Book report: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg”


There’s a certain kind of novel that was produced in great quantity by British writers in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s and 1950s.  They are usually brief, and set in Asia, or Eastern Europe, or Africa.  The characters are almost entirely expatriates – not only British, but Canadians, Americans, exiled Russians, and are often diplomats, or con men, or spies.  The atmosphere is usually light, until something oddly serious happens: an assassination, a declaration of war, some tragic event.

These novels were (I think) a response to the British Empire’s expansion through the world.  There were enormous numbers of British people working in countries all over the world, living in unfamiliar environments, clinging to one another (and to other English-speakers and Europeans) for a sense of community.

Think of Kipling’s “Kim” as a progenitor of the genre.  Think of Graham Greene, with his African and Asian and Caribbean comedy/dramas like “A Burnt-Out Case” and “The Quiet American” and “The Comedians” and “Our Man in Havana.”  Think of Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” (did I ever tell you that I knew someone who knew her?).  Think of Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.”  Think of Doris Lessing’s “Children of Violence” series.  Think of Muriel Spark’s first story, “The Seraph and the Zambezi,” and her novella “The Go-Away Bird.” Think of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful “The Towers of Trebizond.”

I recently discovered a prime example of the genre: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg.”

It’s a simple story: a British journalist, Lushington, goes to an unnamed Baltic country on assignment.  Lushington is in love with a Englishwoman who is, in turn, hopelessly in love with the local British attaché, who (perversely and carelessly) doesn’t care about her at all.

Whom do we meet in our unnamed Baltic country? Not one but two displaced Russian counts, one melancholy and doomed, the other probably a fake.  A local woman who’s only too eager to have an affair with Lushington.  Her husband, a clueless eminent local professor.  An American embassy worker who rattles on endlessly about virtue and progress and the future, while pronouncing himself a man of few words.  A local military officer named Waldemar, who is very pleasant and sincere, and who is trying very hard to learn how to be a true European.

We never discover the name of the country we’re in.  Everyone is speaking English most of the time, with a little bad French thrown in.  Now and then we’re told that someone speaks “in an unknown language”; the joke is that it’s probably the local language, which few of the main characters speak.

Love affairs happen.  Death happens.  Lushington goes back to England.

All in one hundred and sixty pages.

Here is Powell’s epigraph for the novel, which explains the title:

“Here, according to popular tradition, is situated the grotto of Venus, into which she enticed the knight Tannhauser; fine view from the top.”

From the sublime to the absurd: from the airy beauty of folklore and mythology to the flat pronouncements of a travel guide.

“Venusberg” is sad and funny and lovely, and gave me a few hours of pleasure, and it will stay with me.

Try it, if you can find it in your dusty old public library.  You may like it.

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

2 Responses to Book report: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg”

  1. starproms says:

    Interesting. I haven’t come across it but I agree with you about the genre. I wonder what would have happened if the two world wars had not come along to disrupt everything? I would not have been born nor many like me.

    • VERY interesting. I hadn’t thought about it either. My parents were unaffected by the wars – my father had a farmer’s deferment, and my mother was undisturbed by both. Strange how history changes things.

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