Posted: Dec 16 1995 5:47PM
TITLE: Venusberg

AUTHOR: Anthony Powell


I don`t really intend to make this a reading diary, but since I have happened to recommend in this space works by or about two of my three favorite non-SF authors, it seemed appropriate to treat a work by the third. Anthony Powell is a British writer, born 1905 to a very upper middle-class, or somewhat lower upper-class, family (the nuances of British class divisions are sometimes a little hard to decipher for me). I suppose as Powell`s wife is the daughter of an Earl, and Powell himself attended Eton and Oxford, his background is more upper-class than not, a milieu certainly reflected in his novels. His most famous work is the 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), which is purely and simply one of the towering achievements of English letters. It treats the decline of English upper-class society between the two wars, and during and following the Second World War. It is nominally social comedy, and at times very funny indeed, but there is a distinct thread of regret mixed with realization that the society involved needed to change, and that most of the "decline" was a result of weaknesses inherent in the people involved.

Prior to the second world war, Powell published 5 novels, of which Venusberg is the second. These early novels are in some sense rehearsals for the themes and situations of Dance, but they are completely independent. They don`t seem dated to me at all, but they are difficult to find. I got Venusberg from my local library`s interlibrary loan program, and the edition I read, published in the States in 1953 or so, is a curious omnibus of Venusberg and another early Powell novel, Agents and Patients (1936).

This novel is the story of one Lushington, an English journalist who is sent by his paper to visit an unnamed Baltic republic, obviously modelled on one or more of the three, then-independent, Baltic states. He encounters a variety of quite unusual characters: American and British diplomats, emigre Russians, locals, expatriate Britons, and so on. He falls in love (or as much in love as he seems capable of) with an Austrian woman, the wife of a local Professor, but naturally fate intervenes, and Lushington returns home eventually, alone.

As with all of Powell`s novels, the plot is the least of the points of interest. The novel is composed of short chapters, describing, in very humorous terms, the characters and the unusual situations into which they stumble. Powell is notorious for the economical but striking descriptions of his characters, and this talent of his is evident even in this early novel, though it is much developed in Dance. The characters in this book are generally likable (not always true of Powell`s characters), but they seem lost. They seem unable to commit themselves either to a career, or to other people. In this book, the young Powell is satirically observing these characters, of whose milieu he was a member. In his later novels, with the experience of life and a long war intervening, his purpose is less satirical, more ironical, and more understanding.

Obviously, I heartily recommend A Dance to the Music of Time, although it is quite a project (it took me 15 months to read, reading a trilogy at a time, then taking a few months off.) The early Powell novels, such as Venusberg, are enjoyable and worthwhile, but relatively minor, probably best tackled if you determine that Powell is a congenial writer for you.

Previous Review: Kingsley Amis, A Biography
or return to Reviews