Anthony Powell's The Acceptance World

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It goes without saying that something can’t be all that funny if you need to have the humour pointed out to you. I am faced with this argument every semester when I teach The Death of Ivan Ilych and I need to point out to my students (blank-faced with scepticism) that the first chapter of Tolstoy’s novella is actually quite funny. But maybe their failure to see the humour is more indicative of where we stand as a reading culture (or lack thereof) and our preoccupation with our devices and the never-ending distraction they provide the instant we are bored. Or maybe the failure to see the humour is indicative of one’s own maturity as a reader. I mulled over these ideas as I read the first two books of Anthony Powell’s twelve-part novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. On one hand, I recognized on an intellectual level that much of what he was writing about was humorous, yet at the same time I felt that his novel was marred by stretches of longueur, and I started to think that Powell and the world he depicts is an anachronism, belonging to a world not only long gone and forgotten but also irrelevant (in a way that the world Proust creates in his In Search of Lost Time is not). Or maybe Powell is simply an acquired taste. Whatever it is, all my former ambivalence about Anthony Powell suddenly went out the window this time as I returned to his novel and cracked open the third book in the series, The Acceptance World. It was a book, I discovered, that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.

So what happens? It’s the early 1930s—“the slump” as it’s referred to in the novel—and Book III begins with Nick, our narrator, going to the Ufford Hotel in London to have tea with his Uncle Giles. While there he is introduced to Mrs. Erdleigh, an astrologist who reads Nick’s cards and predicts he will meet a woman, and that there will be an “inconvenience” in his line of work involving an elderly man and two younger men connected with him. At first, her prognostications don’t make much sense to him, but eventually they all comes true. Nick is still employed in the publishing world (specifically art books) and his firm is trying to put out a retrospective on the works of a painter named Isbister. St. John Clarke, a famous novelist (the older gentleman Mrs. Erdleigh had forseen), has promised to write the introduction but has yet to produce it. And so, some time after his visit to the Ufford, Nick makes a coffee date with Mark Members, a friend from university who also happens to be St. John Clarke’s personal secretary, to discuss a deadline for the introduction. Just as it becomes clear that Nick has been stood up, Peter Templer, Nick’s old friend from boarding school, enters the restaurant and the two men catch up. Among the things they discuss, we learn that Templer is married now to a former model named Mona, and that Templer’s sister, Jean, married Bob Duport but left him after he started having an affair with a woman named Bijou Ardglass. And Widmerpool, he tells Nick, has left the firm Donners-Brebner and is joining “The Acceptance World,” what Templer describes as the realm of high-risk, possibly nefarious brokerage. Mona and Jean soon show up, and Nick is invited to join them for dinner. While they're dining, Quiggin (another university acquaintance) arrives. Quiggin is a successful literary critic now and we learn that he came in lieu of Members, as he has replaced the latter as St. John Clarke’s secretary. Nick is invited back to Peter and Mona’s house for the weekend, and it is on the drive back that he puts his arm around Jean, thus commencing the romance that Mrs. Erdleigh predicted.

At some point, Nick goes to meet Mark Members to discuss Quiggin’s succession as St. John Clarke’s secretary. While the two men are out walking in the park, a left-wing protest passes by, and both men are shocked to see, among the throng of protesters, Quiggin and Mona pushing St. John Clarke in a wheelchair. It suddenly dawns on Nick that Mona has left Peter for Quiggin. In the novel’s closing chapter, Nick attends the annual Old Boys’ dinner in honour of their former housemaster Le Bas. It is here that Widmerpool at last makes his appearance. He has become a successful (though much fatter) man, yet he still retains that awkwardness that always dogged him at school. And when he stands up, uninvited, to give a lengthy, boring speech on economics, Le Bas is so furious that he has a stroke and the party comes to a sudden end. Widmerpool and Nick take a hopelessly drunk Charles Stringham back home, and the novel ends with Nick contemplating a postcard he received from Jean of a pair of lovers, a woman sitting on a man’s lap, a pose that strikes him as strangely inauthentic, as if the two were only going through the motions of being lovers.

After Nick's boyhood and university years, around which the first two books revolved, The Acceptance World focuses on the messy world of break-ups, affairs, and life after divorce. Nearly all the characters in Book III seem to switch partners: Jean, as I mentioned, becomes involved with Nick after leaving Bob; Mona leaves Peter for Quiggin; Peggy Stepney has divorced Charles Stringham and marries an unnamed cousin; Peggy’s sister, Anne Stepney, was briefly involved with Barnby, but then later marries the significantly older Dicky Umfraville; and Jean and Peter’s sister, Babs, has divorced Jimmy Stripling, a man, we discover, Jean has had a brief affair with but who now seems to be involved with Mrs. Erdleigh. And there’s the suggestion, too, that Mrs. Erdleigh might have been involved with Nick’s Uncle Giles. It’s all very complicated! So much so, that at some point, I realized, I needed to start scribbling down a flowchart in the back pages of the book to keep track of who’s involved with whom. (See below.)

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Powell is an incredible stylist, and in spite of this somewhat unhappy subject matter, nearly every one of his sentences buzzes with dry, subtle humour and perspicacious observations on human behaviour. When Nick and Jean spot Lady Ardglass, for example, Powell describes the two men following her out of the restaurant as “spruce, grey-haired admirers, at heel like a brace of well-groomed, well-bred, obedient sporting dogs” (62). It’s a funny, sharp-witted simile that is followed a few lines later by this equally insightful observation:

As the Ardglass cortège came level with us, I saw exchanged between [Mona and Bijou] one of those glances so characteristic of a woman catching sight of another woman who reminds her of herself: glances in which deep hatred and also a kind of passionate love seem to mingle voluptuously together for an instant of time. (62)

Much of Powell’s prose is like this in which he captures subtle, meaningful exchanges of glances, or, as Powell writes, situations that “conveyed an atmosphere of powerful forces at work beneath the conversation” (65). Powell is clearly interested in those hidden (and sometimes base) motives behind the façade of good manners and polite society, and makes them come to life through metaphors and similes that are incisive with their originality and humour. One such moment that comes to mind is when Nick believes Mona to be bored with her marriage to Peter, and he describes her as “some savage creature, anxious to keep up appearances before members of a more highly civilized species, although at the same time keenly aware of her own superiority in cunning” (66). It’s all very funny—and percipient.

But as the title suggests, this is a world in which these characters have to accept the destinies fate has laid out for them: Peter and Charles have to accept the loss of their wives; Members that he has been superseded by Quiggin (who himself is later superseded by a German Marxist playwright named Guggenbühl); and that Widmerpool, “once so derided by all of us, had become in some mysterious manner a person of authority. Now, in a sense, it was he who derided us; or at least his disapproval had become something far more powerful than the merely defensive weapon it had once seemed” (218). As Powell writes elsewhere, it was hard to do anything but accept all this a fait accompli.

I may have been ambivalent about Powell with the first two books, but he seems to have won himself a convert with the third. I look forward to reading and reporting on Book IV, At Lady Molly’s, in the coming months.