From a View to a Death, which was published in 1933, is another one of Anthony Powell’s pre-war, pre-Dance novels. I’m hoping to read more of his non-Dance novels as the ones I’ve read so far have been enjoyable. In From a View to a Death Powell takes us outside of London to an unnamed town in the country; the characters are typical Powellian characters—artists, misfits, lesser gentry, retired Majors, unmarried young women etc. The main character is a young artist called Arthur Zouch who has been invited to stay at the country house of the Passengers. He has been invited by Mary Passenger who is trying to decide whether she likes him or not and to see how well he fits in with her family. Zouch feels that he is above all this as he sees himself as a Nietzschian Übermensch who does not need to obey the rules that others have to. He also has a beard. This is a bit of a running joke throughout the book as everyone comments on his beard and everyone, except Zouch, thinks it looks silly or strange.
Zouch was a superman. A fair English equivalent of the Teutonic ideal of the Übermensch. No one knew this yet except himself. That was because he had not been one long enough for people to find out. They would learn all in good time; and to their cost.
As with Powell’s other novels we get to meet loads of characters and we eavesdrop on lots of witty dialogue. Powell flits between the characters with ease and we get to discover what they’re thinking as well as what they’re saying and doing. I like this way of dealing with characters where we get to feel that nothing is held back or hidden from us.
Zouch is immediately pressed into appearing in a pageant that is being organised—even a Superman can’t get out of that. To give him something to do during his stay he embarks on painting a portrait of Mary as well as her young, chatty niece, Bianca. Meanwhile Mary’s father, Vernon Passenger, is trying to resolve an ongoing dispute over some land with one of his tenants, Major Fosdick. Major Fosdick is a typical retired Major; he’s full of bluster, he’s used to getting his own way and he loves his guns.
Major Fosdick was cleaning his guns in the drawing-room because it was the most comfortable room in the house. While he did this he brooded. He enjoyed cleaning his guns and he enjoyed brooding so that the afternoon was passing pleasantly enough and its charm was disturbed only by the presence of his wife, who sat opposite him, mending a flannel undergarment and making disjointed conversation about subjects in which he was not interested.
And there is nothing that he finds more relaxing after lunch than slipping in to a black sequin evening dress and wearing a large picture-hat whilst smoking his pipe—hence the book cover.
One of the Major’s sons, Torquil, whom everyone thinks is odd, is besotted with Joanna Brandon. Joanna however does not particularly like Torquil. She lives with her mother, a woman who never leaves the house. When Zouch meets Joanna he decides to make a conquest of her. As always with Powell we get some wonderful dialogue. Here we have a delightfully vague conversation between Mary and Zouch about Torquil.
“Torquil Fosdick is a funny boy, isn’t he?”
“He certainly is.”
“I should think he was—well, at least I mean, you know—at least I should think anyone would think so, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh yes, I should think so. If they took the trouble to think about him, I mean.”
There are many more minor characters in the book such as the Orphans, three buskers that seem to be everywhere; Mrs Brandon’s housekeeper, Mrs Dadds, who likes to talk about her chilblains and a group of hikers headed by Fischbein who ‘had a grey face, full of folds and swellings of loose flesh, like a piece of bad realistic sculpture.’
For me the real fun comes from the characters, the witty descriptive writing and dialogue but Powell doesn’t completely forget the plot and he wraps the book up neatly within a few pages; this may annoy some readers but I quite liked it. I won’t reveal how the novel ends other than to say that Zouch turns out to be less of a Superman than he thought. Everything seems to work in Vernon Passenger’s favour by the end, partly from his own initiative but mostly from luck.
As this was such a fun read I shall continue to read more of Powell’s books; I am in luck as most of them are available from my library; Venusberg will probably be my next one.