No general collection of Anthony Powell’s correspondence has yet been published, but this charming sliver of letters between Powell (1905–2000) and Robert Vanderbilt, a New York bookseller, provides an elegant hors d’oeuvre. The prime mover of the book is John Saumarez Smith, the well-known London bookman, who, in 2005, was invited by Vanderbilt’s wife to inspect the decade-long correspondence between the rising novelist (the inaugural installment of the twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time appeared in 1951) and his enthusiastic American booster. Vanderbilt first wrote Powell in the winter of 1952, proposing to publish an American edition of some early novels. In due course, Venusberg (1932) and Agents and Patients (1936) were brought out in a single volume, with amusing jacket illustrations by Osbert Lancaster. The Acceptance of Absurdity chronicles the dual evolution of that enterprise and a quickly ripening epistolary friendship.
In February, “Dear Mr. Powell” is “very sincerely” thankful for “Dear Mr. Vanderbilt’s” interest. By autumn, when Vanderbilt had married and paid a honeymoon visit to Powell and his wife, we’ve moved on to “Bob” and “Tony.” Vanderbilt cracked the ice with “Dear Anthony Powell.” Powell broke it by responding “Dear Bob (if you don’t feel this odiously familiar after our rather brief acquaintance in the flesh).” Vanderbilt apparently didn’t, since he replied “Dear Tony,” recalling the afternoon he had read “all the turgid way through an article in Psychoanalytic Quarterly called ‘The Use of First Names and Penis Identification.’” “The subject,” he confesses,
was difficult for me then and has gotten more so. My mother-in-law must be called Greta; it is impossible. Virginia [his wife] can’t say Bob, and I am consequently “You,” or nothing at all. Just the same, I like to be called by my first name and am able to type other people’s, since my blush goes unseen.
Powell responds that he, too, finds the “whole Christian name question fraught with danger, though I did not know it had such alarming implications as those you mention.” What the editors rightly call a “literary kaleidoscope with London and New York equally represented” is freshly animated after Powell becomes literary editor of Punch and the correspondents plot, plan, and conspire to engineer reviews and publicity for books and authors they admire. Along the way there is gossip, gambits, and gifts (whisky, sides of beef). In 1961, Vanderbilt (who died in 2009) sold his two New York bookshops and he and his wife decamped to Gstaad, ending not only a business but also a period-piece literary association. Jonathan Kooperstein has graced this agreeable volume with a discreet multitude of intelligent and informative who’s-who footnotes.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 6, on page 76
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