Thursday, December 20, 2018

Anthony Powell

I can't claim that I recognized Anthony Powell's name when I encountered it in the introduction to one of the novels of Nancy Mitford. But curious to learn more, I read Powell's Afternoon Men, which presents a humorous depiction of aristocratic life between the wars. 

But whereas Mitford's novels tended to focus on the landed gentry, Powell's book focuses on the city. His characters are educated and wealthy, but meandering. There's a wayward quality to them: not because of the war, but because of their affluence and drinking. Afternoon Men is very different from The Sun Also Rises, but there was something similar in terms of the amount of drinking, and the centrality of alcohol. 

Speaking of Hemingway: I won't claim to know enough about Powell to argue that he was -- or was not -- influenced by the American great, but there's certainly something of Hemingway in Afternoon Men: the prose, especially, read in that simplified fashion that Hemingway made famous. And this would make sense: Afternoon Men was published about five years after The Sun Also Rises.

All of that said: I think the more interesting connection here is between Powell and Evelyn Waugh. At least two of Waugh's novels -- Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies -- were published before Afternoon Men. Their influence is palpable: Powell's tone, scope, and rhythms are all similar to those of Waugh. 

Which is not to say that Afternoon Men is derivative -- because it's not. There's a fresh novel quality to the book. And this I certainly enjoyed. But in the end, the book's not perfect: there's funny dialogue, and just enough plot to expose the characters for their absurdity. I'd wished for more, however: more frank discussion of sexuality, more exploration of the darkness beneath the humor, and just a bit more rhetorical flourish. 

Evidently Powell did a lot more writing after Afternoon Men. So my next task -- when I can get to it -- will be to see how his prose evolved over time.   

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