Magazine article The Spectator

Friends across the Sea

Magazine article The Spectator

Friends across the Sea

Article excerpt

The Acceptance of Absurdity edited by John Saumarez Smith and Jonathan Kooperstein Maggs Brothers,

£25, pp.126

On 12 February 1952 the novelist Anthony Powell received a letter from a bookseller in New York. Robert Vanderbilt Jr was the proprietor of a couple of Manhattan bookstores and a great admirer of Powell's. He wrote to ask if he might himself publish a couple of the novelist's out-of-print works.

Powell was delighted. The two titles chosen were Venusberg and Agents and Patients, the covers of both to be designed by Powell's old friend Osbert Lancaster. As their letters make clear, Powell and Vanderbilt quickly found they had much in common, and as Powell had worked in publishing before the war, he was able to engage very much on a level with Vanderbilt when discussing the more technical aspects of the process.

For his part Vanderbilt, with his literary clientele, was in a good position to bring his author to their notice. His approach was not always successful. The great Edmund Wilson, for instance, one of the first to whom he had written, showed no interest whatever in Powell ('Please don't suggest my reading him. . .'). A more enthusiastic response was received from Elizabeth Bowen, who at once offered to write a review, news which thrilled Vanderbilt, if Powell's reaction was rather more lackadaisical. '[Bowen] is not a bad old girl, ' came the reply, 'and will certainly help if it suits her own programme.'

Within a very short time the dialogue expands into much broader territory. Both are deeply immersed in their literary worlds, with a keen interest in gossip and human nature. The friendship flourished, and when after only a few months Vanderbilt married and came to England on his honeymoon, he was invited to spend a day with the Powells in Somerset. After this first meeting the letters take on a much more informal tone, with Powell even initiating the use of christian names, not a practice which came to him easily. 'I find the whole christian name subject fraught with danger, ' he confesses to 'Bob'. 'I used to go through agonies in the film business where it is de rigueur, whatever the gap in salary between oneself and some powerful executive.'

Unsurprisingly, it is Powell whose letters are more rewarding, although Vanderbilt's are both amusing and informative. He is a voracious and discriminating reader, and indeed it is he who provides the title to the collection. …

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