We all have authors we know about whose books we plan to read “some day.” That was the case for me with the English author Anthony Powell, who lived from 1905 to 2000, and is best known for his 12-volume series of novels entitled A Dance to the Music of Time.
This series remains a treat in store for me, because I took the Powell plunge by diving into his 1939 book What’s Become of Waring. It is a brilliant satire of the London world of book publishing, and it is very, very funny.
Our narrator is an editor for the old firm of Judkins and Judkins. “It was a small business with two partners, Hugh and Bernard Judkins, who were partners.” Hugh, the younger brother, joined the firm later, and “threw himself heart and soul into a profession which provided boundless scope for the intellectual fussing that he had found so congenial as a schoolmaster. . . .
“From the day that Hugh entered the office, Bernard, never over-addicted to optimism, became increasingly embittered. He dated from the period when a reasonable standard of honesty and good manners were the best that any writer could hope for from his publisher – and even these were hard enough to obtain. . . . ” |
I should interject here that Powell worked in the 1930s in the world of publishing, and his weary knowledge shines through every line.
“Bernard” our narrator tells us, in a book where every paragraph begs to be quoted “began to loathe books, so that it seemed that he had only entered the trade to take his revenge on them.” His life “became one long crusade against the printed word. Every work that appeared under the Judkins & Judkins colophon did so in the teeth of Bernard’s bitter opposition.”
As you can imagine, this makes life hard for our narrator as he tries to find books for his firm to publish. His major, immediate problem is to find an acceptable author to write an authorized biography of the recently deceased travel writer, T.T. Waring, the big star on the Judkins list. The search does not go well. When finally, miraculously, a man named Hudson (a good chap, an officer in the Territorial Army with no writing experience) is accepted by both brothers, his research goes badly. It produces proof that the shadowy Waring plagiarized all of his most successful titles from hidden travel tales published in French and never translated.
This news does not go down well with Judkins and Judkins. But Hugh is philosophical about it because at this point he is so madly in love with a young journalist named Roberta Payne that he has signed up a collection of her newspaper articles, although he knows that the book will sell, in his editor’s words “no more than a dozen copies.”
And so it goes, in a book full of characters like the man whose face “had the open, appealing frankness of expression of those who live by their wits.” When another man, a general, leaves a house wearing an opera hat and a black overcoat, “He looked like an immensely distinguished conjuror.”
Powell’s women are equally memorable, such as Beryl, Hudson’s fiancé: “Like so many girls whose lot had been to lead dull lives, her manner implied that all men were her slaves.” Or Beryl’s sister Winefred “all teeth and badly cut brown hair,” whose approach was “threatening” and who had a “goatish” laugh. When she went to a military ball “she said at the top of her lungs that she thought middle-aged men looked silly in short red coats and tight blue trousers.”
Powell reminds me of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, but with a little less acid in the mix. (Waugh was, famously, such a nasty man in real life that he once gloatingly sat and ate the first banana his war-starved children had seen, as they sat drooling.) I can see why the critic V.S. Pritchett said, “Anthony Powell is our foremost comic writer. ” And from reading What’s Become of Waring, I can see why William Trevor, no less, wrote, “In his ability to capture and control the imagination of his readers through his characters, Mr. Powell is the most subtle writer now performing in English.” I’m glad that I finally caught up with him. I hope that you will, too.