Afternoon Men – Anthony Powell
Humour is such a personal thing that I generally run a mile from a book described by some critic or other as the funniest thing you will ever read. But at least the tag, the funniest book you have never read, has a hint of mystery and intrigue about it. I am a fan of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series and am slowly working my way through some of his other works. Afternoon Men, published in 1931, was his first novel.
Probably like much of Powell’s work, it is like Marmite – you will either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground. In some ways it is much ado about nothing as very little of note happens as the subject matter is the aimless socialising of a group of vacuous promiscuous, privileged bohemians who are trying to make their way in the world of art, literature and journalism. This is classic Powell territory as are the plethora of characters who drift in and out of the book and the grand set pieces such as the drunken parties held in London, Mrs Race’s party which features a particularly dreadful batch of Balkan liqueur, a visit to a boxing match and a country house party.
Another Powell trait is that the narrative is seen through the eyes of a central character, William Atwater, who is a cynical and somewhat jaundiced commentator on the events going around him. The book is split into three parts – Montage, Perihelion and Palindrome – and there is a certain circularity that we come to expect of Powell’s later works in that at the end of the book the same group of friends, with one exception, meet in the same dreary club and make plans to attend yet another party without any degree of enthusiasm.
There are moments of comedy, particularly around the abortive suicide attempt of Raymond Pringle, a struggling painter, who had caught his friend, a better painter, in flagrante delicto with his mistress. Rather like Reggie Perrin he walks into the sea, leaving his clothes on the beach. His actions are observed by Atwell and Pringle’s mistress but they merely comment on his poor physique and, when he gets into trouble, his “pretentious side stoke” and how his head resembles “some curious red fruit floating along in the water.” Inevitably, Pringle is late for lunch, the guests find his suicide note and, then, in a moment of pure comic genius, Powell writes, “hungry, but thinking it hard to eat while their host’s body was driving down the channel, Atwater said: what shall we do?”
Much of the book is taken up with dialogue, most of it inconsequential, but then most of our own dialogue is, somewhat oblique and full of knowing comments. It reminded me of Hemingway but without his portentousness. The longest speech begins ostensibly as a defence of friendship but then broadens out to a condemnation of the lives they are leading; “all the thousand hopeless, useless, wearying and never to be sufficiently regretted pleasures of our almost worse than futile lives inevitably lead us to.” In any other writer’s hands, the book could have become a bleak and wearying affair but Powell’s lightness of touch makes it an enjoyable read.
For those of sensitive dispositions there are moments of anti-semitism and male chauvinism but this was written at the start of the 30s, so I guess we have to expect it. The book reminded me of a gentler, archer, more knowing version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. They both moved in the same circles, after all. An interesting book that can be read in an afternoon, if you can be bothered.