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Dawn Powell: The Wicked Pavilion

The title of this novel comes from Thomas Creevey and his Creevey Papers: … oh this wicked Pavilion! We were kept there till half-past one this morning waiting for the Prince, and it has kept me in bed with the head-ache till twelve to-day.…. In this book, the wicked pavilion refers to a New York café restaurant, the Café Julien, presided over by the somewhat cynical waiter Philippe. The book opens and closes with Dennis Orphen who, like nearly all of the characters in this book, regularly frequents the the Café Julien. Orphen makes no other appearance in the book, but is a main character in Powell’s previous novel, Turn, Magic Wheel.

As is usual in Powell’s novels, we follow a host of characters in New York (and also, less commonly in her work, we briefly dip into Boston society – Nobody’s ever read a book in Boston, they just have libraries. Nobody likes paintings, they just buy them. They go for concerts in a big way because all real Bostonians are deaf as posts so music doesn’t give them any pain. I tell you in Boston the word “ignorance” just means no money in the family ). All of the characters are subjected to Powell’s usual mocking and all are in some way part of what we might call New York society, though some higher up the scale than others.

We can be sure that there will be stories of love and love gone wrong, rags to riches and riches to rags stories, gossiping and backbiting, the artistic world, a bit of feminism, a few dirty deeds (but not too dirty) and lots and lots of satire.

We start with love gone wrong as the first character we meet, after Orphen, is Rick Prescott. Though most of the novel is set in 1948 and after (It was an old man’s decade), Rick’s story starts at the beginning of the war (remember that, for the US, the war started not in 1939 but, to all intents and purposes, in 1942). Prescott is a naive young man about to go to war and meets a group of friends at the café. They talk continually about one of their group who is not present. She is Ellenora Carsdale. When she finally arrives, both find a certain spark between them, even though Ellenora is already engaged. However, when he accompanies her home, he tries to kiss her, is rebuffed and falls over the dustbins.

Despite this, neither forgets the other. Ellenora breaks off her engagement and Ricky goes to war. When he returns, he hunts her out and soon finds her. They get back together but the course of true love never runs smoothly in a Powell novel and this case is no exception.

The next character we meet is Dalzell Sloane, a fifty year old artist who is currently not having much success. We follow him and his fellow artists Ben Forrester and Marius (he appears to only have the one name). None of them has done particularly well and struggle endlessly with money problems, dealers and the opposite sex. Finally, Marius makes the ultimate wise career move – he dies. (The greatest favor Marius, the man, had ever done for Marius, the artist, was to die at exactly the right moment.) Suddenly, his stock shoots up. Everyone wants a Marius. Everyone knew him and wants to talk about him. Powell takes great pleasure in mocking the art world – the artists, the critics, the dealers, the hangers-on, the journalists. An aspiring journalist, Briggs, is sent out to write about him. Briggs had hoped for assignments in the field of sports but the editor felt that literary training and education were required for that, whereas art was a department where inexperience and ignorance would not be noticed.

Briggs will later plan on being a novelist and he has very determined views on novel writing. No matter what else we talk about it’s a person’s financial status that forms his point of view about everything else. I propose to X-ray each character’s bankbook as soon as they enter so everything falls into place.

Sloane and Forrester, both hard up, concoct a clever plan to cash in on Marius’ new found fame which, amongst other things, is based on the fact that critics and dealers cannot distinguish the work of one artist from another. Cynthia Earle is a patron of the arts, both in financial terms and sexual terms. Cynthia Earle’s ability to buy a porkchop for an artist or writer when they were hungry endowed her with the most exquisite perceptivity and the right to judge their work. By the end of the book, she is on her fifth husband and has had quite a few affairs.

Jerry Dulaine is a model and knows many men, not least because she seems to make no demands of them. (You’ve got to calm him down right away like you would a nervous virgin.) She becomes friends with Elsie Hookley, who lives in the same building as her. They had nothing in common but a profound distaste for women friends and a passion for private life. Elsie is the widow of a European baron and comes from a rich Boston family. Her parents have died. However, her older brother, Wharton, who also lives in New York, has managed to cheat her out of much of her inheritance. Wharton, his snobbishness, his dishonesty towards his sister and his problems with both his wife and four daughters, is subject to particular mockery by Powell.

Jerry, however, is getting old. Elsie suggests she should get married but she does not want children. However, she finds a suitable man to get and Elsie plans a campaign for her to trap him. Inevitably, things do not work out as planned. With the IRS after her for back taxes, an arrest for disorderly conduct, a falling-out with Elsie and serious financial problems, she is getting very worried.

All of these characters interact, often though not always in the Julien. They argue – about money, love and art. They mess up their lives. When the Julien goes, as is inevitable, their lives change. As Orphen writes at the end It must be that the Julien was all that these people really liked about each other for now when they chance across each other in the street they look through each other, unrecognizing, or cross the street quickly with the vague feeling that here was someone identified with unhappy memories…Curious, too, that everyone connected with the café looks so small on the street..

This is another fine book from Powell, with her usual mocking tone, sparing no-one, and dissecting the rich, would-be rich and not so rich in New York. The art world, journalism, would-be New Yorkers from out of town, the ambitious, the lazy, Bostonians and lovers, no-one escapes her mockery.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Houghton Mifflin