I can’t remember when I discovered Anthony Powell, but I do know that what caught my attention about his first novel, Afternoon Men (1931), was somebody’s description of it as ‘the party novel to end all party novels’. The young Powell, it turned out, was a party animal whose spiritual home was the Twenties, when art got mixed up with life. Hence his disdain for the Thirties when, as he put it, ‘the artists and good-timers’ gave way to ‘the politicians and the prigs’. And yet the novel of his I return to again and again, What’s Become of Waring, was written in 1938, long after the public’s appetite for frivolity had waned. So although you suspect that his narrator, like Powell himself, is a good-timer at heart, the only party he attends is a low-key affair at the remote south London depot of a dowdy Territorial unit.
But there’s another way in which Waring differs from Afternoon Men and Powell’s three other pre-war novels. It is told in the first person:
I was sitting in the Guards’ Chapel under the terra-cotta lunette which contains the Centurion saying to one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to his servant, Do this, and he doeth it. The occasion was the wedding of a girl called Fitzgibbon who was marrying a young man in the Coldstream . . . There was a wait while the photographers did their business; and the crowd began to struggle towards the doors of that extravagant Lombardian interior, which always seems like a place you are shown round after the revolution, the guide pointing out celebrities among the carved names, rather than a church in regular use. The congregation hung about for a while among the sad, tattered colours and glittering Victorian blazonry, until they were disgorged at last from under the massive pediment on to the barrack square.
We never learn the narrator’s name but his tone of voice – cultivated, speculative, ir
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