Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Nothing much seems to happen in this comic novel of semibohemian London social life in the 1920’s; rather than a novel of action, it is a novel of talk. The book is a novelized comedy of manners which focuses on the “bright young people” of the London Soho district and often seems more appropriate to drawing-room stage comedy than to the novel form. The talk is not very stimulating but rather flat and tedious chitchat of bored young people who are bright but brittle and filled with self-conscious ennui. The action, what there is of it, focuses primarily on parties and the exchange of various sexual partners, although sex has no real vitality. Anthony Powell’s satiric purpose seems clear from his title, taken from a passage in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which refers to a “company of giddyheads, afternoon men.”
The social comedy aspect of the novel can be seen in its dependence on several dramatic staged scenes, the most developed being the opening party, which begins the action, and the trip to the painter Raymond Pringle’s beach cottage, which climaxes it (or more appropriately, anticlimaxes it). Minor staged scenes in between focus on William Atwater, the protagonist and on Susan Nunnery, whom Atwater desires, at a boxing match or Atwater at his museum job. The novel does not flow like an seamless narrative but rather creates an effect of being indifferently stitched together with little or no connections between the various scenes—a technique which Powell, by calling the first section of the novel “Montage,” relates to a cinematic device of linking scenes together without obvious interlinking transitions. The title of the second section of the novel, “Perihelion,” refers to a term of astronomy which designates that point when a planet is closest to the sun. Since this section deals primarily with Atwater’s attempted relationship with Susan, it suggests that Susan is indeed his “sun.” The title of the final section, “Palindrome,” is a literary term which refers to a language game in which a line, word, or verse reads the same backward or forward. Indeed, the novel ends with Atwater and Pringle preparing for another party, just like...
(The entire section is 904 words.)
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