Agents and Patients

by Anthony Powell
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762

Agents and Patients is a farcical tale about the unscrupulous ways in which two sophisticated men of the world fleece a young innocent of his money. The rogues in question are Oliver Chipchase, an art critic, journalist, and amateur psychoanalyst, and his friend Peter Maltravers, who dabbles in the writing of film scripts. Chipchase is looking for a patient so that he can experiment in new methods of psychoanalysis. Maltravers is planning to make an unusual film which would document human behavior in the “candid camera” manner: He wants to assemble a group of people, preferably intellectuals, in a situation which is likely to produce interesting behavior, and film whatever develops. He needs financial backing, however, since the venture has no commercial value.

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When the two of them discover young Blore-Smith, a shy, awkward, and inexperienced Oxford graduate who is studying law in London, they exploit him without mercy. Blore-Smith is very easy to exploit; he is pleased to enter a world which offers him what he thinks is lacking in his life: excitement and “meeting people who count and doing important business.” He agrees to finance Maltravers’ film and is quickly convinced that he could benefit from psychiatric treatment by Chipchase. Predictably, he gets what he wants but finds that it is not to his liking. His initiation begins when he meets the odd assembly of people who make up Maltravers’ and Chipchase’s social world: Mrs. Mendoza, known as Mendie, a beautiful and distinguished woman who owns a flower shop in a fashionable part of London; Commander Venables, a retired naval officer who is courting Mendie; and Maltravers’ attractive wife, Sarah. Blore-Smith distinguishes himself in this company only by his awkwardness.

Chipchase decides to take him to Paris to expand his horizons and loosen his inhibitions. Blore-Smith meets more of Chipchase’s eccentric acquaintances at a dinner party, but he drinks too much and allows himself to be taken to a high-class brothel, where he is seduced by a French girl called Yoyo. When he awakes in the morning, he discovers that he has lost more than his virginity; his wallet, containing a thousand francs, is also gone. He then discovers, to his dismay, that Chipchase has employed an attractive young woman named Caroline to act as his assistant—at Blore-Smith’s expense. Blore-Smith is bewildered at what he has got himself into, but after a brief interval in London, he recovers his optimism and convinces himself that he has been through a valuable learning experience. In a foolish burst of self-confidence, he makes a ludicrous and unsuccessful attempt to seduce Sarah, after which he allows himself to be taken to Berlin, where he and Chipchase meet again with Maltravers, who has found a temporary job at a film studio.

In Berlin, they go through a further round of nightclubs and bizarre acquaintances. By chance, Blore-Smith encounters Mendie once more and with uncharacteristic boldness persuades her to return to England with him. Back in England, he finds that coping with a spoiled woman such as Mendie is not the bed of roses he imagined it to be. Initially charmed by his naivete, she quickly tires of him, and poor Blore-Smith can do nothing right.

In the meantime, Maltravers has arranged to shoot the film at the house of his friend Schlumbermayer, near London. The oddest collection of characters has been assembled, and the cameras are whirring. The climax is spectacular. Venables, upset by Mendie’s behavior, arrives bringing gifts, only to find her flirting with the Frenchman Gaston de la Tour d’Espagne. The scene threatens to erupt into violence, but before Gaston and Venables can settle their argument, their attention is diverted by the arrival of a private airplane carrying the art dealer Reggie Frott, who is negotiating the sale of the Frenchman’s valuable collection. Gaston immediately departs by plane, taking Mendie with him, in spite of the Commander’s attempts to intervene. Blore-Smith, now completely disillusioned with the whole business, returns to London.

When Maltravers and Chipchase call on Blore-Smith a few days later, he indignantly accuses them of trying to swindle him. Not in the least disconcerted, they justify their conduct; they had, after all, given him travel, business, and adventure—was not that what he had wanted? They depart, leaving him with more bills to pay. The novel ends with Maltravers, Chipchase, and their friends playing cards and planning a trip to America. Maltravers opens the game in a moment of unconscious self-revelation, extracting two knaves from his cards and tossing them across the table.

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