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April 20, 2005

Dawn Powell: A Time To Be Born III

This reading journal has been interrupted by a succession of active days on which, if I looked at A Time To Be Born at all, it was out and about or late at night. I polished off the book in two sittings, yesterday and this morning, but, again, thanks to those busy days, I really didn't have the energy to think about writing. Because I'm terrible about taking notes when I read, I can't even offer a sampling of choice plums from the text. I hope that I've written enough anyway to make you think about reading the novel.

The second half of A Time To Be Born is a record of Amanda Keeler's downfall. Having snagged Julian Evans and flown off on his media empire to fame and fortune, Amanda feels a fatal itch for emotional excitement. (It would be terribly wrong to call this a search for love. Amanda is a profound narcissist.) Giving in to the itch is the mainspring of the plot, because it presently brings Ken and Vicky together, while heaping complications on Amanda's schedule.

As the nation moves closer toward war, charity belles like Amanda go out of fashion and are replaced by women in uniform. Amanda flourished in the twilight of isolationism, but didn't have the sense to see that real war would make her redundant. Powell doesn't cover this very extensively, because her primary interest is not the transitory nature of celebrity, and she wants to demonstrate that Amanda wrecks her own life.

Alongside Amanda's downfall, Powell amuses us with the deepening of feelings between Vicky and Ken. the amusement lies in Vicky's belief, almost to the end, that Ken is too much in love with Amanda ever to turn his affection to her. Powell's handling of this particular course of love is somewhat unusual. It begins with Vicky's calling Ken to tell him that she's moving out of Amanda's studio - a step that causes Amanda to break with her in a tumultuous outburst at an Evans dinner party - and into her own little apartment on 13th Street. The next thing you know, she's in bed with him at his flat. His reappearances are all vaguely incoherent - he's usually drunk. Eventually, Vicky decides that she's going to fight for him, but her resolve is shaken to its foundations when Amanda turns to Vicky for help with an abortion, and pleads, afterward for a visit from Ken. It is all very end-of-Traviata and all very fake, because even before Ken arrives (and he only very reluctantly agrees to come), Amanda has learned of a prospective date with the great writer, Andrew Callingham, the only man whom she acknowledges as her literary superior. When Ken arrives, Vicky is gratified to see that he doesn't even look to see if Amanda is in the room. But the narrative dispenses with open avowals of love until the very last page - even though by that point Vicky and Ken are already married. The "happy ending" carries a fine sting:

Ken kissed her.

"You're the only one for me, darling. There couldn't ever be any Amanda in my life, now that I know about you. Never, never, again."

Vicky stroked his hair.

"Thank you for that, darling," she said gratefully.

But she was not at all sure whether he was speaking the truth or what he hoped was the truth.

For that matter, neither was Ken.

This is really only a reality check: for the moment, Ken and Vicky plan to be as happy as they can be together, and that's really all anyone can ask. Begrudging the reader the glowing satisfaction of having the newlyweds enter the parallel universe of improbable romance, however, is one of Powell's many faintly rebarbative habits.

This finale is preceded by a jovial scene in which Rockman Elroy, the wily uncle, makes up his mind to marry Vicky, because she's the ideal listener. Terrified, she has always listened to his abstruse descriptions of "scientific" problems with a prettily expectant smile - one that assured him that she was never going to say anything in reply. He arrives at Vicky's apartment to find Ethel Carey cleaning it out. The vignette is the droll cap of a story that begins in Chapter X. Vicky has been invited to dinner at the Elroys'. Impatient with being presented to one and all as the friend of Amanda's Keeler Evans, Vicky tells Nancy that she and Amanda are friends no more, and in the telling of Amanda's outburst about Vicky's leaving the studio, the true nature of her relationship with the great woman tumbles out, and the Elroys are dismayed to discover that they've been entertaining a charity case of low background. Then, at the dinner table, Mrs Elroy makes it clear that her contempt for Hitler is purely social: "The Kaiser was at least a gentleman."

The picture of Hitler as a musical hoodlum was the only appealing thing Vicky ever heard about him, but this vulgar unconventionality seemed to have around the Elroy political conscience as no other atrocities could, and Mrs Elroy went on in this vein, repeating what a cousin of an attaché in Germany had told her personally about Hindenburg's dinner for his new Chancellor years ago, when all the ambassadors simply ignored the upstart, who did not know his way around among the noble glasses and cutlery, and who was snubbed by every one naturally, since in those days no one ever dreamed the common people would consent to be led by a wrong-for-user, a café-sitter.

So that's why people like the Elroys are against Hitler, Vicky thought, getting angry. They would stand for any barbarism but mean birth and bad manners, and it was a cruel trick for them to make a Cinderella of the monster just by their contempt for him. How dared people like the Elroys and Julian Evanses be on our side, besmirching it with their snide reasons? Making country club of a great cause, joining it only because its membership was above reproach, its parties and privileges the most superior, its officers all the best people? Why didn't they stay on the oppressor side where they belonged and where their tastes actually were? They did in the Spanish War, and for the same reasons that they switched over in this war. Vicky was aware of a wave of indignation brining unexpected strength to her spirits.

"You don't object to cannibalism, then," she said. "It's the table manners they use, isn't it, Mrs Elroy."

Uncle Rockman was staring at his sister-in-law with a peculiar hostility.

It's as though the matron has just been exposed to Rockman for what she is, and presently he is tearing out of the suite. When Vicky follows, a friend of Uncle Rockman who happens to be present tells the Elroy ladies that Rockman is sweet on Vicky.

The story is picked up in Chapter XI. The Elroys are in a constant state of lamentation, having allowed an cunning adventuress into their home.

Mrs Beaver Elroy had never in her whole fifty-one years been so distraught as she found herself on learning of her brother-in-law's sinister plans against her happiness...

She had counted so completely on this graceful flowering of her connection with Rockman that she now felt as betrayed as if vows had been exchanged, and it was hard to remember that Rockman had never encouraged any such hopes. It had begun almost at Beaver's funeral. After the children grew up and married, then she would turn to the waiting Rockman and say, "Now, Rockman. Now is our reward."

That Vicky wouldn't marry Rockman under any circumstances - that she is hopelessly in love with another man - never crosses the ladies' minds, because they're too thrilled by the awfulness of their betrayal, which is, of course, essentially financial. Mrs Elroy screws up her courage and makes an appointment with Amanda, hoping that the celebrity will intervene and peel Vicky away from Rockman. Amanda, rather fabulously, agrees to talk to Vicky - and that's that.

The interview was over, but it took Mrs Elroy, unused to such harsh business manners, a moment or two to realize the fact. She had expected to have a little polite chat to cover up the crude purpose of her call, but Amanda would have none of it. She stood in the doorway, unsmiling, uncivil, really, Mrs Elroy thought, until the latter had collected her gloves and bag. Amanda rang for some one to see the lady out, and waiting beside the elevator, looked sharply at her guest.

"It's your brother-in-law, not your brother, isn't it? she asked.

Mrs Elroy nodded.

"About your age, you said," Amanda pursued, reflectively. "Oh, Now, I see."

The implications of what she saw made Mrs Elroy's susceptible nose assume a delicate heliotrope shade, and shattered for the moment her satisfaction in the interview. Mrs Elroy shuddered as she felt the heavy doors of Twenty-nine swing shut behind her, thinking of Amanda's cryptic "Oh, now I see." She had not said a word to suggest such a thing, but after all her trouble Amanda had merely thought the lady was anxious to get Rockman for herself. Walking gracefully down Fifth Avenue the liquid spring air revived Mrs Elroy's confidence. It didn't really matter what Amanda thought if she could restore Rockman to his rightful owners. Yes, she really had accomplished something.

But that sense of accomplishment is all liquid spring air, and the Elroys disappear altogether, but for Uncle Rockman's brief boulevard-farce scene toward the end.

Amanda's chute follows a more melodramatic trajectory than one might expect. The material and Powell's handling prepares one for a Waughian machine infernale, and Powell certainly lines things up for an automatic self-destruct. Amanda loses Miss Bemel's loyalty, and no one will tell her that Julian has taken to visiting the first Mrs Evans at her estate on the Hudson. Vicky and Ken are dangerous enemies. But the unraveling of Amanda's glory is a matter of dumb miscalculation.

Julian, disturbed by Amanda's independence, and her refusal to go to bed with him, has hired a detective, Mr Dupper. The horror of Mr Dupper's ugliness is lavishly described in Chapter XIII, but you'll read it for yourself, and once is enough. Having been filled in by the gumshoe (who seems to be more of a thug), Julian decides to have it out with Amanda. When she waltzes in from an afternoon and evening at the Waldorf, spent trying in vain to be alone with Andrew Callingham, who is leaving for Libya the next day, Amanda is taken completely by surprise by Julian's ferocious dismissal. He orders her out of the house at once, and, quite at sea, she heads for Twenty-One, where she knows she'll find Callingham, and throws herself upon his mercy. It has been clear from the outset that while he may allow himself to be entertained by Amanda, he is never going to submit to her, but her vanity is too colossal to concede this point. Back at the Waldorf, she offers to sleep with him.

He burst out laughing.

"Fine. I never pass up a pretty gift like that. I won't change my mind about anything, though."

"It might," Amanda said, tossing her head.

"The talk is that you're no good in the hay, my dear," Callingham chuckled. But I like to be open to conviction."

It might still work, Amanda thought, just as it had with Julian. With this farewell memory she could count on winning him over completely when she reached him in Africa. This was the way she had planned it and this was the way it would have to be. Unless, for the first time, something went wrong for her. Unless he was a stronger man than she. Unless he, in his own egotistical way, had other plans. Unless Julian really could put a hex on her.

Even under Callingham's rough embrace there came, along with her usual annoyance at the damage to her permanent, Amanda's first doubts.

And that is the end of Amanda. She goes to Libya, we're told, but she doesn't snag Callingham. And after that, the signal of her celebrity vanishes altogether.

Is Dawn Powell heartless? Not at all. She's a realist. We're flawed mortals trying to make the best of a vale of tears, and what goes around comes around. She is merciless about pretentiousness and the delusions of vanity. She is a collector of rationalizations on par with Anthony Trollope, but there is no innocence in her novels, just ignorance and inexperience. At the same time, she does not seem to have a sense of America as a special place. It is a swath of the world like any other, and nobody is truly, truly grand. Her belief that everyone is to some extent on the make, if not on the take, is cynically European, but the foreigners in her books are good and bad in the same way that everyone else is good and bad.

There is an unmistakable sense, in Dawn Powell's books, of presenting the minor follies of the lady's life as material fit for serious fiction. It is a difficult stunt to pull off, because these follies are indeed very silly and pointless, and they confirm all the patriarchal animadversions regarding the inferiority of women. That women are not to be trusted is yet another retrograde feature. The old idea that women are incapable of true friendship is repeatedly evidenced. But men are in no sense superior. They may be indispensable, for all the usual reasons, but they tend to become as fatuous as they are allowed to be. In the end, your pleasure in Powell's books is modulated by your reaction to the whiff of unrealized ambition. This wouldn't be because Powell set her sights too high. It's rather that the comedies of manners that entertain don't play out according to the formulas that we're familiar with, while at the same time failing quite to establish new rules. If anything, she did not set her sights to the level of her ability. And there is no gainsaying that her vernacular is jarringly inelegant at times.

But, as I said, she's great fun to read, even when she's heartbreaking.

Posted by pourover at April 20, 2005 07:41 PM

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