Saturday, October 1, 2011

Anthony Powell's From A View to A Death

  My old 1970s paperback finally having worn out, I purchased from Joe Trenn's Bookshed, in Benson, Vermont, a 1960s Heinemann hardcover of Anthony Powell’s From A View to a Death, and have just completed rereading it. Having done so, I see that I missed a lot in my account of the novel in Understanding Anthony Powell. (I think I generally missed a lot about the prewar books there). I stand by my primary point that Powell delights in the fall (literal and figurative) of the opportunist Zouch, but does not simply endorse the resiliency of the old order in the form of a triumphant Vernon Passenger. But what I somehow did not see, although it is clearly stated at the beginning of the book, was that Passenger, like Zouch, is also seen as an Ubermensch. (Interestingly, Nietzsche is never credited with the term, never mentioned in the book—it is just seen as a generally German concept, of which more later). When Passenger catches Major Fosdick in his cross-dressing routine, he does not exact undue revenge on him, and feels some disappointment that he had not lived up to his Ubermensch potential. Does his aristocratic reserve and noblesse oblige prevent him from moving into the kill? Is his grousing to his wife at the end merely a deflective gesture, a refined way of underplaying his success, as a gentleman should? Or is Zouch the true Ubermensch, whose fall we rejoice in as a foiled aspirant to power, whereas Passenger keeps his love of dominance and mastery in more civilized channels? Powell, always fascinated by power and those avid in its pursuit yet keeping a reserved distance from it, lets us judge: but there is no ready moralist, and so simple recouping of an established given.
The ambiguity here is striking; My concern in UAP (somewhat expedited by issues present in the culture in the early 2000s, happily less present in the early 2010s) was to point out that Powell did not want a simple restoration of the Old Regime. He did not want to refight the old battles of the past (seventeenth century England now exists as a pageant where the roles of king, rebel, and courtesan are virtually interchangeable). But, on the other hand modishness comes in for a good deal of rebuke in the book. Characters are roasted for reading John Maynard Keynes and J. B. Priestley, both writers of the Left whom Powell seems to view with scorn. In addition, Powell seems to be sarcastic towards any sort of reconciliation with Germany; as witnessed by Mrs. Fosdick wanting to take in a German boy as an au pair. This of course was often considered the less “Conservative" position in the 1930s. As pointed out in UAP, there is some ambiguity about attitudes towards Chamberlain and Munich in The Kindly Ones, so it is interesting to see this hint of not being satisfied with a “don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans” attitude.
Zouch is a fairly conventional portrait painter but he does not show in the Royal Academy because, for his generation, that his not the pathway to power. Zouch is no rebel per se. When Passenger suspects him of being a Communist, the narrative comments that Zouch urgently depended on the capitalist system, to sell, his paintings. Indeed, his desire is to play the role of proud scourge to capitalism who nonetheless profits from it; by seeing vaguely rebellious, he can play the system whole seeing to thumb his nose at it. This kind of inverse attraction also seems to operate with Joanna Brandon and Mary Passenger; as it is stated that Zouch has generally not seen himself as attractive to women, having only one rather dowdy long-term girlfriend who is no great catch, it must be this juxtaposition—of the fusty privilege of Passenger Court with the go-getting Zouch—that makes him so effective in this regard in this particular tactical situation. (I always pronounced Zouch to rhyme with Pouch, but at the 2003 Powell conference in Oxford, Patric Dickinson pronounced it to rhyme with louche, something that brings out the seamy appeal of his character all the more).
      But things get more complicated than this, Zouch, like all the protagonists of the prewar novels, is in some way a Powell manqué. He is a young, aspiring artist, going to country houses where his entrée is because of his art—much like, mutatis mutandis, the young Powell himself in his associations with the landed gentry and above. Powell himself said that Zouch’s misadventures on Creditor were based on his own on a horse during a rural chase—of course happily without the fatal results. Powell, of course, was actually a great artist, and his aspirations were ultimately artistic rather than social. But there is a kinship, if even by inversion. It has often been said that the I-narrator of What’s Become of Waring foreshadows the I-narrator of Dance. But, turned backward, the I-narrator also shows how Atwater, Lushington, Zouch, and Blore-Smith are all potential Is, or would be if turned around, having, as Zouch eventually does, their beards taken off (a feature obviously indicated to assure the reader Zouch is not Powell). In Zouch, Powell is writing about just what he is not. But in a writer of genius, writing about what he is not becomes an inevitably rich and complicated gesture.
       Gender and ethnicity are also complicated categories in the book. In UAP, I was at pains not to overtly mention modern critical theories or concerns, because that often seems preposterous with a writer who has not yet been properly read in introductory terms across the whole of his oeuvre (considering the earlier critical books had not ha the chance to look at the Memoirs and Journals). With this now done—not just in UAP but also in Barber’s biography, Christine Berberich’s book on the English gentleman, and in the many fine articles in both the Anthony Powell Society newsletter and the Society’s journal, Secret Harmonies, by such hands as Colin Donald, Jeff Manley, and Peter Kislinger—one can look at issues that would have been thought disproportionate and incongruous before. The cross-dressing of Major Fosdick is obviously meant to be funny, but Powell also saw it was a very key part of the book, being delighted when, in the 1990s, Susan Macartney-Snape’s design for the paperback edition feature the transvestite Fosdick rather than a man on a horse. Fosdick’s cross-dressing is seen as insanity by the society but the narrative itself is more compassionate: when caught in the sequined dress by Passenger and folding it up for what he knows will be the last time, he feels as if a part of himself had ended.   
Major Fosdick in a way is having to live within the constraints of a false self, having to impersonate a hearty rural squire whereas the sequined dress represents aspects of himself that this role cannot accommodate. Similarly, for all Powell satirizes any attempt at high culture—people who read Melville in the same tranche of books as Edgar Wallace, people who think Axel Munthe is highbrow literature—and recognizes how it can be used by opportunists to cozen landed gentry out of their funds (and their daughters), there is a tacit critique of the narrowness of men like Passenger here. When Passenger encounters Fischbein and his wife Hetty, Zouch tells them that they are hikers. “Hikaz’,” says Passenger, as if in an oriental language. Not only does Passenger not understand that the rural scene is being more festooned with urban nature-lovers, but he articulates his bafflement in a sound that sounds foreign.  Powell spelled his astonished pronunciation of the word very like the Arabian region of Hejaz, much in the headlines at the time as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was being formed out of the Arab states that had coalesced in the revolt against Ottoman rule during the First World War. Interestingly, this Semitic reference is paired with the entrance of Fischbein—a character with an obviously Jewish name. As with his portrayal of the Jew, Verelst, in Afternoon Men, Powell is deliberately foiling stereotypes of Jewishness. Some would see any representation of a Jew by a non-Jew in this era as somehow anti-Semitic, but here it is Zouch who exhibits anti-Semitic tendencies, being ashamed of Fischbein both because Fischbein knows him in his pre-aspiring-to-country-gentlemenhood life and because Fischbein’s ethnicity and status as a journalist are not the sort of associates he wants his new friends to see. Yet Fischbein is one of the servers at the end, offering commentary on the slain Zouch, much as the Palliser does on Lizzie Eustace at the end of The Eustace Diamonds, with as much an air of survival-authority as passenger has. The landed squire and the Jew remain on the canvas after the social-climbing opportunist has faded.
       As long as well are discussing ethnic issues, what Major Fosdick reads during the sequined-dress interludes is also apposite—Through the Western Highlands With Rod and Gun. Scottishness is on Powell’s mind here, as he was shortly to write Caledonia. Again, he is writing about what he is not; of English and Welsh descent, Powell sees Scotland as a gently teasable ‘other'. The incongruity of the hyper-macho reading and the sequined dress hits the reader first; but the writer is, in complex ways, giving us his likes and dislikes, his identities and avoidances: putting them on the canvas.
     Speaking of canvases, the women in this book—objects of Zouch’s portraiture—are some of the most attractive female characters in early Powell. For all the bad judgment both Joanna Brandon and Mary Passenger show in being interested in Zouch, both ladies are presented very positively. Mary is universally seen, by many neutral observers, as the best in the Passenger family. Joanna is game and lively and is accorded the books one happy ending, in her engagement to Jasper Fosdick. This marriage makes clear, --despite the Major’s commitment to a rest cure and the breaking of Torquil Fosdick’s relationship with Betty Passenger,--that the Fosdick family are not being punished by the narrative of the crime of simply being slightly less well off and/or prestigious as the passengers. Though we do not admire Zouch’s pursuit of the two ladies, his two-timing of Joanna, and his gravitating towards Mary simply because her family has more money and prestige, we understand what the women see in Zouch: an escape from the stultification of rural life, an expression of individuality, a chance to live a more creative and inspired life than their mothers. Powell’s ability to make us admire these female characters even as we despise the man who unaccountably interests them is one of his most subtle and winning touches in what, for all its satire and all the shock of Zouch's death, is so often a very lyrical and moving novel.
     The youngest female character in the book should not be scanted. Betty Passenger’s daughter Bianca—the product of her ill-fated marriage with an Italian aristocrat—provides an air of impish irreverence throughout the book. Powell rarely depicts children, but in Bianca he engagingly depicts a precocious yet sometimes irritating child whose truth-telling is sometimes tinged with malice, as when she tells Zouch that, of all her family, only Mary likes him. She has both the insouciance and menace, though in a more minor key, of the young Pamela Flitton depicted in A Buyer’s Market, who similarly is the first instance in that narrative of generation definably younger than that of the novel’s point of view. The final action of the novel—Bianca’s defacing of Zouch’s portrait of Mary with a moustache—is a pleasingly farcical and deflationary ending to an often farcical and deflationary book. But not only, in its mixture of gender signifiers, is it reminiscent of Fosdick’s cross-dressing, but it also defaces a portrait that represents the book’s most admirable aspirations. Zouch, in reality had little real regard for Mary other than as a target of opportunity, but how Mary saw herself in Zouch's vision of her was something laudable and, for her, empowering, and her niece’s description of the portrait indicates that, whatever happens in the future, her family will not provide the succor and encouragement she needs
       All this in a short pithy novel with lots of dialogue! So many missed chances, chance catastrophes, rogue animalities, calculating rogues. There is so much more--the linear inevitability of the title, taken from John Woodcock Graves '1820 Cumberland Hunting Song (do ye ken John Peel?), the open question as to whether Passenger actually planned Zouch's accident with Creditor, the fact that this is Powell's sole novel to deal primarily with country life. Powell’s prewar fiction is deceptively slight, easily able to fake out the reader with its slightness, as I confess it semi-faked me out when I wrote my book on Powell. For more on my reconsideration of non-Dance Powell, you will have to come to my lecture on March 17, 2012, at St James’ Piccadilly in London, sponsored by the Anthony Powell Society, starting at 1:45 in the afternoon. 


kcm said...

Interesting. Thanks, Nick. Another for the collection of essays?

Nicholas Birns said...

Yeah eventually I want to do one on all 5 prewar books. Also I have a new angle on Fisher King I will speak about in March. Wheel pretty much is good as is in UAP I think although I'll speak a bit about it in March as well .