Synopses & Reviews
Unsavory artists, titled boobs, and charlatans with an affinity for Freudsuch are the oddballs whose antics animate the early novels of the late British master Anthony Powell. A genius of social satire delivered with a very dry wit, Powell builds his comedies on the foibles of British high society between the wars, delving into subjects as various as psychoanalysis, the film industry, publishing, and (of course) sex. More explorations of relationships and vanity than plot-driven narratives, these slim novels reveal the early stirrings of the unequaled style, ear for dialogue, and eye for irony that would reach their caustic peak in Powells epic A Dance to the Music of Time
In Agents and Patients, we return to London with the newly wealthy, memorably named Blore-Smith: an innocent, decent enough chap . . . and a drip. Vulnerable to the machinations of those with less money and more lust, Blore-Smith falls victim to two con artists whose ploys carry him through to the art galleries and whorehouses of Paris, Berlin, and beyond.
Written from a vantage point both high and necessarily narrow, Powells early novels nevertheless deal in the universal themes that would become a substantial part of his oeuvre: pride, greed, and what makes people behave as they do. Filled with eccentric characters and piercing insights, Powells work is achingly hilarious, human, and true.
“A master of irony . . . a writer of social comedy as revelatory as any written by Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green.”
“Elegantly casual and scandalously funny.”
“Looking back at Powells earlier novels, it is possible to see him discovering there how to use his razor-sharp satirical sense until it is purged of bitterness and extravagance.”
“Anthony Powell is our foremost comic writer.”
“[A] still-too-little-acknowledged comic masterpiece.”
“Powells wry, understated style sharpens his general picture of nastiness.”
“Vastly superior to all the current stuff about ‘swinging London.”
Regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim
remains as trenchant, withering, and eloquently misanthropic as when it first scandalized readers in 1954. This is the story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university who knows better than most that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” Kingsley Amis’s scabrous debut leads the reader through a gallery of emphatically English bores, cranks, frauds, and neurotics with whom Dixon must contend in one way or another in order to hold on to his cushy academic perch and win the girl of his fancy.
More than just a merciless satire of cloistered college life and stuffy postwar manners, Lucky Jim is an attack on the forces of boredom, whatever form they may take, and a work of art that at once distills and extends an entire tradition of English comic writing, from Fielding and Dickens through Wodehouse and Waugh. As Christopher Hitchens has written, “If you can picture Bertie or Jeeves being capable of actual malice, and simultaneously imagine Evelyn Waugh forgetting about original sin, you have the combination of innocence and experience that makes this short romp so imperishable.”
1935, London: Anthony Powell is honing the edge of his humor on psychoanalysis and the film industry.Two young London charlatans, an amateur Freudian analyst and an bully with “connections with the film industry” both get their claws into a young man with a small fortune to spend. The plot takes them to Paris and Berlin, art galleries and whore-houses. The women are moochers, the art dealers knaves, the wealthy Americans uncultured boobs, the action is lively, and the writing clever. A very funny period piece.
FROM A VIEW TO A DEATH
(1933) is set at a dilapidated English country estate. It brings together a miscellany of country and city types: spoiled, shy Mary Passenger, whose father hopes she will marry into money to help support Passenger Court; ambitious Zouch, who imagines himself an “Ubermensch”; and Major Fosdick, secretly cross-dressing when not out riding. (V. S. Pritchett describes the book as “featuring the undesirable artist among the speechless fox hunters.”) Powell wrote this when he was 27 years old; he mocks with gusto the prejudices and mindlessness of English landed gentry. But as the story moves along, suffering adds humanity to his caricatures, even the “objectionable country squire.”
About the Author
Kingsley Amis (1922–1995) was a popular and prolific British novelist, poet, and critic, widely regarded as one of the greatest satirical writers of the twentieth century. He won an English scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he began a lifelong friendship with fellow student Philip Larkin. Following army service in World War II, he completed his degree and joined the faculty at the University College of Swansea in Wales. Lucky Jim, his first novel, appeared in 1954 to great acclaim and won a Somerset Maugham Award; from that point on he would publish roughly a book a year. Amis received the Booker Prize for his novel The Old Devils (also available from NYRB Classics) in 1986 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.