More explorations of relationships and vanity than plot-driven narratives, Powell’s early works reveal the stirrings of the unequaled style, ear for dialogue, and eye for irony that would reach their caustic peak in his epic, A Dance to the Music of Time.
In Afternoon Men, the earliest and perhaps most acid of Powell’s novels, we meet the museum clerk William Atwater, a young man stymied in both his professional and romantic endeavors. Immersed in Atwater’s coterie of acquaintances—a similarly unsatisfied cast of rootless, cocktail-swilling London sophisticates—we learn of the conflict between his humdrum work life and louche social scene, of his unrequited love, and, during a trip to the country, of the absurd contrivances of proper manners.
A satire that verges on nihilism and a story touched with sexism and equal doses self-loathing and self-medication, AfternoonMen has a grim edge to it. But its dialogue sparks and its scenes grip, and for aficionados of Powell, this first installment in his literary canon will be a welcome window onto the mind of a great artist learning his craft.
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By Anthony Powell
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 Ed Park
All rights reserved.
'WHEN do you take it?' said Atwater.
Pringle said: 'You're supposed to take it after every meal, but I only take it after breakfast and dinner. I find that enough.'
They stayed downstairs where the bar was. Upstairs there was a band, but dancing had not begun to any extent yet because it was still early in the evening. The room downstairs was low with a bar running all along one side of it and some tables and a few divans. The windows in the wall opposite the bar were all open, but they looked out on to a well, so that the room was really quite stuffy and there was a smell of ammonia. Several people they knew were sitting at tables or up at the bar, but they found a place to themselves in the corner of the room and sat down. Pringle said:
'If you pay for this round and give me three-and-nine-pence we shall be all square.'
Atwater, thinking about the brandy they had drunk at dinner, did not say anything. The quality of the brandy had been poor. But he gave Pringle half a crown, a shilling and three pennies. They sat there without speaking, until the waiter had finished taking the order of a large party at the other end of the room and came over to them. Pringle said:
'I shall stick to brandy.'
'Doubles?' said the waiter.
'Doubles,' said Atwater.
Pringle said: 'As far as I am concerned, I should like never to see a woman again. I should like to retire to the country and paint. In fact, I'm negotiating about a house in the country at the moment.'
Atwater did not answer. He read a newspaper that someone had left on the table. He read the comic strip and later the column headed 'Titled Woman in Motor Tragedy.' He was a weedy-looking young man with straw-coloured hair and rather long legs, who had failed twice for the Foreign Office. He sometimes wore tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles to correct a slight squint, and through influence he had recently got a job in a museum. His father was a retired civil servant who lived in Essex, where he and his wife kept a chicken farm.
'How long has this place been open?' said Pringle.
'Not long. Everybody comes here.'
They had met in Paris three years before, when Pringle had been trying to get a significance into his drawings of the short poses at Colarossi's, and Atwater was with a family at Saint-Cloud, where it was supposed he would eventually learn to speak French. It had been one night at the Coupole Bar. From the first they had felt a certain mutual antipathy, but, by contrast and comparison, fellow-countrymen had seemed more nearly tolerable that evening than might actually be the case in other surroundings. But for some reason the acquaintance had persisted, and quite often they went out together when Pringle was in London, long after the earlier reason for putting up with each other's vagaries had been forgotten. Pringle came of a go-ahead family. His father, a business man from Ulster, had bought a Cézanne in 1911. That had been the beginning. Then he had divorced his wife. Later he developed religious mania and jumped off a suspension bridge. But, although he had ill-treated his children during the religious period, he left them all some money, and Pringle, though he did not much care for parting with it, had a comfortable income. His early life had made him painfully inhibited and he was a naturally bad painter, but a dreadful veneer of slickness picked up in Paris made people buy his work occasionally. Pringle was twenty-eight, and his red hair, for which he had been well bullied when younger, gave him more than a look of the traditional Judas. He sat there wearing a French workman's blue shirt and patent leather shoes. At times he twitched nervously and fidgeted with the things on the table.
'The trouble about women,' he said, 'is that you can't trust them.' It was only a fortnight since Olga had left for good and, although it was an immense saving, the thought was still an irritating one.
'Say when, sir,' said the waiter.
'When,' said Pringle. 'If I went to the country now and did some painting I could probably get another small show in the spring.'
Atwater offered him his cigarette-case but did not look up from the story of the accident. It was a knight's wife in a Bentley and on the Brighton road.
'What do you think?'
Brooding over dinner's cognac, Atwater said:
'I should do that.'
'Have you heard anything of Undershaft?' said Pringle, changing the subject because he had in effect nothing to add to the plans for the projected reorganisation of his life, and Atwater, having heard these at dinner, was evidently unprepared to take an active part at that moment in their precise rediscussion.
'He's in New York.'
'Playing the piano?'
'Playing the piano.'
Atwater put down the paper and looked round the room. He saw that Harriet Twining was sitting at the bar beside a man with a fat back to his neck. She was in a coat and skirt and looked very fair and dazzling. She had fair hair and a darkish skin, so that men often went quite crazy when they saw her, and offered to marry her almost at once. But when it came to the point she never married anyone, because either she got tired of the man after she had been about with him for a time or else the man said he could not stand the pace, or that he simply had no more money to spend. She waved to Atwater, who knew her slightly, and came over to where they were sitting. Without looking at Pringle she said:
'Are you coming to the party to-night?'
Atwater said: 'I can't. I'm a dying man. Whose party is it?'
'You must come.'
'I haven't been asked.'
'Come with us. We'll take you.'
'Who are we?'
'Me and my fat friend.'
'Who is he, Harriet?'
'He's called Scheigan.'
'He's an American publisher.'
'Why is he here?'
'He's going to do my book when it's finished.'
'Are you taking him to the party?'
'Yes, he's keen on parties. He says all the Irish are like that. Mad for enjoyment.'
She went back to her stool at the bar. Atwater watched her. She walked with her shoulders slightly hunched and swayed a little for effect but not very much. The man with the fat back to his neck sat at the bar as if he were going to begin to climb over it at any moment, using his stool to take off from. He was smoking a cigar. Atwater said:
'Don't you know her?'
'They all look alike to me,' said Pringle. 'Has Undershaft written to you at all?'
'He's living with an Annamite woman.'
'In New York?'
'He says she's pretty good.'
'I can't say I like your club much,' said Pringle. 'What with the heat and one thing and another.'
'It is hot.'
'And then the people.'
'Well, they're the usual people. You can't expect them to look different just because the club hasn't been open long.'
'I don't like the place.'
'Take me somewhere else, then.'
'No,' said Pringle. 'We'll have one more drink here.'
'Let's go somewhere else.'
'No. Hector has just come in.'
'I insist on you taking me somewhere else,' said Atwater. But Hector Barlow came across the room towards them. He was with another man.
'How are you both?' he said. He was a painter, stockily built with light eyes and hair that grew low down on his forehead in a widow's peak of black stubble. He was sucking a pipe and wore thick sack-coloured clothes. Atwater had met him in Paris with Pringle, who had been at the Slade with Barlow. Atwater said:
'Come and sit with us.'
'You don't mind my brother, do you?' said Barlow. 'He's in the navy. He's on leave and goes back tomorrow.'
'Yes, I go back tomorrow,' said the brother. He was quite like Barlow, only cleaner and better-looking and he had brushed his hair, which was fair instead of being black. He was in a blue suit cut rather like a uniform.
'What will you drink?' said Atwater. 'Waiter, bring a membership form. Mr. Pringle is going to join the club.'
'No, no,' said Pringle. 'Nothing of the sort.'
'You must. I can't pay for you all the evening.'
'Yes, you'd better join, Raymond,' said Barlow. In social and intellectual matters Pringle showed a tortured deference to his opinions, although he always said that he considered Barlow an undisciplined painter. Pringle had the best of it in the end, because he used to lend Barlow money and ask for it back at awkward times, but Barlow in periods of affluence publicly contradicted everything that Pringle said and forced him to do things he disliked. His greatest triumph had been to make Pringle buy an expensive saloon car, but while he had been away in Paris one Christmas Pringle had sold it and resumed the use of the debased vehicle to which he was accustomed, and on his return waning finances had undermined Barlow's influence. Pringle saw him through the bad period following, but it was a great thorn in Barlow's side that Pringle had never bought one of his pictures. This was a card that all Barlow's assertiveness had never forced him to play. Barlow sat down on the chair next to Atwater. Atwater said:
'What's your life been like?'
'Hard,' said Barlow, 'hard. I had to get up early this morning.'
'To paint the ambassadress?'
'Why should I join this club?' said Pringle.
Atwater said: 'It will be cheaper for you in the long run.' He said to Barlow's brother: 'You get your gin cheap in the navy, don't you?'
'I'm taking him to some sort of party to-night,' said Barlow. 'Are you going? It's his last night on shore and all that.'
'Why should I become a member?' said Pringle.
'You'd much better,' said Barlow. 'We all want you to.'
'I suppose I shall be forced to. William has had a letter from Undershaft. He's in New York, living with an Annamite and playing the piano.'
'Is he making any money?'
'Doing very well, he says.'
Harriet Twining came over from the bar again. She said:
'I have to have an occasional rest from my friend.'
'Bring him over,' said Atwater.
'Who's the new beauty?' she said, only just loud enough for the others to hear.
'Hector's brother. He's in the navy.'
'Something of the sort.'
'Bring him to the party.'
Atwater said: 'I'm not coming to the party. I'm going home to die.'
'Give me a shilling,' she said.
'I haven't got a shilling.'
'You must have.'
Atwater found a shilling for her. She put it in a gambling machine by the bar, pulled the lever hard, and banged the glass front. It spun a row of fruit and some money fell into the slot. She took it out and put it into her bag. Atwater said:
'Give me my shilling.'
She gave him one of the coins.
'This is a franc.'
'Oh hell,' she said, 'I suppose they'll all turn out to be francs.'
She found a shilling for him and went back to her seat at the bar. The man with a fat back to his neck slipped his arm through hers. Barlow's brother said:
'That was a jolly pretty girl you were talking to.'
'I'll introduce you to her later on.'
'Oh, I say, will you?'
'Don't lend her any money.'
'You mustn't debauch my brother,' said Barlow. 'He's got to go back to sea tomorrow. His leave is up.'
'What's her name?' said the brother.
'She's a dangerous woman,' said Barlow. 'You'd much better steer clear of her.'
His brother laughed uneasily and sweated at the back of his neck. The room was getting crowded and too hot. People came and looked about for somewhere to sit and then went away again. Some of those who could not get seats did not go away but stood talking or gaping at each other. The ammonia smell was persistent but cigarette smoke made it less noticeable as time went on. Walter Brisket came in. He was looking a little petulant. He had an enquiring small face and he stood with one hand on his hip and said:
'Shall I see you at the party to-night?'
'Who's the blond?'
'Hector's brother. He's in the navy.'
'My dear, is he?'
'He says so.'
'Is he coming to the party to-night?'
'We can't prevent him.'
'I hear Undershaft is in Boston, living with a woman of colour.'
'He's in New York. I had a letter from him.'
'I shall be so acid when I see him.'
'He and his women.'
Pringle said: 'The smell in this club is awful.'
'It is bad.'
'It always smells like this,' said Barlow. 'I asked the secretary about it once. He said it was done deliberately. I don't remember why.'
Pringle said: 'Now I have become a member I shall write and complain of the club smell.'
'You get your drink cheap in the navy, don't you?' said Brisket to Barlow's brother. Pringle leant across towards Barlow.
'How's Sophy?' he said.
'Not so bad.'
'Are you taking her to the party tonight?'
Barlow looked at Pringle sluggishly, estimating whether he was being drawn or whether Pringle was merely being tactless.
'She doesn't enjoy parties,' he said.
His brother said: 'I say, how do those gambling machines work?'
'I'll show you,' said Brisket. 'But isn't it time to go to the party yet?' He pulled back the sleeve of the brother's coat, so that he could see his wrist-watch. Harriet Twining came over from the bar. She said:
'It will soon be time to go to the party. May we come and sit with you? You must meet my American friend. His Christian name is Marquis. Isn't it sweet?'
She smiled fascinatingly at Barlow's brother.
'Bring your fat man over,' said Barlow. 'He can sit on my knee. Or Raymond can give him his seat and sit on the floor.'
Harriet beckoned to the man with a fat back to his neck, who began to climb down from his stool and come towards them.
'This is Mr. Scheigan,' she said.
She introduced them. They found a chair for Mr. Scheigan somehow. He was bald but seemed to be bearing up well. He was carrying a bottle of gin, out of which someone had already drunk a lot, and he put his feet down very heavily when he walked. He said:
'I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Atwater. I hope you will excuse this bottle. It's pure habit.'
'Forget about it. We'll get some clean glasses in a minute or two.'
Mr. Scheigan sat down suddenly and they put a chair underneath him just in time. He must have been about fifty and he was breathing a bit heavily. He had a blue chin. He said:
'We're all humans here anyway.'
Harriet said: 'Is it true that Undershaft is in America, living with a High Yaller?'
Brisket said: 'That's one thing. The other is that Susan Nunnery has left Gilbert.'
'She's so lovely.'
'She's sweet,' said Harriet. 'I adore her. Don't you think she's sweet, William?'
Atwater said: 'I've never met her.'
'You must have seen her.'
'No, I've never seen her.'
'You must have.'
'I say,' said Barlow's brother. 'Do any of you ever go to the Forty-Three?'
'Aw,' said Mr. Scheigan. 'Don't gossip. Let's enjoy ourselves. Let's have a good time.'
'Tell him about your museum,' said Harriet. 'He likes culture. We might be going to the party soon.'
Atwater said: 'How do you like England, Mr. Scheigan?'
Mr. Scheigan said: 'Hell, I haven't thrown a regular party since I've been over. But I've got a little apartment in St. James's and all you folks must come and drink a bottle of wine with me there one of these days.'
Pringle, who had been examining Harriet at close range and had only heard the last few words, said:
'Is it a bottle party?'
'You'd better bring a bottle of something,' said Barlow, 'in case there isn't anything to drink at all.'
'Will that fair girl be at the party?' said his brother to Atwater in a whisper. Barlow said:
'I should bring a bottle of gin if I were you. You could get it here.'
'Half a bottle should be plenty,' said Pringle. 'Though I don't see why I should bring anything at all as I haven't been asked to the party.'
Mr. Scheigan said: 'You British never enjoy yourselves. I want to meet a few regular boys. I want to have a good time.'
'There will be some at the party,' said Atwater. 'You ache with enjoyment there. I quite wish I were coming.'
'I think it's time to start,' said Harriet.
'No. We shall be much too early.'
'Let's have one more round here before we go. It's safer. There may be nothing to drink there at all.'
Mr. Scheigan poured out the last few drops of his bottle into Harriet's glass. He then dropped the bottle on the floor. It made a lot of noise, but it did not break and rolled under a table a little way off, where it remained, as no one took the trouble to fetch it, although Mr. Scheigan repeatedly asked that someone should do so and even threatened to get up himself. Mr. Scheigan leant across the table towards Harriet. He said:
'I'll say you're pretty sweet.'
'Mind,' she said. 'Don't upset the table.'
Excerpted from Afternoon Men by Anthony Powell. Copyright © 2015 Ed Park. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsForeword
Part I. Montage
Part II. Perihelion
Part III. Palindrome