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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 07:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 14, 2005

Dawn Powell: A Time To Be Born II


Chapters V and VI of A Time To Be Born are centered squarely on Vicky Haven, and they comprise a sort of aria-and-cabaletta couple, with temperate narrative developments giving way to an emotional madcap. The 'aria' part gets off the ground when Vicky runs into Amanda Evans at Saks. Vicky is shopping for a new look for herself, and is slightly crestfallen when Amanda, who has not taken her phone calls for weeks, decides to play Lady Bountiful and to take over the makeover. Amanda insists on charging everything to her account, but the clothes aren't quite what Vicky had in mind. This is one of many sardonic tweaks to the Cinderella fable.

In the elevator at Saks, Vicky is accosted by one of the Junior League types from the magazine, a girl named Nancy Elroy who wouldn't give her the time of day if Amanda weren't standing right next to her. Nancy and her mother are practically panting for an introduction, and, seeing what's going on, Vicky is bemused rather than insulted.

By the time they had reached the street floor Vicky was aware that the prized nod from Miss Elroy was due completely to the Elroys' desire to meet Amanda Keller Evens, either for her own or her husband's sake. It was astonishing to see what these well-bred ladies were willing to do in order to clinch some future contact. Vicky found their anxiety contagious and tried to ease their feelings by babbling away to Amanda how effective was the full page color ad of Miss Nancy Elroy smoking a Felicity cigarette before the portrait of her old grandmother. Both Elroys brushed this faltering support aside, for to tell the truth they loved the feeling that they were meeting and conquering wonderfully superior people. It gave them a feeling of accomplishment and progress to wear down snubbing, and they felt there was something secretly the matter with anyone who did not make use of his or her own position to be arrogant. The merest Astor had only to step on them firmly to utterly enslave them, challenging them to further humble gestures. As this type of social masochism was unknown to Vicky, she thought Amanda's coolness was wounding the Elroys instead of tantalizing them.

Amanda, of course, declines the invitation to take tea at the Elroys; this only determines mother and daughter to insist that Vicky come along, and, after work, that's exactly what she does.

The Elroy material could really have been pressed into service as a short story. It rests on the contradictions of bourgeois comedy: presenting a tranquil, comfortable air to the world usually requires ceaseless maneuvering. Mrs Elroy is a widow who is dependent upon her eccentric brother-in-law, who for his part is only to happy to pay for the privilege of not having to marry the woman. But Mrs Elroy manages money so badly that she is always working herself up to ask for more, and financial anxieties buzz throughout her household - a suite at a residential hotel - with the low-key insistence of a broken-down refrigerator. Nancy is her older daughter, and about to be married to a just-acceptable chap: Nancy has held out for too-big prizes and now must settle. Mrs Elroy's younger daughter, Tuffy, is different from almost everyone else in the book by not reminding the reader of Hollywood stars (and starlets) of the Thirties and Forties. That's because there were no stars or starlets to meet Tuffy's description.

Her complexion was sallow and bad and, what was worse, Tuffy didn't care. It kept her mother and sister conversationally occupied which permitted Turry to think about other matters such as boys, for she was definitely boystruck. She waggled her small dirty feet in their incredibly battered little brown sandals in complete comfort and thought dreamily of having a terrific love affair with some fiendishly sophisticated older man. This was a perfectly practical dream since her one charm - and that was completely undeniable - was that she was fifteen, and often that in itself is enough to entice an elderly beau.

It's difficult to imagine one's grandmama reading this sort of thing. Over cocktails, Mrs Elroy and Nancy ply Vicky with questions about Amanda's childhood. Uh-oh, we feel, knowing that her childhood has been carefully taped up by Amanda in pretty gauze so that no one can make out any of the details. Vicky honestly doesn't know this, and lacks the sophistication to see that someone like Amanda would take every precaution to sink her dirty linen with stonewalling. It is only the glances that the ladies Elroy exchange when they hear, among other things, that Amanda had the most "amusing habit of always getting engaged every semester at Miss Doxey's to somebody new." We learn, along with the Elroys, that Amanda has studied to be a pastry-cook!

Vicky is beginning to have doubts about her "garrulousness" when Uncle Rockman, the fourth personage in the Elroy ménage, joins the ladies. He keeps a room in the suite but actually lives elsewhere. He is a well-polished dipsomaniac, streams of scientific babble at the ready to stun all comers. That he prefers Tuffy to Nancy might be foreseen; it causes all sorts of sulking and squabbling.

Vicky tried to keep a fixed happy look on her face though she had not been so embarrassed by a family gathering since she left her brother's roof. Mrs Elroy frowned sternly at her younger daughter. She had always considered it a pretty woman's right to be a fiend in private, but to balance this state of society it was up to the plain girls to rigorously uphold the banner of breeding and constant good nature. Unfortunately Tuffy had never seen eye to eye with her on this and she had the audacity to have all the selfishness and ill-temper of a belle.

But when Tuffy's unprepossessing boyfriend shows up, tensions abate, except in Vicky's chest, which is suffering from the certainty that her candor about Amanda has been terribly misguided. She makes her escape from the ladies, but not from Uncle Rockman, who follows her to the street and offers to give her a lift somewhere.

Vicky was afraid to ruin this fine impression by a spoken word and her silence spoke so well for her that after a ten-minute monologue on the atom Uncle Rockman left her, repeating the compliment again and again.


Before the antics of Chapter VI get going, we spend a little time getting to know Ken Saunders better. Although one has never met anybody with his problem, exactly, Ken is a figure often encountered in the fiction (and the movies) of the period: The smart, good-looking able-bodied American who's hopelessly in love with a no-good dame - in this case Amanda Keeler Evans. When she left him three years ago, he lost his compass, but instead of satirizing Ken, Powell is very tender with him. After some gentle ribbing about missed but improbable aspirations, Powell burrows into a scary description of the existential anxieties of making the passage from easy youth to complicated middle age.

He was thirty-three. Sometimes people were through at thirty-three. Thirty even. They become old drunks. The World was full of old drunken failures. Has-beens. Warnings. Men who didn't realize they were never any good anyway - just lucky enough to hold a job a few years and then - zoom! He, at least, had been wise enough to take whatever job had come up, a thought that was at least a comfort on payday no matter how unpleasant such compromises were the rest of the week. But, unless he went to bed tight, he stared at the ceiling all night, smoking cigarettes, waiting for Tomorrow to spring.

What did other men do whose lives suddenly came apart like a cheap ukulele? What did they do when they realized that perhaps there would be no second chance, no reconsidering, no retrieving? What did they do when the hopes that push the wheel stopped, when magic failed, and fear alone remained, rusting the soul; when the days rattled off like dried beans with no native juice, no hope of flavor, when fears, batted out the door like flies, left only to return by window? What did other men do, suspecting that what was for them had been served - no further helping, no more love, no more triumph; for them labor without joy or profit, for them a passport to nowhere, free ticket to the grim consolations of Age? Was it true, then, that this world was filled with men and women merely marking time before their cemetery? When did courage's lease expire, was there no renewal possible? What specialist in mediocrity determined the prize-winners and ruled what measure of banality was required for success? These were the thoughts that brightened Ken's nights, and since they were very similar to the dark queries that clustered around Vicky Haven's pillow, it was the most natural thing in the world for them, these two frightened people, to have the merriest lunches together in the Peabody Building. Since neither Ken nor Vicky was the sort to reveal private problems, each found the other most comforting, and almost disgustingly carefree.

Notice how adroitly Powell pulls the reins on Ken's misgivings and leads the narrative back to romantic comedy. The shift begins with "brightens," a surprise that prepares us for the equally ironic "merriest." The image of the two troubled young people envying one another through their stiff upper lips is funny and bleak at the same time.

The run-up to Vicky's wild night at home is brisk. Vicky asks Ken to come to her studio (which is of course the site of Amanda's trysts with him) for a curry. As it happens, Ethel Carey will be in town, and Vicky is sure that the two would hit it off. But when Amanda gets wind of the date, she decides to interfere, even though she has no fear whatever of Vicky's rivalry - that comes in the next chapter. She insists that Ken and Vicky run uptown for a fun-filled evening at the Evans's, but no matter how impatient and even angry she becomes, she cannot move Vicky's stubborn determination to stick with her initial plans. Ken, however, rather cravenly caves in. Walking home, Vicky is sure that she'll lose her job for insubordination to Amanda, but when the bad news comes, it has nothing to do with work. Ethel Carey calls to say that Tom and Eudora Turner decided to come out to New York with her, and that she's "tied up for dinner with them." Ethel passes on Eudora's invitation to join them, but is not surprised when Vicky says that she has dinner guests of her own. This lie becomes problematic when Ethel suggests that she and the Turners might stop by after dinner.

Vicky's head buzzed so busily with the necessity for doing something devilishly shrewd and effective that movement was practically paralyzed, suggestions popping up so fast that they cancelled each other.

Eventually, she orders a seafood dinner from Longchamps and wriggles into her new clothes from Saks.

Vicky sat down to the coffee table where her dinner was spread, still undecided which façade she should present to the Turners. One thing was certain, whether she was haughty or whether she was effusively friendly, she must show that Manhattan was her natural background, and if anything had gone wrong in her Lakeville career it was merely because she was too big a person for the place.

Jane Austen for our times. Vicky is about to eat when the doorbell rings. Ethel and the Turners already? No - Ken Saunders, "looking rather sheepish" but right on cue. He says that he walked around the Evans's town house but couldn't go in; now he wants to take Vicky out to dinner. In a funny little scene, he regards the dinner on the coffee table with dismay ("You can't eat that horrible stuff."), directs Vicky to get her hat and coat, and, while she arranges herself, wolfs down the meal himself and loses all interest in going out. We are on the frontier of screwball country, with two people who are falling in love but, because of their other relationships, don't know it, but that's where we'll stay, because the only genre that Dawn Powell worked was her very own, and her sense of humor is much darker than any screwball's director's.

The doorbell rings again, and again it is not the Turners. It's Uncle Rockman!

"Nancy told me you had invited her to dine tonight," he said, as if this would at once explain his unprecedented visit. "Inasmuch as she could not come I thought I myself would pay a call. Here."

With the "Here" he thrust a large coffinlike box in her arms.

More chrysanthemums, of course, and no place to put them. Mr Elroy stood uncomfortably watching his flowers being carried tentatively from cocktail glass to double boiler and finally stuffed into a tall wastebasket with an ash tray of water at its feet.

In true screwball fashion, Ken Saunders flares up like Brünnhilde's fire at the older man's arrival, and in fact the scene is a virtual double of Tom Jeffers's scene with the Wienie King in The Palm Beach Story until Vicky gets enough rum into him to soften his hostility. By the time the Turners do arrive, "Uncle Rockman was nestling back half-asleep on the sofa laughing fondly at everything Ken Saunders said."

It doesn't take long for Vicky to feel the advantage of her admirers' visits.

So here was Tom Turner, who had broken Vicky's heart to run away with her business partner, Eudora Brown. Here was Eudora, once a bosom friend, now holding her hands over her convex lap, looking enviously around Vicky's living room. Desire makes its object worthy of desire, and for four years Tom Turner had been the worthy object of Vicky's affection. Now he belonged to somebody else and desire had been shocked by frustration into numb despair, which Vicky discovered was modulating into a hostile disparagement of the man. All right, it was sour grapes to sit there silently criticizing everything about him - what was the matter with sour grapes? Sour grapes was as comforting a philosophy as any other, and a lot better than tearing your heart out with undying passion. He was as handsome as ever, in his dissipated ham actor way, and his voice was a richly effective as ever, but both of these hollow charms irritated the new Vicky.

This is the first that we've seen of Tom Turner, aside from a very brief attempt to say goodbye to Vicky when she leaves Lakeville for New York, and we see him with Vicky's new eyes. We also see what we had only guessed in that earlier chapter: Eudora is painfully vulgar. She asks Vicky for a loan of five hundred dollars, and she complains about being "high-hatted" by Amanda Evans. "Amanda stinks on ice," she says. And after Uncle Rockman's hasty departure - roused by the conversation, he remembers that he's supposed to be giving a speech in a paper factory (!) - she taunts Tom about still being in love with Vicky. To great effect:

"Certainly I'm crazy about Vicky," said Tom Turner coldly, without looking at Vicky. "I always have been - always will be."

"There - that's all you wanted to hear, isn't it?" Eudora sobbed. "God knows I hear it often enough - you might as well."

Tom Turner planted himself in front of his wife.

"All right, let her hear!" he shouted. "I couldn't get Vicky to sleep with me - that was the only reason. I walked out on her. No trouble like that with you. So what are you kicking about?"

At which point Ethel, almost as shocked as the reader, bundles the Turners off in a cab. Ken doesn't leave, however. He rumples his hair in perplexity.

"And the guy is still crazy about you?" he wanted to know.

Vicky wanted to say yes, for that was after all what Eudora had insisted and what Tom had said, too. But the instant they began torturing each other before her she had sensed that the truth was much less flattering - they only used her as the whip for their relationship. Eudora and tom understood each other, counted on no nobility in each other, relied affectionately on each other's vulgarity, lashed at each other's weaknesses and bound themselves together by these. They belonged together. She had always been left out. They hadn't even looked at her when they were shouting about Tom's continued love for her. They didn't think of her as a person, hardly, but merely a name they used to excite themselves with. If Tom had really still been in love with her, Vicky thought, he never would have said so.

When Vicky tells him the story of her thwarted love for Tom, Ken concedes that he, too, has fallen in love with the wrong person. The chapter concludes with a lightheartedness jest that reminds me of Der Rosenkavalier.

They sat up in her kitchen till four o'clock comparing mistakes in their lives, holding hands and bewailing the thought that they could not fall in love with each other. Later he scrambled eggs with anchovies sprinkled over them and made coffee most competently. He had a knack for knowing where everything was - cigarettes, liquor, salt coffee. In fact, Vicky wondered about it after he left. She decided that either his lost love's place must be very much like hers, or else there were a lot of apartments around New York fitted exactly like this one.

What fun this is to read!



High on the list of my bad balls is an afternoon in town with my father (something that can't have happened five times altogether) when I was offered the choice between lunch at Longchamps, in the Empire State Building, and lunch on the United States, tied up that day at a pier on the Hudson. A Titanic nut in my fashion, I was shaky about boats, and what could go wrong in a tall building? Parents oughtn't to offer children such choices.

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April 12, 2005

Dawn Powell: A Time To Be Born I

Dawn Powell gets "discovered" every twenty years or so, as I think Gore Vidal remarked a while back. People can't believe how much fun she is, or that they've never heard of her, and so on. After a burst of reading, everyone moves on and Powell is forgotten. At least her mature novels have broken through to the top: they've been published in two volumes of the Library of America, edited by her tireless promoter, Tim Page. Maybe this time they'll pass from fad to fixture.

The reason for Powell's relapses into obscurity are not difficult to make out, but they're a reflection of American weaknesses, not of any want of skill and talent on Powell's part. Her novels are beautifully put together and they feature an endless rogues' gallery of New Yorkers, native but mostly adoptive, on the make. Now, if I had read more Willa Cather than the first quarter of The Song of the Lark, I would venture to suggest that Dawn Powell is Cather's evil twin. She is fascinated, not repelled, by the sophisticated solipsism of the metropolitan crawl. High-mindedness is not for her. At the same time, however, she can't be thought of as Evelyn Waugh's American cousin. Her writing isn't nearly so heartless, and she is too much a realist to spin commedia dell'arte sendups in Waugh's elegant manner. There are moments - many moments - when her fiction fags, not from want of imaginative drive but because to write about Manhattan is in part to capture the fatigue that overcomes everyone here from time to time. Powell also plays with that defunct social objective, respectability. Many of today's readers are too young to have experienced the urgency of appearing to be a person of modesty and responsibility, and yet not enough time has passed for respectability to be studied. Most of Powell's characters are only barely respectable, or not really respectable at all, and they know that the people around them are no better, but the pretence must be kept up. In short, Powell isn't nice enough and she isn't nasty enough.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that she's a woman who takes an extremely sardonic view of women?  

But she is very funny. I am reading A Time To Be Born, which appeared in 1942 and quickly became Powell's best seller so far. That had to be in part because of its not-so-unintentional-and-purely-coincidental portraits of Clare Booth and Ernest Hemingway. There is also more money in this novel than there is in the usual Powell title, and money always enlarges the possibilities. The heroine, if she'd really be happy with that position, is Vicky Haven, an ingénue from Lakewood, Ohio (a fictional town on Lake Erie) who has rather messed up her life and taken to pining. Her somewhat older friend, Ethel Carey, concocts the perfect scheme: Ethel will persuade Amanda Keeler, a former schoolmate of both women who has risen stratospherically in the world, to become Mrs Julian Evans (I'm not enough of a gossip to know whether Julian is supposed to take after Henry Luce; it rather strikes me that he's not. But Julian commands a vast media empire and is certainly not Hearst.) - Ethel will beg Amanda to get her husband to find Vicky a job in New York. In the first chapter, the really rather sociopathic Amanda sullenly agrees, but presently her life takes a turn that makes Vicky's arrival in town most opportune. The upshot is Amanda's decision to lease a studio apartment for her own daytime use and to let Vicky sleep in it at night. Here's how Ethel takes this news:

Having warned Vicky not to expect any friendly or personal gestures from Amanda, who, don't forget, was a very busy and a very important person nowadays, Ethel was dumbfounded at the offer of hospitality in Amanda's own studio, hints of a welcoming dinner the first night in town, and all Ethel could conclude was that it was her own description of Vicky's plight that had won these favors. She only hoped both of them would remember this and not sit around the fire in the long New York nights ganging up on her the way old friends generally did.

Ethel is completely wrong about Amanda's motivation. The fact is that Amanda has run into an old flame, and is sufficiently bored to want to play with fire. Vicky's studio will be the scene of her trysts with Ken Saunders, a Joel McCrea type who is fatally attracted to her. Not that any work would have been performed in the studio in any case. Amanda Keeler Evans may be a celebrated writer and journalist, but she does very little in the way of actual writing or reporting. That is the job of her secretary, the profoundly unappealing Miss Bemel. It's Miss Bemel who does all the work, and who is happy to do so, because the employer's celebrity confers real, if unacknowledged, power on the employee.

To tell the truth, Amanda would have been genuinely surprised to learn that any writer of consequence had any other method of creation. There were a number of minor scribes on liberal weeklies who were unable to afford a secretary, that she knew, but she had no idea that this was anything more than the necessary handicap of poverty. The tragedy of the attic poets, Keats, Shelley, Burns, was not that they died young but that they were obliged by poverty to do all their own writing. Amanda was reasonably confident that in a day of stress she would be quite able to do her own writing, but until that day she saw no need, and in fact should a day of stress arrive she would not be stupid enough to keep to a writing career at all, but would set about finding some more convenient means of getting money.

Powell has worse, much worse, to say about Amanda - "At thirty Amanda had all the beauty, fame and wit that money could buy, and she had another advantage over her rivals, that whereas they were sometimes in doubt of their aims, she knew exactly what she wanted from life, which was, in a word, everything" - but this passage is an efficient double-hitter, knocking off the strangely contemporary-sounding apparatus of celebrity and Amanda with one blow.

Vicky Haven is a delightful little rube. She has almost no self-confidence, at least since her former lover, a drunken architect fifteen years older than she is, eloped with her real-estate agency partner, Eudora Brown. "Eloped" may not be the right word, because at the beginning of the novel Eudora is still Vicky's partner, and Vicky derives no satisfaction from the new Mrs Turner's growing regrets about her marriage. This is the mess from which Ethel Carey wants to extricate Vicky. It's very hard to decide what to quote from the beginning of Chapter II, because it's all pretty delicious.

Vicky, like everybody, was sure she was far smarter than the average and it sometimes surprised her that she was so dumb about the simplest things, such as understanding politics, treaties, who was who, the use of oyster forks, service plates, back garters on girdles, the difference between Republicans and Democrats, and the management of a lover.

"There's no doubt about it, the female mind can't hold anything very long," she reflected sometimes, blaming her own shortcomings on the entire sex. ... Yes, Vicky decided, the female mind, in its eagerness to shine afresh every day, had to have a very rapid turnover. There was no attic treasure chest or ice box where the good education was stored, moth-proof, mouse-proof, and shrink-proof. There was only a top dresser drawer where names, dates, fragments of facts were flung without mates as the information hurtled through. Vicky sometimes examinedher own top drawer, horrified at these things she once knew but now only recognized the face; names like Bunsen burners, retorts, grids, Wagner Act, Robinson-Patman Act, Seabury Investigation, Diet of Worms, pons asinorum, Catiline, Hatshepsut, Munich, Chapman's Homer - or was it Homer's Chapman - egg-and-dart, Smoot-Hawley Bill, Muscle Shoals, Boulder Dam, plum circulio, Brook Farm, Kerensky, Glazounov, geometric progression, Javanese scale, pituitary, and five hundred rags and tags that must have belonged to a whole fct at one time but in their present futile tangle were nothing more than cues in a quiz program.

(Baffled? Plum circulio? pons asinorum? Smoot-Hawley? Ah, what Vicky might have done with Google!) Vicky's Cinderella-like abasement is tested even further by her brother and sister-in-law when she announces her plan to go to New York: they count on the rent she pays to share a room in their house and they can't conceal their anger and spite. But Vicky does get to New York, and is promptly dropped into an existence that's fairly enchanted. On her first night, she had dinner at the Evans's, and it is here that she meets Ken Saunders, who gets a bit tipsy and is quietly rude to everybody. Her pre-arranged job introduces her to the kind of Junior League debutantes who have only recently disappeared from the precincts at Vogue. One thing leads to another, and that's as far as I've gotten today.

Undoubtedly responding to the war, impending when she began to write A Time To Be Born in 1940, Powell opens the novel with an uncharacteristic grandeur that nonetheless manages to take issue with the title.

This was no time to cry over one broken heart. It was no time to worry about Vicky Haven or indeed any other young lady crossed in love, for now the universe, nothing less, was your problem. You woke in the morning with the weight of doom on your head. You lay with eyes shut wondering why you dreaded the day; was it a debt, was it a lost love? - and then you remembered the nightmare. It was a dream, you said, nothing but a dream, and the covers were thrown aside, the dream was over, now for the day. Then, fully awake, you remembered that it was no dream. Paris was gone, London was under fire, the Atlantic was now a drop of water between the flame on one side and the waiting dynamite on the other. This was a time of waiting....

...There was no future; every one waited, marked time, waited. For what? On Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Fifth Street hundreds waited for a man on a hotel window ledge to jump; hundreds waited with craning necks and thirsty faces as if this single person's final gesture would solve the riddle of the world. Civilization stood on a ledge, and in the tension of waiting it was a relief to have one little man jump.

This could have been written by Norman Mailer. I can think of no woman novelist, until very recently, capable of such dry-eyed, worldly-wise anxiety - buried under a light coating of satire. But I fear that American women were not - until very recently - expected to express themselves with such uncorseted candor.

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April 07, 2005

The Ambassadors III:2

Relief was never quite near at hand for kings, queens, comedians and other such people, and though you might be yourself not exactly one of those, you could yet, in leading the life of high pressure, guess a little at how they sometimes felt. It was truly the life of high pressure that Strether had seemed to feel himself lead while he sat there, close to Chad, during the long tension of the act. He was in presence of a fact that occupied his whole mind, that occupied for the half-hour his senses themselves all together; but he couldn't without inconvenience show anything - which moreover might count realy as luck. What he might have shown, had he shown at all, was exactly the kind of emotion - the emotion of bewilderment - that he had proposed to himself from the first, whatever should occur, to show least.

(For a guide to joining this group reading of The Ambassadors, click here.)

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April 05, 2005

Movies You Must See

Over at La Coquette, people are confessing to not having seen Annie Hall. Here is a baker's dozen of movies, all made before 1980, that you must see, pronto.

1. Casablanca

2. The Palm Beach Story

3. Vertigo

4. The Awful Truth

5. Laura

6. The Philadelphia Story

7. What's Up, Doc?

8. All About Eve

9. Top Hat

10. The Third Man

11. Some Like It Hot (What was I thinking, giving Billy Wilder's spot to Auntie Mame?)

12. Murder on the Orient Express

13. Annie Hall

If it weren't for the cutoff date, I'd add Unforgiven, but as a rule I don't do war or Westerns, or for the matter of that, pictures without girls.

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