Sunday, November 6, 2011

Anthony Powell's Afternoon Men

I feel I have come to a more 'lyrical' view of what Powell himself thought was his most 'lyrical' novel--one which gets to the heart of what’s afoot in the book rather than skips and starts in response to the many distractions that a book so short surprisingly offers. Does the author approve of 'afternoon men' or not? And is he an 'afternoon man?' We know what an afternoon man is, someone (as indicated in the quote from Robert Burton, a seventeenth-century author just, in the early 1930s, beginning to be noticed again in the wake of the new, post-Eliotic interest in that century) who is lazy (but not deliberately so), hedonistic (but not foolishly so), and aimless, although, as Powell himself said of his Third at Oxford, without the reassurance to having worked hard to have an aim. Roughly, it is a synonym for "Bright Young Things." It is one of four of Powell's novels--Agents and Patients, The Military Philosophers, Temporary Kings being the other, about a 'set' of people. (The Kindly Ones does not qualify, as Furies are presumably not 'people'). In all four cases, I would argue, Powell's stance towards that set is observant, not judgmental, neither propagandizing for or against the set, merely registering it as a part of life. Yet part of the book's tacit mission is "generational": the young first novelist recently down from Oxford and living a bohemian life in Shepherd's Market, taking stock of his own generation, as with most accused by its elders of being slack and having thrown out too many of the previous cohorts' absolutes. 

Most times it is fairly clear, when a novel has a title denoting a set of people, whether the author is or is not included in the set. Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans is obvious; Kerouac was a subterranean. So is C. P. Snow's The New Men: Snow was a new man. On the other hand, Dostoyevsky was certainly not one of the possessed (or the devils), although insightful enough to know their psychology. Nor was Balzac one of the Chouans, although there is historical distance involved. Throughout his career, Powell seems to want to avoid the sort of novel that delves into the depths of a single character. But how to create a point of view and also describe a set of people? Dance proffers the ultimate Powellian solution to this, but the experimentation towards this goal begins in Afternoon Men

But it is unclear whether the novel means to celebrate afternoon men, excoriate them, rib them, or something in-between. The novel clearly shows the influence of Hemingway and a generally stripped-down, austere syntax. Whereas John Galsworthy and Hugh Walpole and Somerset Maugham were clearly the next step on from the Victorian novel, as in a different, and less admitted, way were E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Powell's style, though,  is not just a further step, another generation down,  of the sort that can be seen in the work of Snow and of Sir Angus Wilson, who remain in recognizable, continuous touch with Victorian modes. With this novel, there is deliberate severance. The social tableau has been atomized into shards and fragments, and at the end of the book is still not remotely put together. When Powell does re-stitch the fabric in Dance, it has been totally disassembled and reassembled. This is how and why Dance is not just a slightly later Forsyte Saga, and why Jenkins cannot share General Liddament's love of Trollope.

There is no nineteenth-century omniscience in Afternoon Men,  no general assertions about society or life. In a sense, the book is reportage, not opinion or summation, and none of the other prewar novels have quite this quality of reporting on a 'scene.' In a sense, there is more naturalism here than elsewhere in Powell's 1930s oeuvre, although comic and/or metafictive elements, such as Pringle's reappearance after his presumed death, the Wodehousian quality of names like Nosworth, militate against this.

Two longstanding critical questions can now be seen as conclusively settled: the book is not anti-Semitic; just because Verelst is said to be a Jew does not mean the author who created him is anti-Semitic. Indeed, Atwater--not any overarching narrator, but Atwater, the man who did not get the girl, concludes that Verelst deserves Susan, at least to an extent. The only mildly anti-Semitic remark is made by Mr. Nunnery, an older man of a stodgier generation, not particularly thrilled to see his daughter go off with a Jew, and Atwater’s even milder assent to that may just be to get through the conversation with this difficult old chap. In the first printing, 'jew,' along with all other adjectives, was not capitalized in e. e. cummings style, but that does not make it anti-Semitic either. Similarly, when Fotheringham speaks of wanting to find "something that brings me into touch with people who really mattered, authors and so on," this is clearly the final form of the line in the Writer’s Notebook to the effect that "I want to meet Chesterton, Belloc, writers who count"--exempting Powell from the conclusion of having had Roman Catholic tendencies otherwise unevidenced (which some reviewers of Writer's Notebook thought he was actually professing.)  In other words, this phrase was meant to be dialogue (given to a minor character, Fotheringham), not avowed utterance. In general, Afternoon Men is ideologically uncommitted--in a way that Dance is not--and books and ideas do not play a large role in the character's lives, even though several are involved in publishing or the arts. We are far from the elevated, intellectually plugged-in world of Powell's postwar sequence. 

The most important difference between Afternoon Men and Dance, though, is that Dance is a first-person retrospective narrative by someone who has 'gotten the girl', Afternoon Men a limited, third-person account of someone who has not 'gotten the girl.' The book is an intense chronicle of unrequited and futile love from the point of view of a character who experiences little but futility in his life. "And so she was gone, ridiculous, lovely creature, absurdly hopeless and impossible love who was and always had been so far away. Absurdly lovely, hopeless creature who was gone away so that he would never see her again and would only remember her as an absurdly hopeless love." The repetition here captures both clinical distance  (as in the manner of Hemingway and even Gertrude Stein) and melancholy abandonment, as this is just how someone suddenly desolated in love would muse and mourn.  Susan Nunnery is comparable to Barbara Goring in Dance; but as compared to the portrait of Barbara there is far more of a wistfulness, even at times a passion, about how Susan is evoked. For all the book's stoic detachment, and all its complete eschewal of melodrama or self-pity, these emotions are vividly present, and, for all the Cubist or Art Deco style of the characters--surface-oriented, parodic, mordant, well captured by, sixty years apart, both the Misha Black and Susan Macartney-Snape covers--there is real feeling here. Some of this feeling is redolent of the book's immediate precursor, Michael Arlen's The Green Hat, whose finest quality is a delicate, bittersweet lyricism. But Powell's more severe style makes it different here. The lyricism, though, is in sharp contrast to the acrid, bitter tone of Powell's great contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, who in books like the brilliant Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall mounted one of the few twentieth-century satiric efforts to truly merit the Swiftian tag of saeva indignatio. Waugh's fiery, early books, it must be said, are far more laugh-out-loud funny than Powell's reserved ironies, although Afternoon Men does have the hilarious set-piece of Pringle's 'death.' 

Afternoon Men has a great many characters for such a short novel. Scheigan, Verelst, Atwater, Pringle, Dr. Crutch, Nosworth, Lola, Trimble, Susan Nunnery, George Nunnery, Barlow, Wauchop, Spurgeon, Brisket, Naomi Race, not to mention the nameless Welshman and Czech. This is a far broader set of characters than the other prewar novels have, especially since there is no real distinguishing, Atwater and perhaps Pringle and Susan aside, between 'major' and 'minor,' background and foreground. In the breadth of characters, Powell was gesturing to the wide social canvas eventually achieved in Dance, and indeed Powell's comment, in the Journals, that Afternoon Men  (presumably more than the other four prewar novels) was the germ of Dance must take its bearing from this aspect. In general, Afternoon Men seems to have been an important book for Powell, as much so as any of the subsequent 1930s  novels; it was not simply a novice's first effort, but an indicative formulation of Powell's early idiom, as analyzed by Powell's first, highly percipient critic, Geoffrey Uther Ellis (in Twilight on Parnassus). Even in his late Journals, Powell was still thinking and musing about this book written in his mid-twenties.

Here is a photo of my more than slightly foxed original 1970s paperback; I can say I have been reading this book for well over three decades. It is in very much a mass-market format; on the back pages, many other novelists are advertised (including my mother's romance-writing college classmate, Susan Hufford) but of these Anne Tyler is the only one that can be considered at all high-literary, the rest romance or gothic or adventure writers. This shows that the early Powell books were, in the 1970s, thought to have potential to sell well and to please a wide audience in the United States, though I am not sure on what basis (perhaps people who liked Upstairs, Downstairs or The Forsyte Saga on TV--but the bohemian London of Afternoon Men is a far cry, and not only temporally, from the core Edwardian milieu of both of these). I doubt this 1970s reprint of Afternoon Men sold more than moderately well at best. Again we are back to the most salient feature of early Powell--that it is not Galsworthy, and in fact eschews the Galsworthian social canvas even more than Dance did. This is perhaps why some readers of Powell's generation or the subsequent one, such as the late Sir Frank Kermode, preferred the prewar novels, in their austerity and irony, to Dance.


Anonymous said...

When I read it I thought -as someone said of the Dance sequence- it has no spiritual dimension. It is journalistic: very funny in all its scenes and brilliant dialogue but with little explicit didactic aim. None of these characters have inner lives except insofar as they are needed to show their vacuousness. There is nobody to aspire to, save Verelst, the man of action who is very seldom present.

Unknown said...

Just because you say a book is not antisemitic doesn't mean that it isn't antisemitic.