Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Anthony Powell's What's Become of Waring

In mid-March I had a whirlwind visit to London to address a special meting of the Anthony Powell Society, held at the Conference Room, St James Piccadilly where I worshipped the next day. (Enjoyed it, but still have not found my perfect London church after trying at least seven parishes). I also had the special treat of taking a long train (from London Paddington to Westbury in Wiltshire) and taxi trip (driver, the amiable J. S. Grey) out to the Chantry, near Frome, Somerset, where Anthony Powell lived for the last forty-eight years of his life, and being warmly hosted by his son John, who with his older brother Tristram is now the custodian of his father's legacy, and who showed me all manner of Powell papers and artifacts, as well as giving me At Lady Molly's in German, which I somewhat surprisingly am able to read with facility. (Funniest line: “Der Verlobte war Widmerpool.”)

The focus of my talk was Powell's work aside from A Dance to the Music of Time, and we particularly discussed Powell's five short, comic pre-war novels. Of these, What's become of Waring (1939) has always seemed the most difficult to place, partially because as many critics---most recently and cogently Michael Henle in his 2003 Balliol talk--have pointed out, certain of its traits--the first person narration the greater sense of intellectuality--seem to resemble Dance more than the other four 1930s novels. The narrator’s taste for Stendhal, on whom he moots writing a treatise, Stendhal, Or Some Thoughts on Violence, seems more in the manner of a Nick Jenkins than the "Jenkins manqués" who have populated the earlier books: Zouch, Lushington, Atwater, Blore-Smith. Moreover, several characters appear who seem to have direct inks to character in  Dance: Hugh Judkins, the narrators boss at the publishing firm for which he works , Judkins & Judkins (Which Judkins do you prefer? Judkins, emphatically) .is, like Daniel Tokenhouse in Dance, modelled partially on Thomas Balston, Powell's boss at Duckworth in the 1930s. (Perhaps unconfidently, this novel was the only one of the 1930s books not published by Duckworth, a firm that Powell had left the year before) The Manasses in chapter 4 appear to be linked with Rosie Manasch in Dance as Manasses and Manasch are both forms of Manasseh, the older brother of Ephraim in the Bible. (In other words a Jewish name is obviously meant; my late friend the poet Samuel Menashe would want me to observe that his surname had this etymology as well). The séance scene is premonitory of that in The Acceptance World. Yet in form and execution the book is very much in the métier of its compeers and Powell himself said, in Messengers of Day, that he felt his style was getting it a rut and that it would have to change, the impact of war accelerating perhaps but not fundamentally altering the inevitable process.

I feel the character of "Tiger' Hudson--bluff, verbal but not intellectual, likable--is in an way of the ancestor of the kinds of people Jenkins befriends in Dance--Jenkins befriends people who share some of his traits but not all of them. Also, Hudson's breakup with Roberta Payne only to get together with Beryl Pimley is the reverse of what Zouch does in From A View with Joanna Braddon and Mary Passenger and this is a point on his behalf. Hudson is one of the factors that, to my mind, make the book so sunny. This heralds one of the principle pleasures of Dance: Jenkins's multitude of diverse friends and his talent for friendship. 

Though Powell says that whenever he reread the book he felt the unease of the last ominous months before war, I have a completely different reaction; the book seems sunny, summery. It is less sinister than Agents and Patients or From A View to a Death; the greatest villainy is literary fraud. The book has the shimmering, comic lightness of some of Shakespeare’s breezier comedies, where an underlying melancholy gives backbone to some diverting plot-strands and intriguing scenes.

T. T, Waring's fraudulence--the fact that this acclaimed, mysterious young travel-writer is not who he seems (I am not giving away the plot; though I do in Understanding Anthony Powell)--is surely some sort of comment on some innate fraudulence either in the publishing industry the writers of AP's own generation, or both. (Stephen Holden, who alas was ill during my visit, was to serve as my interlocutor on these issues; I hope to resume this conversation hopefully in a London pub meet). Waring's portrait of a writer of Powell’s own age group, and the compromises that writer has made ot achieve success, seem undoubtedly to be some sort of early mid-life self-assessment on Powell's part. The famous lines at the end, to the effect that everyone in the book wants power, tacitly exempts the narrator, or at least implies that he wants a different sort of power; the power of a writer who, like Powell--as I reflected as my taxi from the Chantry drove me back to Westbury--had both subtlety and integrity.

Believe it or not, this is not my first copy of What's Become of Waring--that alas was lost many years ago-but it has clearly served its years, as musty and foxed as any book languishing on the inventory shelves of Judkins & Judkins. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Impromptu Haiku

Inspired by the Berenice Abbott photos on the 7th floor of the New School's A building, I wrote an impromptu haiku:

Blanched modernist dreams
plangently out of synch with
dead gleaming present