The Fisher King: A Novel

The Fisher King: A Novel

by Anthony Powell


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Aboard the Alecto, prolific romance author Valentine Beals ruminates on the ship's most seemingly incongruous couple: a graceful, ethereal, virginal dancer named Barberina Rookwood and her lover, Saul Henchman, a crippled, emasculated war hero and photographer. Fancifully, Beals imagines Henchman to be the reembodiment of one of the most mysterious Arthurian legends, the Fisher King—the maimed and impotent ruler of a barren country of whom Perceval failed to ask the right questions. A myth with many permutations—and a blurred borderland between them—the Fisher King legend dovetails the various explanations Powell offers from his competing narrators as to why a talented young dancer would forsake her art to care for a feeble older man.

Ostensibly a novel about gossip on a cruise ship, The Fisher King is much more: a highly stylized narrative infused with Greek mythology, legend, and satire.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226677002
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2004
Series: Phoenix Fiction
Edition description: 1
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Anthony Powell (1905-2000) has received several literary prizes in Britain and the United States, among them the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the W. H. Smith Annual Literary Award, and the T. S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing. His twelve-volume masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time is available from the University of Chicago Press.

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The Fisher King

A Novel

By Anthony Powell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1986 Anthony Powell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-67700-2


Exile is the wound of kingship. When someone, recently returned from a transatlantic business trip, spoke of seeing a man on crutches taking photographs in the back streets of Oregon City, the rumour at once spread that Saul Henchman had settled in America. There could be a prima facie case. Nothing positive had been heard of Henchman's movements since withdrawal from London two or three years before. He liked extracting pungent overplus from superficially unpromising essences. Incertitude, seclusion, concealment, were at once suggested by mere association of his name with so obscure a myth as that of the Fisher King. As against those things, Henchman was not the only lame man to own a camera. No assistant of either sex was mentioned as the adjunct in the circumstances to be expected. Nothing was said of the crippled photographer's unusual cast of countenance. In short, this might or might not have been Henchman. At best it was an even chance. Were the rumour correct, he was now a king over the water.

The Fisher King label seems to date from the second night at sea of one of the Alecto 's summer cruises round the British Isles; the evening the Captain was accustomed to invite a selection of passengers to dine at his table. On that particular cruise the Captain's guests, about eighteen or twenty in number, built upon a hard core of fairly nondescript veterans from previous Alecto cruises, had included Henchman himself (accompanied as ever at that period by Barberina Rookwood), Valentine Beals and his wife Louise, Sir Dixon and Lady Tiptoft with their daughter Dr Lorna Tiptoft, Professor Willard S. Kopf and Mrs Elaine Kopf.

No one else in the cast of Valentine Beals's later narration was present, though Gary Lamont, had he arrived on board earlier, would, as a Fleet Street notability, undoubtedly have taken up a place at the Captain's table that evening. The last two named guests were representative of several similarly academic American couples among the Alecto 's passengers. Later events indicate that it must have been Professor Kopf, who, halfway through dinner, spoke learnedly about a prehistoric Stone Circle of great antiquity in Orkney, one of the sites to be visited on the cruise.

By that time, wind blowing hard over the North Sea, resonant chatter pervading the dining-saloon, audibility was poor. All the same, Beals felt pretty sure that the responding voice – deep, ironic, sententious, preserving a purposeful touch of West Country speech – must belong to Henchman. The speaker, whether Henchman or not (he was sitting on the same side as Beals, therefore out of sight), commented that a no less congenial feature of this ancient Ring of Standing Stones lay in the fact that lusty trout (slightly mannered phrase) could be caught in the two great lochs nearby, adding that more than once in the past he had himself planned to fish up there, an intention never yet fulfilled.

That statement, together with other known information about Henchman, was instantly registered by Beals – who possessed an innate taste for pin-pointing archetypes – as confirming the Fisher King hypothesis. The neatness of the analogue was overpowering. Beals was later given opportunity amply to embroider this random fantasy of his, indeed to become one of the few comparatively authoritative sources for hitherto unventilated aspects of Henchman's life.

Beals's belief that he was a man of action was demonstrated plainly enough by the heroes (every one of them Beals), who fought their way through his, by then, twenty or thirty historical thrillers. He fended off a certain amount of not always particularly goodnatured banter as to this propagation of himself as hero, by answering that few people contrived to live in a dreamworld that was also highly profitable financially speaking. Whether a man of action or not, Beals always managed to create the impression of a person of consequence. His heavy aquiline features, dark complexion, fleshy neck, opulent shirts and ties, went some way towards suggesting a Quattrocento magnate.

In the context of Henchman, Beals might be envisaged standing or kneeling in the corner of an Old Master in the role of donor (not, as occasionally depicted, on a reduced physical scale, Beals being by far the bulkier of the two), where, making a reverential gesture, possibly holding an inscribed scroll, he points to Henchman as the paramount figure: mysterious, dominating, tormented, displaying a wounded body, holding in one hand a camera proclaiming his profession, in the other the fishing tackle emblematic of his regal counterpart.

Beals would afterwards recall – even to the extent of tedium for listeners not over-curious as to the workings of human nature and the emotion of love – the drama of the Alecto 's cruise. He might not have demurred at such pictorial treatment of its subject-matter. He always saw to it that his own book-jackets were vigorously illustrative of whatever was inside. Possibly he would have insisted that Barberina Rookwood also took a prominent place.

Alternatively, Beals might have judged Barberina Rookwood to deserve a canvas to herself, a picture belonging to an entirely different school from that celebrating Henchman. Barberina Rookwood's Old Master would have been one of those allegorical works that cause argument among art-historians and iconographists, in which such abstractions as Love, Fame, Chastity, Sacrifice, Dissimulation, Betrayal, Jealousy – of course Death – are corporeally symbolized. Which Immances were most appropriately attached to the figures portrayed might very reasonably become a matter for pedantic controversy.


The overture, as it might be termed, struck up when Beals was leaning over the side the afternoon the Alecto sailed, watching fellow passengers come aboard. Trains convenient for joining the cruise arrived at different times (if a car was not brought to be garaged at the dock, collected on the way home), so that individual parties turned up early or late according to taste.

Beals, contemplating the figures approaching the gangway, sometimes in groups, sometimes singly, had Henchman and Barberina Rookwood in mind, together with a general curiosity about some of the other names on the passenger-list; a competition with himself to guess them correctly. He was in any case keeping out of the cabin as a matter of prudence, while his wife unpacked. He had never seen Henchman, nor his secretary assistant, though familiar with photographs of both.

Identity was at once established when this couple made their way across the quay. Henchman, a camera swinging right and left from the neck like a pendulum, moved with almost startling velocity on aluminium shoulder-crutches. Barberina Rookwood, keeping up effortlessly, seemed to glide over the ground. Beals, who held strong opinions about clothes, decided the tweeds in which Henchman's small shrunken body was enclosed were well cut, but of an insistently bold design. They over-emphasized a taste for catching the eye, and were in any case too smart for a holiday cruise of this kind. Their pattern alone disposed of any doubt, had that arisen, as to whether or not Henchman liked to draw attention to himself. Beals considered something quieter would have been preferable as an ensemble for a photographer recognized as so distinguished in that field.

Apart from suit or crutches, Henchman's face alone guaranteed that wherever he went his presence would be remarked. The deep lines and scars which pitted its surface recorded uncompromisingly a chronicle of reiterated carvings-up at one time or another undertaken by army surgeons, no doubt civilian medical men too. Even so, allowing for the appalling mess shell splinters had made of his features, Henchman would have passed for less than a few years off sixty, not much older than Beals himself.

The girl, Barberina Rookwood, in her early twenties, had a small head, slanting eyes, long legs. At first sight Beals thought her beauty greatly surpassed photographs of her. Her face, in such violent contrast with Henchman's, was of almost absurdly delicate cast. It stopped just short of absurdity (could such a term qualify beauty) for several reasons. One of these was the formality exacted by training on a dancer's physiognomy, a discipline by which grace, elegance, tradition, can be imposed upon even irregular or harsh features. She moved as if in time with Henchman's crutch-impelled acceleration.

All this, if he turned out lucky enough to catch their arrival, was more or less what Beals had expected to see. He was glad to have brought that off in so well coordinated a manner, rather than later to have come on them aboard. While he watched, he saw something quite unexpected take place, even at the time regarded by him as a scoop.

Just before Henchman and Barberina Rookwood reached the gangway, a man appeared from out of the cluster of Customs sheds and offices beyond the quay. Evidently recognizing the backs of the couple ahead, this person, smallish, with a keen leathery look, began to run. He caught them up, and gave an exuberant greeting. Beals recognized this new arrival at once from caricatures at the top of articles and 'profiles', the weasel-like outline of nose and chin, look of perpetual awareness, restless enquiry. It was undoubtedly Gary Lamont.

Beals and his wife were travelling with old friends, the Middlecotes, both of whom would be greatly interested in Lamont putting in an appearance in this manner. Middlecote, who approached all matters in terms of publicity, liked to gauge with exactitude the value of any individual in that field. In Middlecote's eyes, Henchman and Barberina Rookwood, unless otherwise defined, would belong to a run-of-the-mill gossip-column region, where they rated fairly high; Lamont, liable to be mentioned in such latitudes too, was a person of far greater note, as a rising newspaper tycoon. Beals remembered Middlecote, who had done business with Lamont, speaking admiringly of him. 'When the Lebyatkin Vodka ads were appearing in Gary's paper he uttered sage words about them. Gary is a man who understands advertizing perspectives. Really knows something about the theory of the thing.'

Beals was surprised to have missed Lamont's name in the passenger-list. He was surprised, too, to find him on a cruise of this sort at all. Flying visits to New York were more in Lamont's line, between life-and-death struggles going on round about him, take-overs, sackings, NATSOPA, possibly even divorcing wives, changing mistresses, though latterly Beals had the impression that Lamont had been solidly married for some little time.

So much did Beals feel convinced that Lamont would not stoop to a holiday cruise round the British Isles that this appearance on the quay seemed accountable only as seeing friends off on the Alecto. That seemed almost equally unlikely, though for a second or two the surprise also shown by Henchman and Barberina Rookwood at finding Lamont beside them to some extent helped to bear out the seeing-off possibility. So, too, did Lamont's shabby lounge suit. He looked as if he had come straight from the office.

Now in his early forties, Lamont retained in middle life a boyish facial expression, which caused an habitual look of cunning to seem amusing, larky, open natured, rather than menacing, as some of his business opponents had found it to be. Beals later put the paradox of Lamont's appearance succinctly. 'It's the air of an enormously sharp Victorian office-boy about to ask for a rise. He knows his increase in salary is assured, because he has found out something unusually gruesome about the private life of the boss, and the boss suspects that. I can't explain why Lamont should look Victorian. No one is more up to date. Perhaps a rags-to-riches approach to life makes him appear comfortably oldfashioned.'

Beals, plausibly enough, went on to suggest that Lamont regarded himself as a kind of latterday Gatsby, a Gatsby retired from a life of open illegality, while retaining theMidas touch in commercial dealings; buccaneering ventures tempered in his own eyes with a few high ideals, one of them probably the image of the Perfect Woman. Lamont was known to read novels, even liked meeting novelists – rather another matter – though never allowing such literary contacts to inhibit instincts that were intrinsically tough and practical.

Watching the group on the quay, Beals tried to recall more clearly the episode connecting Lamont with Henchman and Barberina Rookwood. He knew this had importance, while failing to bring the precise details into focus. That a comparatively close connection existed was suggested by her putting an arm round Lamont's neck, and kissing him quite effusively, though some women did that to almost all men. While the embrace was taking place Henchman's face had displayed no visible displeasure at the fervour of the act. He simply watched sardonically, continuing to do so after the greeting was over. Lamont appeared now to be explaining why he was coming on the cruise.

At that moment three further arrivals emerged from the background of sheds, and walked briskly across the asphalt towards the gangway. Having noted the names on the passenger-list, Beals at once put them down as Sir Dixon and Lady Tiptoft, with their daughter, Dr Lorna Tiptoft. Sir Dixon Tiptoft was a retired civil servant of whom Middlecote had been known to speak. The Tiptofts were plainly occupied on a family row. Henchman, noticing their approach, took the opportunity of disengaging Barberina Rookwood from Lamont, with a view to reaching the gangway ahead of this trio.

Sir Dixon, stockily built, had an expression of immutable bad temper on his face. Like Lamont, he was wearing what might well have been an office suit, though one less deliberately baggy at the knees, and designed to express Lamont's open contempt for sartorial dandyism. Sir Dixon probably shared the attitude of mind. He carried a camera tripod. The complaints he was uttering in a rasping voice were in connection with some ineptitude committed in regard to the luggage.

Lady Tiptoft, the taller of the two, of skeletal thinness, was returning her husband's attack with vehement counter-allegations, evidently directed towards undermining the whole premise of his charges. She spoke with fanatical conviction of the justice of her case.

Their daughter, Dr Lorna Tiptoft, also some inches taller than her father, his same swarthy complexion, must have decided to put a stop to this controversy out of hand. Her manner was by no means placatory. Its sharpness at least as aggressive as her parents'. 'For goodness sake stop grousing. You're both in the wrong. In any case we don't want to begin a holiday with a silly to-do about luggage. That doesn't matter to anyone now. We can sort out all that when we've seen our cabins.'

These words did little or nothing to quell her mother's indignation. Her father, having established his point, remained silent, without abandoning a look of rage. Beals formed an unfavourable impression of the three of them. At the same time the firmness of the daughter's personality impressed him, her utter disregard for compromise. She might even turn out to be one of those potential models for an historical character in a future book: the She-Wolf of France or Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, though no doubt Lorna Tiptoft lacked their looks. Such reflections were dispelled by a sudden action on the part of Henchman.

Resting the weight of his body on the crutches, he must have grasped all at once the intensity of Tiptoft family disharmony. Raising the camera almost imperceptibly, he took a photograph of their fierce quarrelling. The movement was so rapid as to be scarcely observable even at close quarters, certainly not from several yards away. Immediately after doing this Henchman began to move towards the gangway. Its ascent required a degree of attention in placing the crutches on the slope. Barberina Rookwood leant a hand. Lamont did not follow at once. He allowed the still unreconciled Tiptofts to precede him up the gangway. Then he boarded the ship at his own pace.


Excerpted from The Fisher King by Anthony Powell. Copyright © 1986 Anthony Powell. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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