Sunday, 2 December 2012

Penguin no. 1628: Venusberg
by Anthony Powell

Flags were flying all over the town because it was Independence Day ... Great precautions had been taken to prevent a demonstration on the part of dissatisfied minorities or disgruntled individuals who might be expected to shout rude words or to throw bombs. In the end the President was himself hidden by his suite and plain-clothes men, a fact that was unfavourably commented on by Baroness Puckler, who said that in the days before the war, when anarchists were an adjunct to any public function of any importance, no royalty would have dreamed of taking so much trouble to stay alive.

Anthony Powell's title is a reference to a mythical German mountain, and while no such place is featured in the novel, the link between story and title is provided in the epigraph which refers to the legendary knight Tannhäuser, the subject of an opera by Wagner. Venusberg is the mythical location of the court of Venus, a destination promising erotic pleasures forbidden by the Pope. Tannhäuser travels there and spends a year worshipping the goddess, but in time he regrets this transgression and seeks absolution from Urban IV. Unaware that it has been granted, he returns to Venusberg and is never seen again.

Anthony Powell's story is about an English journalist named Lushington who is also seeking a haven, but his intention is to run away from love rather than towards it. His application for a temporary posting as a foreign correspondent is an attempt to get some respite from what seems to be a pointless longing for his former mistress Lucy: he remains in love with her, but she is now in love with his friend Da Costa. There is a sense of unreality about Lushington's destination as well: it is a Baltic state whose name he can never recall, a state granted independence from Russia at the end of the war. It seems to be a place populated by some eccentric characters.

He meets a number of them on his outward journey by sea, and they mostly seem to be people struggling in the wake of the disruption to their way of life brought about by the First World War. This is true of the Baroness Puckler, a woman who accurately foretells his future during a game of cards. She has constructed an artificial world out of the ruins of pre-War society, and judges everything by reference to what she perceives to have been an idyllic time. She is therefore critical of all that has occurred since. And it is also true of the young Russian Count Scherbatcheff. His nationality means that he is an outcast in the Baltic state and lives in rather reduced circumstances, at odds with his aristocratic title, but he is similarly unwelcome in his own country because of the communist revolution. Lushington also meets Frau Mauvrin during his journey. She always seems to have him thinking of Lucy, and they soon begin an affair.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is the narrator's observations on the small details of life in this state, a country which seems neither stable nor prosperous. These details tend to be absurd, with the irrationality emphasised by the understated and detached way in which everything is described. The local obsession is with controlling how things appear rather than with how they are, and so the emphasis is on costume and decoration, and parades and balls, and not on achieving anything of substance. It means, for example, that people live in half-built buildings, and the police fail to solve crimes. Even the Bolsheviks and revolutionaries seem inept, effective in killing bystanders, but not in assassinating those in power. With the bombs, revolutionaries and assassins, the potential for danger seems ever present, but the people are almost oblivious to it, preoccupied with the small details of their lives.

There is no suggestion that this concern with trivialities is restricted to far-off European states. Lushington's two London-based literary editors both seem to speak in platitudes, and they are no more capable of discerning what is important than the people he encounters in the unnamed Baltic state. A Russian character who shares Lushington's return journey to England suggests to him that an appropriate philosophy for life is captured in the expression: nitchen, roughly translated as what does it matter? It is the same idea presented in Venusberg's epigraph: Here, according to popular tradition, is situated the grotto of Venus, into which she enticed the knight Tannhäuser; fine view from the top. 

I found it a disconcerting book. The idea that people are inclined to consume their lives with pointless obsessions, and generally fail to recognise what is important, is both ludicrous and depressing, and so the story seemed simultaneously comic and dispiriting.

Also by Anthony Powell:
Penguin no. 1706: What's Become of Waring
Penguin no. 1728: A Question of Upbringing
Penguin no. 2075: Casanova's Chinese Restaurant


  1. That last paragraph is a nice summation of the subject matter of many novels. There's more than a grain of truth in these observations. Is writing about books a pointless obsession? No!

  2. I picked this one up in London recently to add to my pile of Powells! I think his characters often seem to be rather pointlessly obsessed and I suspect he was reflecting his perception of the world around him. Intriguing!



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