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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Afternoon Men

Anthony Powell

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To purchase Afternoon Men

Title: Afternoon Men
Author: Anthony Powell
Genre: Novel
Written: 1931
Length: 221 pages
Availability: Afternoon Men - US
Afternoon Men - UK
Afternoon Men - Canada
Die Ziellosen - Deutschland
Uomini da cocktail - Italia
Hombres del ocaso - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • With a Foreword by Ed Park

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Our Assessment:

B+ : amusing and well-crafted

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/10/1963 John Bowen
Sunday Times A 14/6/1931 Ralph Straus

  From the Reviews:
  • "(V)ery much of its time. (...) The novel is almost entirely in dialogue -- and the dialogue is funny. (...) It contains events -- seduction, an attempted suicide. Yet all is drift, all is pointless. (...) I myself prefer his Afternoon Men and From a View to a Death (his third novel published in 1933 to the ponderous tapestry of the Music of Time series." - John Bowen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A)n extremely good book, with a manner and style of its own (.....) Mr. Powell has managed to construct a really attractive book -- easily the best book of the kind that I have read, unless Vile Bodies is to be included in its category. Its satire, moreover, is all the more poignant for being so cunningly hidden." - Ralph Straus, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Afternoon Men takes its title from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Powell using a passage from it also as an epigraph that concludes: "they are a company of giddy-heads, afternoon men ...", and it is a novel of a collection of such 'giddy-heads', men and women swirling and drifting in loose connection and overlap. They have vague ambitions but fairly little conviction; there are stabs at effort, but for the most part their pursuit of careers and lovers alike feels lackluster -- though that too is one of their affectations. Typical of their attitudes is a scene of William Atwater -- the central character, insofar as there is one --"who had failed twice for the Foreign Office" (not) at work at his job in a museum, where among other things:

It occurred to him to begin writing a novel, but his brain was almost at a standstill and it would be a mistake to make a false start. There were several letters to be dealt with. Unacceptable invitations, bills, definite demands for money. These might have to remain unanswered for a day or two as he did not feel well that morning. Then there was the possible distraction of writing a letter to Undershaft in New York. That sort of thing cleared the mind. It crystallised ideas. The expression of gossip on paper put matters in their proper perspective. Besides he wanted to hear more of the Annamite. Or he might write to his own sister, who was unhappily married to a man in the Indian Cavalry. But he did not feel much like that either. Instead he sat and thought about existence and its difficulties.
       [The original edition, surprisingly many reprints, as well as the first American edition of the novel (1963) mis-print 'perspective' as 'perspecitve' here, which seems almost appropriate]
       The novel is dominated by dialogue, however, and interaction, the characters in constant exchanges, often over drinks or at various forms of get-togethers -- parties, gallery-openings, and, in the final section, an isolated country house many of them share for a few weeks in the summer. Much of the back and forth seems banal or mundane, but despite being spare and often unattributed -- just a quick back and forth of conversation -- is often surprisingly vivid, the scenes easily expanding in the reader's imagination. Powell shows much more than tells, and does so very well -- to the extent that the rare sentence that simply tells ("That morning the atmosphere in the house was not good") feels disappointing.
       Even the simply summed up scenes and conversations are beautifully sharp in their concision:
     Atwater talked for a short time about beards in history. No one listened. Harriet said she did not like beards for men or women. Dinner was announced.
     'Where's Gwen ?'
     'She's gone away for the week-end.'
     'She doesn't like you.'
     'I know she doesn't.'
     'What are you going to do about it ?'
     And then art. She talked about that for some time. Or, alternatively, literature. Atwater smoked.
       The novel is presented in three parts -- 'Montage', 'Perihelion', and 'Palindrome'. The first two are set in London, while most of the third is set in the country, in a house rented by the artist Raymond Pringle, before returning to London for its conclusion.
       The opening scene features Atwater and Pringle at a bar, and if Atwater is the main character in the story, it is around Pringle that much of the action -- to the extent there is any -- is set. A twenty-eight-year-old painter, there is a: "a small but obstinate public that bought his pictures, never enough to satisfy Pringle himself and only just enough to make it worth the gallery's while to give him another show, but never deserting him entirely". It also helps that his father left him some money, and so: "Pringle, though he did not much care for parting with it, had a comfortable income". The opening of his latest show is one of the bigger events in the novel, and it is Pringle who rents the country house and invites a variety of acquaintances to stay with him -- and it is there that the one greater crisis in the novel occurs, with Pringle at its center. Inevitably, however, -- and as the last section's title, 'Palindrome' already hinted at -- everything pretty much returns to exactly where it had been at the outset: forwards and backwards are pretty much interchangeable in their lives.
       It makes for an amusing portrait of a particular kind of interwar London life, the characters almost all scrounging for money -- a frequent subject, though generally about small and even trivial amounts -- and some sort of future. One can hardly speak of them wanting to make something of themselves, as in their pursuits -- career- and love-wise -- they rarely show much by way of ambition. Some have vague dreams of America -- an often invoked off-stage character is Undershaft, who is cited as an example of sorts, having made it to the US -- though even he is back in London by the end. But overall they just continue to go through most of the same motions -- finding, as one character notes perplexedly-apologetically about the near-universal fallback:
     'We sometimes have drink here,' she said. 'But it seems to get drunk.'
       The satire is strong, too -- not least about writing and literary aspirations: as someone comments about Pringle: "Poor Raymond. No talent. He can't even write". And there's Fotheringham, who muses:
     'Anyway, I must find a job. I should like to find something that brought me into touch with people who really mattered. Authors and so on.'
       It is all very English, in feel and style, and of and about a certain generation and class -- but the types, and the way they stumble along, remain familiar; a bit of change in color and detail and they could as easily inhabit a contemporary novel, near a century later.
       Afternoon Men is not a major work, but it's an 'entertainment', in the best sense, and good fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 January 2024

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Afternoon Men: Reviews: Anthony Powell: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Anthony Powell lived 1905 to 2000.

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© 2024 the complete review

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