Afternoon Men was Anthony Powell’s first novel and was published in 1931 when Powell was only 26 years old. I found this copy in a secondhand bookshop when I was reading his twelve-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s a fun book and will certainly be of interest to anyone that has read Dance as the style and structure of the book is so similar to his later work. The book has little plot and instead concentrates on characters and the dialogue between the many characters, who are all from the same jaded semi-aristocratic, intellectual milieu as in Dance.
The main character is William Atwater who has an unsatisfying job at a museum. The book opens with Atwater in a bar discussing with his friend, Pringle, Pringle’s current medication regime. We are then introduced to several other characters who enter the bar and are known to Atwater. As is typical with Powell we get to know the characters from dialogue and short little character descriptions. Here, for example, is his description of Atwater early on in the book.
He was a weedy-looking young man with straw-coloured hair and rather long legs, who had failed twice for the Foreign Office. He sometimes wore tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles to correct a slight squint, and through influence he had recently got a job in a museum. His father was a retired civil servant who lived in Essex, where he and his wife kept a chicken farm.
The group from the bar decide to go to a party where we are introduced to even more characters. Powell does a great job of showing a party in full swing with random conversations with random people, the constant flux of partygoers and the general chaos involved with people getting drunk, some passing out in the bathroom, drinks getting spilt and so on. Atwater meets a girl, called Lola (‘She had the look of a gnome or prematurely vicious child.’) whom he unsuccessfully tries to get to go home with him, that is until he is obviously entranced with the appearance of the beautiful Susan Nunnery, then Lola is eager to get Atwater away from the party.
Although most of the humour is in the dialogue and the character descriptions Powell occasionally gives us a bit of slapstick. Mr. Scheigan is an American publisher who was with Atwater at the party; he was drunk at the bar and then fell asleep on the floor at the party. When they decide to leave they try to get Scheigan home in a taxi.
They all went downstairs and lent a hand in getting Mr. Scheigan into his taxi. He got out once, but they put him back in again, and as the taxi drove off they saw him leaning through the window talking to the driver. The taxi door came open as it turned the corner at the end of the street, but as long as the vehicle remained in sight Mr. Scheigan had still not fallen out. Barlow said:
“He seemed quite unused to getting into taxis.”
The first section also contains a chapter where we see Atwater at work in the museum. He’s visited by an annoying member of the public called Dr. Crutch who tries to get private access to some of the exhibits, presumably exhibits of a sexual nature. There’s also an amusing paragraph where Atwater lists all the things he could, and should, do but instead he ‘sat and thought about existence and its difficulties.’
We get to eavesdrop on more lunches, parties and chance meetings; the characters develop more as we find out more background information and gossip. As Atwater pursues Susan, Lola pursues Atwater. Powell describes Atwater’s seduction of Lola as ‘mechanical’ and can only lead to an anti-climax but he appears to be making progress with Susan.
Susan poured herself out some more wine. She said:
“You’re nice. You must come and see me some time. I live miles away from anywhere with my father. You’ll like him.”
“Tell me about him.”
“He’s a curious little man with a walrus moustache.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a failure.”
“Where does he fail?”
“Oh, he doesn’t any longer,” she said. “He’s a retired failure, you see. You must meet him.”
“I’d like to.”
Atwater takes Susan to see some boxing but she warns him that she won’t fall in love with him, and she doesn’t, instead she plans to go away from London for an unspecified period of time.
In the final third of the book Atwater visits his friend, Pringle, in the country with some of his other friends. Just when we think the novel is not going to go anywhere Powell threatens to give us a bit of drama, only to pull back at the final moment—it works really well and is quite amusing. And there’s some more great dialogue, such as this:
The barman came to the other side of the counter.
“Time please,” he said.
Harriet said: “You mustn’t hurry a lady drinking a pint of beer. The effects might be fatal.”
As a side note I was watching the BBC documentary on John Betjeman, which was originally broadcast in 2014, called Return to Betjemanland when the presenter, A.N. Wilson, quoted an Anthony ‘Pole’ making a comment about Betjeman. From the context I guess he meant Powell and just assumed that it sounded a bit odd because of the plum in Wilson’s mouth. But it turns out that that is how Powell’s name should be pronounced: ‘Pole’, not ‘Pow-all’ – see this article by Anthony Powell’s granddaughter on the family name. Was everyone else aware of the correct pronunciation of his name?
A new biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling, who wrote the Handbook to A Dance to the Music of Time, is coming out in October—see here.