Rather Hopeless

Anthony Powell’s bleak first book is the funniest novel you’ve never read.

Illustration by Cece Bell.

Illustration by Cece Bell

I discovered Anthony Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men, in the nick of time. College was six years behind me, and the romance of pretending to be a writer had begun to pall. I’d managed to complete a single godawful novel, a series of hopelessly inept, derivative short stories, and meanwhile I’d been fired from one crap job after another. I was unemployed when I read Afternoon Men that first time (I’ve since reread it five or six times), and suddenly I saw my way clear to writing another novel—which of course would turn out to be a bad parody of Powell’s apprentice masterpiece, almost as unpublishable as my previous effort. But I like to think it paved the way to my becoming, eventually, a writer of sorts.

Reading Ed Park’s delightful foreword to the new edition of Afternoon Men, long out of print in the United States, I was gratified to learn that he’d discovered the book under similar circumstances: He too was working on his second unpublishable novel (which sounds rather similar to my own, or perhaps that was my third) and was persevering at a job that made scant use of his talents. (I don’t know if he was drinking too much; I certainly was.) Mere coincidence? Hardly. Afternoon Men is a revelation to sophisticated readers of every stripe, but especially to a certain kind of artist manqué on the brink of discovering that life is a more difficult business than he ever had reason to expect. Its young protagonist, William Atwater, has a terrible job at a museum that nonetheless affords him the leisure to recover from his hangovers and bone up on art criticism in the hope of getting a less terrible job. The subject matter is “relatable,” as my students like to say. Better still, though, is what you can learn about the craft of writing from this marvelous book. 

The first thing you should know about Anthony Powell is that his last name rhymes with Lowell: This will stand you in good stead when you press his work on friends, who are likely to have no idea who he is (much less that his name sounds like pole) unless they’re from England, where most literate people know that he’s at least the equal of his two great contemporaries, Evelyn Waugh and Henry Green—both friends of his at Oxford—and that his magnum opus is the 12-volume roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time. Powell began the latter some 20 years after his precocious first novel, and when I got around to reading that later work, I was struck by its relative stateliness: Scenes accrete in terms of fastidious nuance, usually leading to some grotesque anticlimax while the reader’s patience is rewarded with the return of such recurring characters as the tippling Stringham or the striving Widmerpool—the first a little tipsier, a little worse for wear, with every succeeding volume, descending in almost direct proportion to the other’s irrepressible rise. Both, however, come to a bad end, and that’s something Dance has in common with Afternoon Men and the rest of Powell’s oeuvre.

There’s nothing stately about Afternoon Men, which consists almost entirely of vicious little aperçus and an oblique style of dialogue that Powell borrowed (by his own admission) from Hemingway. Indeed, if you’re looking for a funny, nonportentous Hemingway, then the early Powell is your man. He taught me that I was doing dialogue all wrong. People don’t speak their minds or say what they mean—quite the opposite. Everything is subtext, and the subtext ought to be revealing and funny. “When I feel hopeless,” an oafish girl named Lola remarks to Atwater,

“I read Bertrand Russell.”
“My dear.”
“You know, when he talks about mental adventure. Then I feel reinspired.”
“Reinspired to what?”
“Just reinspired.”
“Do you feel hopeless now?”
“Rather hopeless.”

This exchange is not about Bertrand Russell; it’s about the sort of person who’s apt to invoke Russell for one reason or another. In a taxi with Lola, a little later, Atwater begins to feel depressed and worries that Lola will get started on Bertrand Russell again; later still, chatting with a friend, Atwater casts about for a way to describe Lola and mentions that she likes to read Bertrand Russell. “You’ll never get rid of her,” his friend replies.

And what about those aperçus? Taking a cue from Harold Ross, the great founding editor of The New Yorker, I often scribble “Who s/he?” in the margin of my students’ papers, whenever they introduce—or rather fail to introduce—a new character. What does s/he look like? How does s/he act? (“ACTION IS CHARACTER,” F. Scott Fitzgerald emphatically reminded himself.) What, in short, makes her or him tick? I sometimes think I should assign Afternoon Men to each and every one of my students as prerequisite reading; among other things (e.g., funny, oblique dialogue), they would learn to fix a character to the page with wit, economy, and precision. “He was bald but seemed to be bearing up well,” we learn of Sheigan, a drunken publisher, before he’s allowed to speak; also that he has a “blue chin” and carries a bottle of gin. Both in Afternoon Men and A Dance to the Music of Time, these impressions are filtered through a single observing intelligence—Atwater and Nicholas Jenkins, respectively—deeply cynical if outwardly benign, and doubtless a lot like Powell himself (who calmly refused a knighthood, in 1973, because he found it “undesirable for a writer”). Tagging these characters one by one is the most important function of the novel’s mise-en-scène: They form, in aggregate, a terrible world. One needn’t wonder why Atwater’s museum job is distasteful, given that he works with a boy who’s forever sucking on something mysterious and “farouchely clasping and unclasping his hands,” and is pestered by lunatics such as Dr. Crutch, who appears “wearing a mackintosh and a very silly hat.” I love the way we’re left to imagine the silliness of the hat, and as a writer I couldn’t wait to use the word farouche. I could go on: When Atwater meets Lola’s roommate, Gwen Pound, he’s reminded of a friend’s observation “that she looked the sort of boy who might win a scholarship in chemistry.”

It’s a good thing Afternoon Men is so funny because otherwise it might well be one of the bleakest novels in the English language, right up (or down) there with, say, Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade. The parties and bars and summer houses to which Atwater and his friends gravitate are repetitive, bibulous, and dull (to them, not to us), and for that matter almost all human intercourse is, let’s face it, a waste of effort. Toward the end of the book, Atwater reflects that “the only time when he had been alive at all” was during his brief infatuation with Susan Nunnery—a sweet, wistful young woman who seems “superimposed” on the dreary atmosphere of Atwater’s life—but of course love never lasts, love is utterly doomed, and Susan has run away to America with another man. Lest we miss the point of all this, a peripheral character named Fotheringham spells it out for us; it’s the only long speech of the book, and it begins as a defense of “friendship,” no less, before cataloging the various shortcomings of

this mad chaotic armageddon, this frenzied, febrile striving which we, you and I, know life to be; and when we come at last to those grey, eerie and terrible waste lands of hopeless despair, unendurable depression and complete absence of humor that drink and debt and women and too much smoking and not taking enough exercise and all the thousand hopeless, useless, wearying and never to be sufficiently regretted pleasures of our almost worse than futile lives inevitably leads us to

Worse than futile, mind, and Fotheringham goes on like that for another half-page or so (“when love has come to mean the most boring form of lust,” etc.) until, at last, he drunkenly loses the thread. Whereupon Atwater reminds him: “Friendship.”

Author Anthony Powell.  

Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press

But I don’t want to discourage you. Did I mention how funny the book is? Powell even shows us the lighter side of suicide (abortive), when a mediocre painter named Pringle, having caught his mistress in flagrante with another, better painter—both of them guests at Pringle’s summer house—decides to walk into the sea. “He’s got a bad body,” his mistress remarks, observing the naked swimmer from a cliff with Atwater. Unaware of Pringle’s dire intention, the two pause to notice his “pretentious side-stroke” and the way his head resembles “some curious red fruit floating along in the water” before departing to cuckold him a second time. The gag is milked for more than 20 pages. At lunch the friends complain of Pringle’s lateness before noticing his suicide note, left neatly on top of the cold roast beef; the gist is given in quiet paraphrase: “It said that he had been depressed for some months. … And on top of it all what had happened the night before. He thought, therefore, that he would not come back from bathing in the sea that morning.” And how does one react to such a calamity, at mealtime, in the middle of one’s vacation? As usual, I think Powell gets it exactly right:

          Hungry, but thinking it hard to eat while their host’s body was driving down the channel, Atwater said:
          “What shall we do?” 

Finally there’s the lovely clockwork form of the novel. Not for nothing is its final section (of three) titled “Palindrome”: Atwater is back in the same foul-smelling club where the story opened, and the same cast of characters (minus Susan) begins to regather. They are talking, as ever, of their friend Undershaft, whose offstage presence constitutes a motif of escape and illusory gaiety. As we learn at the beginning, and in almost every scene that follows, the jaunty Undershaft—whose name suggests a tunneling convict—has gone to America, where he plays the piano and dallies with an Annamite woman. In the final pages, however, Atwater hears that Undershaft has returned (he saw Susan in New York), “palsied” with drink, and is now dating the Bertrand Russell–reading Lola. Atwater has just missed him, in fact, though perhaps he can catch up with him at yet another party to which the group is about to adjourn. Will Atwater come? “Yes,” he replies, with an all but audible whimper, “I’d like to.”

Afternoon Men was first published in 1931, and its jolly malaise is very much a product of its place and time—England between the wars, as the glamorous ethos of the “Bright Young Things” had begun to curdle. Little reminders of the Great War are scattered throughout, amid a pervasive sense of doom, the logical end to which all this dreadful boredom is leading. Powell was attending the same parties as his friend Waugh, whose own account of faltering bohemia, Vile Bodies, was published the year before. That book ends in apocalypse—on “the biggest battlefield in the history of the world,” where three survivors are about to share a bottle of Champagne—which, in Powell’s more subtle work, is merely suggested. 

Afternoon Men, by Anthony Powell. University of Chicago Press.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the 
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.