavy instrument as for jacking up a lorry. With this contrivance, which proved to be a survival from the early days of printing, he stamped all the passports which he considered to be in order.” (34) “The food and wine in the restaurant were like the decorations, heavy and pretentious.” (45) “Ortrud and Baroness Puckler were there wearing all their coats and scarves and standing beside a cairn of suitcases.” (33) The start of a day: “Shrill voices that jarred against the thin atmosphere of morning.” (134) The cleaning of a room: “The atmosphere, the fumes of sweat and disinfectant, was midway between an operating theatre and a corner of the monkey house.” (139) A newspaper office: “Lushington went down the stairs which were of stone like those of a prison or lunatic asylum and were, in effect, used to some considerable extent by persons of a criminal tendency or mentally deranged.” (4) “The North Sea, an engrailed tract of sheet iron, heaved a little.” (14) Whether it be metaphor or simile, the image is unique and forceful.
IV – Philosophy
Through his characters Powell has little positive to say about ocean voyages: “The sea was calm and the hard clearness of the night limited the illusion of space and accentuated the claustrophobia of sea-travel. The sea seemed shut in closely by the waves and the bright wastes of stars.” (26) “What’s she like? Well I imagine you know more about her than I do. You were almost alone with her in an open boat for several days. For all the privacy there is on those boats coming out here one might as well be on a raft.” (49)
Embassy life is constricting too: “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 out to some mines 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.” (40) “All around him was the used-up atmosphere of the end of a party.” (132)
Powell has a chance to highlight some American traits: “Lushington shook hands with Cortney who said with a conversational burr as sweet and low as the vox humana of some mighty cinema organ . . .”(43) “They give their best diplomatic posts to business men who need a rest or lawyers who have flown a bit near the wind in their own country. They send publishers to the more important capitals but the people here have to put up with smaller fry.” (41)
The view of policemen is also jaundiced: “There were two gendarmes at the entrance to the block of flats. These, stage policemen out of a knock-about farce, stopped him shaking their heads. They stood in front of the door, grunting and intransigent, making signs that he could not go in, their expressions that of highland cattle.” (137) However, death is feared and respected: “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.” (138)
Anthony Powell opened his novel with a mystical view of the city where ships somehow meld with the houses: “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.” (34) And he concludes: “This was the last outpost of the unreal city and, prodigally dramatic, a soldier was standing on one of the bastions of the central tower leaning on his rifle, humped out by his helmet and pack into a gargoyle against the snowy castellations and pale stars.” (146)
Anthony Powell’ A Dance to the Music of Time considers so many major areas of life: politics, the military, history, business, the arts, etc. All of this is done in a very somber manner which does not detract from its power. The earlier writings were after something else: the comic adventures of a young man. Our author succeeded in this venue as well, joining the ranks of P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and the also young Aldous Huxley.
You can find the book here: https://www.fantasticfiction.com/p/anthony-powell/venusberg.htm
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.