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Anthony Powell - A Buyers Market

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Anthony Powell - A Buyers Market

A Buyers Market
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Anthony Powell's universally acclaimed epic A Dance to the Music of Time offers a matchless panorama of twentieth-century London. Now, for the first time in decades, readers in the United States can read the books of Dance as they were originally published-as twelve individual novels-but with a twenty-first-century twist: they're available only as e-books. The second volume, A Buyer's Market (1952), finds young Nick Jenkins struggling to establish himself in London. Amid the fever of the 1920s, he attends formal dinners and wild parties; makes his first tentative forays into the worlds of art, culture, and bohemian life; and suffers his first disappointments in love. Old friends come and go, but the paths they once shared are rapidly diverging: Stringham is settling into a life of debauchery and drink, Templer is plunging into the world of business, and Widmerpool, though still a figure of out-of-place grotesquerie, remains unbowed, confident in his own importance and eventual success. A Buyer's Market is a striking portrait of the pleasures and anxieties of early adulthood, set against a backdrop of London life and culture at one of its most effervescent moments.

This touch of pedantry had been apparent at a later date, when we ran across Mr. Deacon in the Louvre, during summer holidays taken soon after the termination of the war, when my father was still on duty in Paris. That afternoon, although I did not immediately recognise him, I had already wondered who might be the tall, lean, rather bent figure, moving restlessly about at the far end of the gallery; and his name, spoken again after so many years, at once identified him in my mind. When we had come up with him he was inspecting with close attention Perugino’s St. Sebastian, for the better examination of which, stooping slightly, he had just produced a small magnifying-glass with a gold rim. He wore a thickish pepper-and-salt suit — no longer cut with belt and side-pleats — and he carried in his hand a hat, broad-brimmed and furry, the general effect of the whole outfit being, perhaps intentionally, a trifle down-at-heel: together with the additionally disturbing suggestion that his slightly curved torso might be enclosed within some form of imperfectly fitting corset. His grey hair, which needed cutting, was brushed straight back, showing off a profile distinguished rather than otherwise: a little like that of an actor made up to play the part of Prospero, the face heavily lined and grave, without conveying any sense of dejection.

He recognised my parents at once, greeting them with an odd, stilted formality, again like an old-fashioned actor’s. My father — who was not in uniform — began to explain that he was attached to the staff of the Conference. Mr. Deacon, listened with an absorbed expression, failed or, perhaps it would be truer to say, pretended for reasons of his own to misunderstand the nature of this employment. In his resonant, faintly ironical voice, he asked: “And what might you be conferring about?”

At that period Paris was full of missions and delegates, emissaries and plenipotentiaries of one kind and another, brought there by the traffic of the Peace Treaty; and probably my father could not imagine why Mr. Deacon should appear to want further details about his job (which had, I believe something to do with disarmament), a matter which could, after all, at least in its details, be only of professional interest. He certainly did not guess that Mr. Deacon must have decided for the moment to close his eyes to the Conference, together with much — if not all — that had led to its existence; or, at least, preferred, anyway at that juncture, to ignore all its current circumstances. My father’s reply, no doubt intentionally discreet, was therefore worded in general terms; and the explanation, so far as could be seen, took Mr. Deacon no farther in discovering why we were at that hour in the Louvre.

“In connection with those expositions the French love so much?” he suggested. “So you are no longer militaire?”

“As a matter of fact, they have not given nearly so much trouble as you might expect,” said my father, who must have taken this query to be a whimsical manner of referring to some supposed form of intransigence over negotiation on the part of the French staff-officer constituting his “opposite number.”

“I don’t know much about these things,” Mr. Deacon admitted.

The matter rested there, foundations of conversation changing to the delineation of St. Sebastian: Mr. Deacon suddenly showing an unexpected grasp of military hierarchy — at least of a somewhat obsolete order — by pointing out that the Saint, holding as he did the rank of centurion — and being, therefore, a comparatively senior non-commissioned or warrant officer — probably possessed a less youthful and altogether more rugged appearance than that attributed to him by Perugino: and, indeed, commonly, by most other painters of hagiographical subjects. Going on to speak more generally of the Peruginos to be found throughout the rest of the gallery, Mr. Deacon alleged that more than one was labelled “Raphael.” We did not dispute this assertion. Questioned as to how long he had himself been living in Paris, Mr. Deacon was vague; nor was it clear how he had occupied himself during the war, the course of which he seemed scarcely to have noticed. He implied that he had “settled abroad” more or less permanently; anyway, for a long time.

“There really are moments when one feels one has more in common with the French than with one’s own countrymen,” he said. “Their practical way of looking at things appeals to a certain side of me — though perhaps not the best side. If you want something here, the question is: Have you got the money to pay for it? If the answer is ‘yes,’ all is well; if ‘no,’ you have to go without. Besides, there is a freer atmosphere. That is something that revolutions do. There is really nowhere else in the world like Paris.”

He was living, he told us, “in a little place off the Boul’ Mich’.”

“I’m afraid I can’t possibly ask you there in its present state,” he added. “Moving in always takes an age. And I have so many treasures.”

He shook his head after an inquiry regarding his painting.

“Much more interested in my collections now,” he said. “One of the reasons I am over here is that I have been doing a little buying for friends as well as for myself.”

“But I expect you keep your own work up now and then.”

“After all, why should one go on adding to the detritus in this transitory world?” asked Mr. Deacon, raising his shoulders and smiling. “Still I sometimes take a sketchbook to a café—preferably some little estaminet in one of the working-class quarters. One gets a good head here, and a vigorous pose there. I collect heads — and necks — as you may remember.”

He excused himself politely, though quite definitely, from an invitation to luncheon at the Interallié, a club of which he had, apparently, never heard; though he complained that Paris was more expensive than formerly, expressing at the same time regret at the “Americanisation” of the Latin Quarter.

“I sometimes think of moving up to Montmartre, like an artist of Whistler’s time,” he said.

Conversation waned after this. He asked how long we were staying in France, seeming, if anything, relieved to hear that we should all of us be back in England soon. On parting, there was perhaps a suggestion that the encounter had been, for no obvious reason, a shade uncomfortable; in this respect not necessarily worse than such meetings are apt to turn out between persons possessing little in common who run across each other after a long separation, and have to rely on common interests, by then half-forgotten. This faint sense of tension may also have owed something to Mr. Deacon’s apparent unwillingness to go even so far in comparing autobiographical notes as might have been thought allowably free from the smallest suggestion of an undue display of egotism; especially when conversation was limited chiefly because one side lacked any idea of what the other had been doing for a number of years.

“I was glad to see Deacon again,” my father said afterwards, when, that afternoon, we were on our way to tea at the Walpole-Wilsons’ flat in Passy. “He looked a lot older.”

That must have been almost the last time that I heard either of my parents refer to Mr. Deacon or his affairs.

However, the meeting at the Louvre, among other experiences of going abroad for the first time, remained in my mind as something rather important. Mr. Deacon’s reappearance at that season seemed not only to indicate divorce of maturity from childhood, but also to emphasise the dependence of those two states one upon the other. “Grown-up” in the “old days,” Mr. Deacon was grown-up still: I myself, on the other hand, had changed. There was still distance to travel, but I was on the way to drawing level with Mr. Deacon, as a fellow grown-up, himself no longer a figment of memory from childhood, but visible proof that life had existed in much the same way before I had begun to any serious extent to take part; and would, without doubt, continue to prevail long after he and I had ceased to participate. In addition to this appreciation of his status as a kind of milestone on the winding and dusty road of existence, I found something interesting — though not entirely comfortable — about Mr. Deacon’s personality. He had given me a long, appraising glance when we shook hands, an action in itself, for some reason, rather unexpected, and later he had asked which were my favourite pictures in the gallery, and elsewhere, in the same deep, grave voice with which he had formerly explained his views on tone values: listening to the reply as if the information there contained might possess considerable importance for himself.

This apparent deference to what was necessarily unformed opinion seemed so flattering that I remembered him clearly long after our return to England; and, six or seven years later, when I saw the signature “E. Bosworth Deacon” in the corner of an oil-painting that hung high on the wall of the innermost part of the hall in the Walpole-Wilsons’ house in Eaton Square, the atmosphere of that occasion in the Louvre, the talk about the Conference and St. Sebastian, the feeling of constraint — of embarrassment, almost — the visit, later in the day, to the Walpole-Wilsons themselves, came back all at once very clearly: even the illusion of universal relief that belonged to that historical period: of war being, surprisingly, at an end: of the imminence of “a good time”: of all that odd sense of intellectual emancipation that belonged, or, at least, seemed, perhaps rather spuriously, to belong, to the art of that epoch: its excitement and its melancholy mingling with kaleidoscopic impressions of a first sight of Paris. All these thoughts briefly and speedily suggested themselves, when, taking off my overcoat on my first visit to the house in Eaton Square — after I had come to live in London — I observed Mr. Deacon’s picture. The canvas, comparatively small for a “Deacon,” evidently not much considered by its owners, had been placed beyond the staircase above a Victorian barometer in a polished mahogany case. The subject was in a similar vein to those other scenes lying in the sale-room: the gold tablet at the foot of the frame baldly stating, without mentioning the artist’s name, “Boyhood of Cyrus” This was in fact, the first “Deacon” I had ever set eyes upon.

The importance that Boyhood of Cyrus eventually assumed had, however, nothing to do with the painter, or the merits, such as they were, of the picture itself: its significance being attained simply and solely as symbol of the probable physical proximity of Barbara Goring, Lady Walpole-Wilson’s niece. This association of ideas was, indeed, so powerful that even years after I had ceased to be a guest at the Walpole-Wilson table I could not hear the name “Cyrus” mentioned — fortunately, in the circumstances, a fairly rare occurrence in everyday life — without being reminded of the pains of early love; while at the time of which I write almost any oil-painting illustrative of a remotely classical scene (such as one sees occasionally in the windows of dealers round St. James’s normally specialising in genre pictures) would be liable to recall the fact, if by some unlikely chance forgotten, that I had not seen Barbara for a longer or shorter period.

I must have been about twenty-one or twenty-two at the time, and held then many rather wild ideas on the subject of women: conceptions largely the result of having read a good deal without simultaneous opportunity to modify by personal experience the recorded judgment of others upon that matter: estimates often excellent in their conclusions if correctly interpreted, though requiring practical knowledge to be appreciated at their full value.

At school I had known Tom Goring, who had later gone into the Sixtieth, and, although we had never had much to do with each other, I remembered some story of Stringham’s of how both of them had put up money to buy a crib for Horace — or another Latin author whose works they were required to render into English — and of trouble that ensued from the translation supplied having contained passages omitted in the official educational textbook. This fact of her elder brother having been my contemporary — the younger son, David, was still at school — may perhaps have had something to do with finding myself, immediately after our first meeting, on good terms with Barbara; though the matter of getting on well with young men in no circumstances presented serious difficulty to her.

“Do be quick, if you are going to ask me for a dance,” she had said, when her cousin, Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, had first introduced us. “I can’t wait all night while you make up your mind.”

I was, I must admit, enchanted on the spot by this comportment, which I found far from discouraging. On some earlier occasion a dowager had referred to Barbara in toy presence as “that rather noisy little Goring girl,” and the description was a just one. She was small and dark, with hair cut in a square “bob,” which — other girls used to complain — was always hopelessly untidy. Her restlessness was of that deceptive kind that usually indicates a fundamental deficiency, rather than surplus of energy, though I cannot claim, either in principle, or with particular reference to Barbara herself, to have speculated on this diagnosis until many years later. I remember, however, that when we met fortuitously in Hyde Park one Sunday afternoon quite a long time later (as it seemed to me), I still retained some sense of proportion about her, although we had by then seen a good deal of each other. She was walking in the Park that afternoon with Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, fated apparently to be witness of the various stages of our relationship. I had not managed to get away from London that week-end, and to fall in by chance with these two seemed a wonderful piece of luck. That was the last day for many months that I woke up in the morning without immediately thinking of Barbara.

“Oh, what fun to meet like this,” she had said.

I felt immediately a sense of extraordinary exhilaration at this harmless remark. It was June, and there had been rain the day before, so that the grass smelt fresh and luxuriant. The weather, though warm, was not disagreeably hot. The precise location of our meeting was a spot not far from the Achilles statue. We strolled, all three, towards Kensington Gardens. The Row was empty. Sparkles of light radiated this way and that from the clusters of white statuary and nodular gilt pinnacles of the Albert Memorial, towards which we were steadily moving. Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, a square, broad-shouldered girl, rather above the average in height, wore her hair plaited in a bun at the back, which always looked as if it were about to come down at any moment: and did sometimes, in fact, descend piecemeal. She had brought with her Sultan, a labrador, and was trying to train this dog by blasts on a whistle, which she accompanied with harsh, monosyllabic shouting. That enterprise, the training of Sultan, was in keeping with Eleanor’s habit of behaviour, as she was always accustomed to act, in principle, as if London were the country, an exercise of will she rarely relaxed.

We ascended the steps of the Albert Memorial and inspected the figures of the Arts and Sciences loitering in high relief round the central mass of that monument. Eleanor, still blowing her whistle fitfully, made some comment regarding the muscles of the bearded male figure belonging to the group called “Manufactures” which caused Barbara to burst out laughing. This happened on the way down the steps at the south-east corner, approaching the statues symbolising Asia, where, beside the kneeling elephant, the Bedouin for ever rests on his haunches in hopeless contemplation of Kensington Gardens’ trees and thickets, the blackened sockets of his eyes ranging endlessly over the rich foliage of these oases of the mirage.

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