Sunday, 14 July 2013

Penguin no. 1528: From a View to a Death
by Anthony Powell

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. She talked about the neighbours; about the pageant; about their children; about all the things which he had decided to put for the time being from his mind. Major Fosdick tried not to hear what she was saying. He thought about his youth and the years he had spent in Burma. Those had, in fact, been the days.

There is an essay included in Penguin no. 1068 (Essays and Poems, G.K. Chesterton) in which Chesterton argues that belonging to a family is the ultimate adventure: it is the realm in which one must confront and adapt to the people who are there, and where it can be necessary to learn to cope with those who may be a little odd or incompatible. He suggests the small village functions as an extension of the family for the same reason. In a city you have the freedom to choose your companions, but in a village you must take what is given. And this means that the city, in his view, offers a narrower experience of life, for the adventure lies in the absence of choice and the acceptance of chance. Something of the point Chesterton was making underpins Powell's third novel, From a View to a Death.

This is a portrayal of village life with a variety of eccentric characters: Passenger Court is home to the dissatisfied Vernon Passenger, grumpily aware that he hasn't made the most of his life. He is in frequent conflict with Major Fosdick, who has a secret passion for cross-dressing, and who is the father of two sons, the unemployable Jaspar, and the even odder Torquil. The village is also home to a set of orphans who still rely on charity on account of the perceived disadvantage of losing their parents, even though they are now past middle-age. And Passenger's daughter Bella delights in her fallen status, having returned to the village as a Duchess after a disastrous marriage to a foreigner.

While there is the odd friendship between villagers, you get the impression that these are people who tolerate each other while never really getting along. Husbands seem indifferent to wives, parents give little attention to their children, and supposed friends take pains to avoid each other. Instead the villagers seemed to be sustained by their rivalries, with the younger girls of the village wary of each other because they are competitors in the search for male attention, and the older men invigorated by their dispute over a small tract of land. This maintenance of pointless feuds is illustrated most keenly in the Passengers' inability to attend their preferred church on account of a disagreement on scripture which occurred 50 years before. They now patiently await the death of the hardy intransigent vicar so that they may return.

And then there is Joanna Brandon, who spends most of her time reading while she waits for something to happen, believing that is where she will learn about life. She is bored with life in the village, viewing it as a place where nothing ever happens, and she longs for a means to escape. At present, though, she must remain with her invalided mother, who suffers an incapacity which may be imaginary. Perhaps her mother simply chooses her isolation; most of the villagers seem to long for some means of being alone, even if it can only be found by dwelling on their thoughts and shutting out all awareness of their companions.

Into this small claustrophobic and deteriorating world comes Arthur Zouch, a man on the make. He sees himself as a Nietzschean man of will: an √úbermensch, someone determined to succeed, and his every word and action is calculated to advance his interests. He has little interest in art, and only a small amount of talent, but he has adopted the life of a painter as it gives him access to another world, and he has chosen his unusual attire and his beard to complete the picture. The beard, in particular, makes him an object of fascination in the village, and particularly heightens the interest in him felt by Mary Passenger and Joanna Brandon.

But Vernon Passenger is another superman: he is also a man of will, and also inclined to think strategically, and he is determined to undermine Zouch's ambitions. Only one of these men will prevail.

Once again, Anthony Powell's narrator is oddly detached from what he describes, and the humour comes from the flatness of the prose and the matter-of-fact way in which appalling and cynical behaviours are described, almost without judgement, as things which have simply occurred. What seems to be offered is a view of a deteriorating society whose members are obsessed with trivialities and live lives bereft of any meaning.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1628: Venusberg
Penguin no. 1706: What's Become of Waring
Penguin no 1728: A Question of Upbringing
Penguin no. 2075: Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

Chesterton's Essay:
On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family


6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the excellent review. This sounds a very witty novel, and interesting to compare with other depictions of village life at that time. I will look out for it!

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  2. As I read your review the film Babette's Feast came into my mind. The village there is never more than a few steps away from social anarchy as the elderly inhabitants struggle with the events and indiscretions of their youth. They too could never leave. The difference being that Babette, for a night at least, lets them sit together, enjoy good food and wine and perhaps be human for a little while. A wonderfully concise review. Well up to your usual standard!

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  3. Don't suppose you recall what the Chesterton essay was called? It sounds worth a read - thanks.

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    Replies
    1. I think it was On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family, and I've now added a link to the essay at the end of the post.

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    2. Thank you - I appreciate it!

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