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Anthony Powell: Afternoon Men

Powell’s first novel treads the path that had already been trod by Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley, that of a witty and urbane comedy of manners centering round the upper class who, as Waugh put it, were already in decline and fall. As Powell tells us at the beginning, the title comes from The Anatomy of Melancholy, the appropriate quote being they are a company of giddy-heads, afternoon men. The first section of the novel is called Montage and Powell gives us a set of portraits rather than a formal plot. We start with the protagonist, William Atwater. He works in a museum and is looking for love but the women he meets are seemingly shallow. His friend, Raymond Pringle, the painter, is equally unfortunate in his love affairs. The trouble about women, he says, is that you can’t trust them. The two men are different – Pringle more forceful than his low key friend. The two flit around parties, talk a lot, meet women, have brief but not very successful affairs with women but really don’t do too much. Powell is showing us, as he later said, not a satirical view of this society but more a comic view, one that shows a superficially carefree and easy-going existence but one where we catch glimpses of sadness, particularly sadness that there is something missing in their lives. It is certainly an interesting novel and one that prefigures The Dance to the Music of Time series but not a great novel.

Publishing history

First published by Duckworth in 1931