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.


Rose Macaulay’s “The Towers of Trebizond”

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While I was living in Morocco in the 1980s, I fell in with a bunch of British people.  They were a very close-knit group, funny and intelligent and shockingly well-read.  I, who thought myself all of the above, was very outclassed.  But they were all very kind to me, and housed me from time to time as needed, and lent me books, and were generally good to me.

 

 

One (whose name was the same as a great seventeenth-century British biographer and antiquarian – something I was too stupid to realize at the time, as it certainly meant that he was descended from the man, or at least related to him) was an elderly man who’d served in the British Foreign Service for decades.  His first name was John.  He was living in mellow retirement in North Africa with his much younger (and very handsome) Senegalese lover / companion.  John was very serene, and very happy.

 

 

(I’m sure John and his British friends were all quietly amused by the fact that I didn’t recognize his family name. Well, ha ha, I figured it out eventually, thirty years later, didn’t I?)

 

 

One evening at dinner, I accidentally quoted Jane Austen (“I do not cough for my own amusement”).  It was enough to catch John’s attention, and we began to talk.  He talked about Olivia Manning, whom he had worked with, and whom he had not liked (“We knew she was always noting things down, writing about us”).  A few years ago, finally, I bought the NYRB edition of Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy,” and I still have John’s quiet words ringing in my ears, and I still have not read it completely, because I keep thinking: “John said she was a bitch.”

 

 

On another occasion, he said: “Have you read Rose Macauley?  Peculiar woman. You must read ‘Towers of Trebizond.’”

 

 

I made a mental note of it.

 

 

Years – decades! – later (I’m sure John has passed away by now, god bless him), I finally read Rose Macauley’s “Towers of Trebizond.”

 

 

Oh my dears.  Read it.  It is lovely.

 

 

It is about a youngish middle-aged woman who goes with her Aunt Dot and a priggish Anglican clergyman for a tour of the Black Sea coast of Turkey in the 1950s.  Aunt Dot has a camel, which becomes a very important character in the novel. (“Take my camel, dear,” is the first line of the novel.)  Within not too many pages, Aunt Dot and the clergyman have bolted over the Turkey/Russia border to convert the Communist heathen.  Our narrator is left behind in Turkey to ruminate, and travel, and consider what might happen next. 

 

 

This novel is funny, and sad, and has the most astoundingly shocking ending of any novel I’ve ever read.

 

 

John was right.  This is an essential novel.

 

 

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t wait to read it.  It is too funny, and too lovely, and too sad.

 

 

John and I and Rose will love you for it.

 


 

Debo


There was a nice article in the Sunday Times about Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (which is the best alliterative name I’ve ever heard, edging out Marion Mitchell Morrison). Deborah – Debo to her friends – is the last surviving Mitford girl. She is ninety years old, intelligent, charming, loves Elvis Presley, loves her chickens, and still takes care of her privacy (I admire the way she gently hints to the reporter that it’s time to end the interview).

 

I didn’t know any of the Mitford sisters were still with us. Sometimes I try to enumerate them, the way people try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves. Nancy the novelist; Jessica the Communist; Unity the Fascist; Deborah the duchess – who am I forgetting? I had to look. Pamela, who stayed home and raised poultry, and Diana, the beauty (also a Fascist).

 

The Mitfords were born into an upper-class family in England, and tumbled effortlessly through life. They did not struggle upward; they just floated up, up, up. Even when their politics were awful, they never seemed like awful people. They were funny.

 

Money doesn’t hurt, of course. Without money, there’s very little comfort to be had from life. But money came and went for Debo too, and now she has plenty of it again.

 

She reminds me of an Englishman I knew in Morocco. He was in his eighties in 1984, walked with great difficulty, had trouble breathing sometimes, but was very sharp-minded. We were both dinner guests at a friend’s house, and I accidentally quoted Jane Austen, and we were friends after that. He’d been in the British Foreign Service for decades. He had a much younger and very nice Senegalese boyfriend. He’d known Olivia Manning. He said no one liked her; she was always making furtive notes, as if she was going to write a book about you someday. Another day he pressed a copy of “The Towers of Trebizond” on me and said, “Rose Macaulay. Strange woman. But very good book.” I had a long funny letter from him, but I think I’ve lost it, and now I wish I’d been more careful about keeping it.

 

And there was a piece in the Sunday Times about the 94-year-old Eli Wallach, whom Tennessee Williams said “has discovered the secret of pissing people off,” and whose wife of 62 years, Anne Jackson, sometimes walks into interviews and announces that she wants a divorce, just to shake up the interviewer.

 

I think of Maira Kalman visiting Louise Bourgeois (“She is 96 and still works, for God’s sake!”) and Kitty Carlisle Hart (“She dated George Gershwin, for God’s sake!”). They both served Maira Kalman chocolate. It must mean something.

 

I think of Auden’s portrait of Voltaire in old age:

 

. . . He would write

Nothing is better than life.” But was it? Yes, the fight

Against the false and the unfair

Was always worth it. So was gardening. Civilise.

 

We’d better get out there and cultivate our gardens, y’all. Time’s a-wastin’.

 


 

 

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