Agents and Patients: A Novel

Agents and Patients: A Novel

by Anthony Powell

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Unsavory artists, titled boobs, and charlatans with an affinity for Freud—such are the oddballs whose antics animate the early novels of the late British master Anthony Powell. A genius of social satire delivered with a very dry wit, Powell builds his comedies on the foibles of British high society between the wars, delving into subjects as various as psychoanalysis, the film industry, publishing, and (of course) sex. More explorations of relationships and vanity than plot-driven narratives, these slim novels reveal the early stirrings of the unequaled style, ear for dialogue, and eye for irony that would reach their caustic peak in Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time.
In Agents and Patients, we return to London with the newly wealthy, memorably named Blore-Smith: an innocent, decent enough chap . . . and a drip. Vulnerable to the machinations of those with less money and more lust, Blore-Smith falls victim to two con artists whose ploys carry him through to the art galleries and whorehouses of Paris, Berlin, and beyond.
Written from a vantage point both high and necessarily narrow, Powell’s early novels nevertheless deal in the universal themes that would become a substantial part of his oeuvre: pride, greed, and what makes people behave as they do. Filled with eccentric characters and piercing insights, Powell’s work is achingly hilarious, human, and true.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226137490
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/26/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,021,413
File size: 972 KB

About the Author

Anthony Powell (1905-2000) was an English novelist best known for A Dance to the Music of Time, which was published in twelve volumes between 1951 and 1975. He also wrote seven other novels, a biography of John Aubrey, two plays, and three volumes of collected reviews and essays, as well as a four-volume autobiography, an abridged version of which, To Keep the Ball Rolling, is available from the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Agents and Patients

A Novel

By Anthony Powell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1936 Anthony Powell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13749-0


CHIPCHASE, judging it prudent, from an increasingly set expression on Maltravers's face, to bring the story of his emotional life to an end, said:

'I don't pretend that my love affairs are not sordid. They are. They always have been. I like sordid affairs. What I object to is the assumption that just because one's love affairs are sordid it doesn't matter whether or not they go wrong.'

Maltravers said: 'Naturally, naturally. It's far worse. People who have unsordid love affairs have extraneous things to fall back on. Sordid love affairs have to be their own reward.'

After he had said that Maltravers leant forward in the direction of his coffee, stiffly, because his movements were circumscribed by the heavy overcoat he had not removed in spite of the comparative heat of the room. He said:

'The handicaps that I myself have had to contend with in life have been enormous. Simply enormous. But I have come through. I am at one with myself. For example, I don't want money any longer.'

They sat in a high narrow room crowded with chairs and small tables where men and a few women came to drink coffee in sober surroundings. A pleated red curtain, set a foot or two back from the plate glass and rising to half the height of the window, gave the exterior of this coffee-room the appearance of a tailor's shop. The uncurtained window at the back of the room looked out on to a whitewashed wall, so close that even on fine days the place was in twilight. When there was a fog about, the inside, only brightened by the reflections of the gas fire on the metal of the massive funereal urns in which the chicory stewed, was like a cave; and the linoleum floor a vein of grey-pink rock, some volcanic substratum. The time was nearly half-past three in the afternoon and Maltravers and Chipchase had the room to themselves.

When Maltravers talked like this Chipchase knew that he was hard up. Chipchase had suspected this during lunch and now he felt sure of it. Both of them were post-war types, already perhaps a little dated. This was more immediately apparent in the case of Chipchase, whose emaciated physique and severe expression gave some indication of his historical background. He was an art critic by profession and an amateur of psycho-analysis. Maltravers, who was tall and in a genial way distinguished-looking, had connections with the film industry and might have been a better-class gangster figure of any period. The black-and-brown check pattern of his overcoat, the thick striped scarf wound round his neck, and the cloth cap he wore recalled indistinctly an owner-driver of the early days of motoring. They gave no hint of intellectual aptitudes.

Chipchase said: 'When do you go to Berlin?'

'Not for some months. It may even fall through. Meanwhile my Hollywood intrigues continue.'

'I may be crossing the Atlantic in the autumn myself.'

'A lecture tour?'

'On sub-normal psychology. But that may fall through too.'

'What I need,' Maltravers said, 'is new and vital experience. As when I sold religious books from door to door to atone for having lost all my savings gambling with stocks and shares.'

'Why not sell them again?'

'It would lose its virtue by repetition.'

'Pay me to put you right psychologically. I share none of your feelings about not wanting money, and you obviously need treatment.'

'Too late.'

Chipchase nodded several times to himself. Since Maltravers had left the government office in which he had begun his career he had had several professions. The most substantial of these had been his film work. He wrote dialogue and adapted scenarios. Like Chipchase he too had dabbled in journalism, which had left both of them with its attendant paranoiac leanings. Chipchase had published a short book on psycho-analysis in relation to automatic writing, but its sales had not been large and it looked as if his life work was to be writing weekly articles on the galleries for a respectable provincial paper. This had been a bad year. Both he and Maltravers were feeling the effects of the trade depression which had set in.

Maltravers drank off his coffee at a gulp.

'When I find a rich man to put up the money for my film,' he said, 'I will employ you.'

'Thank you. As an actor?'

'In a sense. Since you say that you need money.'

'What I really want,' Chipchase said, 'is a suitable patient to experiment on for a new system of psychological and psycho-analytical treatment that I am developing. Why not pay me to begin on you?'

'It is in your capacity as psycho-analyst that I should need you if I wanted you at all. I want my film to be a document of behaviour founded to a considerable extent on the findings of psycho-analysis. I take a small group of people. I show certain salient features of themselves. Dreams. Desires. I illustrate their behaviour.'

Chipchase coughed.

'I see,' he said.

'Now you must have noticed,' Maltravers said, 'that a great many of the best films are pictures in which professional actors play minor roles or no role at all. Russian peasants acting Russian peasants. Chinese looking oriental. Children being childish. It's by now a recognised system. My extension of it is to collect a cast of, let us say, intellectuals without previous training and watch them behave intellectually. All I need is a little backing.'

'There must be a great many rich men who would be only too glad to lose a few thousands in that way.'

'You like the idea?'

'Very much. It would fit in well with my own ambitions. If I could find my patient and you your backer we should work excellently in unison. We might even make some money.'

'That,' said Maltravers, 'would be a purely secondary consideration. But think of what tremendous use to the human race a film of such a kind would be.'

'What about Schlumbermayer?'

'Schlumbermayer would not do. Besides, he is not nearly rich enough.'

'Come, come,' Chipchase said.

They paid, left the coffee-room, and began to walk up the street. Maltravers took long swinging strides as if he were trying to shake himself free from his overcoat. Chipchase, in a black hat and carrying a rolled umbrella, hurried along beside him, blown about like an autumn leaf. On the whole the fog had lifted in this part of London, but it hung about in wisps here and there like weeks-old poison gas. The bitter wind scraped agonisingly against their faces. The street ended in an open space and in the south-east corner people had collected to watch certain mysteries which were being enacted there. Maltravers and Chipchase joinedthe crowd and saw that a man in chains was lying on the ground. Nothing about the day could be said to recommend his dress and his position. He was almost blue-coloured from the cold. Above him stood another man holding a sword.

'What a grand couple,' said Maltravers.

Chipchase stood on tiptoe to see over the shoulder of an elderly negro in spats and a brown bowler hat who was obscuring his view of the performance.

'This is magnificent,' Maltravers said.

The rectangle in which they stood, enclosed on one side by the back of a theatre and on another by red-brick tenement buildings with asphalt courtyards between them, had small shops which sold sweets and groceries and newspapers on the remaining two sides, fronted with posters along their upper storeys. Passages and narrow streets intersected these last blocks of houses. A number of dissociated objects collected together in the middle of the square supplied a surrealist background to the various performers who paused in this place to do their stuff. These objects also added notably to the claustrophobia already induced by the disproportionate height of the surrounding buildings. In the centre of the open space a pile of stones lay beside a wigwam in which a man sat all day long, awaiting the completion of some unachievable labours on the cobbles. Behind him was a small palisade by which a few cars had been parked unevenly and beyond these rested ornate pieces of scenery depicting the sea, delayed in their removal through the back entrance of the theatre. The rectangle was divided in such a way that its four corners were made individual entities in each of which widely opposed activities could be pursued without disturbing one another.

At the moment the man with the sword and his colleague, gagged and handcuffed on the ground, had attracted the bulk of the crowd. In the north-west corner the Hindu with the tripod, attempting to sell an ointment of his own invention for the cure of cutaneous diseases, had only two young men, his claque, listening to him. Even these seemed to have heard his speech so often on past occasions that the words held no longer any magic for them. They stood watching his agitated gestures without attention, sagging forward in their mauve overcoats.

'Rousseau was right,' Chipchase said, 'as regards chains.'

Maltravers said: 'It certainly looks as if nothing in life would sever the one that is round him now.'

Blore-Smith, on his way home from the City, where he had lunched with his solicitor, was already one of the audience. He stood on the other side of the ring of people, opposite Maltravers and Chipchase, whom he did not know, although he noticed and admired Maltravers's overcoat. He was a slightly Jewish-looking young man with huge ears and an impediment in his speech, who had come down from Oxford at the end of the previous summer term and whose big brown eyes and shapeless face still suggested an undergraduate. At present he was reading for the Bar, but he was not much interested in law and did it to have something definite to tell people when they questioned him about himself. He had few friends in London, and when he was not at his crammer's nor in the courts, listening to cases which he hoped would teach him about life, he wandered along the streets, sometimes going into art galleries or cinemas. Entertainments like the one he was witnessing at the moment were a great help in getting him through the day.

The man with the sword, an ape-like primeval character, stripped to the waist and tattooed intermittently, came deliberately towards the fair man lying on the ground and prodded him. The sword was an unimpressive weapon for use with court dress and the ape-man inserted it carefully between the coils of chain with which the fair man's body was gallooned. The chains had made dark marks on the fair man's arms and back, noticeable when he writhed and dragged up the vest he wore, showing the flesh beneath. The man with the sword was an athletic type with black hair growing low on his forehead and a sore on his face. He continued to prod, muttering all the time to himself. Then he turned unexpectedly, startling almost to flight Blore-Smith, who was standing nearest to him, and shouted as loudly as possible and as if overcome with disgust and loathing for the spectators:

'Can't you see what the poor chap's suffering? Aren't there any sportsmen here? What's the good of one-and-a-tanner?'

Response to this appeal was not immediate. Blore-Smith, although he had already contributed sixpence, would have given something more if he had not been so embarrassingly close. The ape-man, exasperated, threw the sword on the ground and, grinding his teeth, walked slowly to the other side of the open space, where a dilapidated small car stood by the tenements. Putting his hand under the number-plate, he lifted this from behind and shook it so that the car rattled and showed signs of dissolution.

Maltravers left Chipchase on the outskirts of the crowd behind the negro and pushed his way to the front row, where he stood among a group of small children, some of whom watched the show while others fought among themselves.

The ape-man returned from shaking the car. He picked up the sword from the ground and leant over the other man. While he did this he rolled his eyes in a paroxysm of fury. He said:

'You tied me up in Piccadilly and left me there for three hours, did you? Well, now you're going to see what it's like.'

Turning again to the crowd, he said:

'Come on, isn't there a gent among the lot of you to give a poor fellow more than one and eightpence? Why, I've been doing this turn for fifteen years and if it wasn't a fine decent entertainment would I be doing it to this day, I ask you, ladies and gentlemen?'

He showed his teeth. There were flecks of grey foam round his mouth. A girl watching from the first-floor window of one of the sweet shops threw a penny that rolled up to his feet.

'Thank you, missy, thank you.'

The ash-blonde who had thrown the coin smiled and swallowed shyly to herself. A car passed, slowing up to avoid running over the man in fetters. The man with the sword made towards it savagely as if he were going to seize it by the footboard and overturn it by force. Changing his mind, however, he allowed it to pass. The man in fetters struggled to his knees. For a time he rocked from side to side. A board with spikes in it was strapped firmly to his back.

Maltravers, watching with interest, began to unbutton his overcoat. Feeling in his trouser pocket, he found five coppers and threw them to the man with the sword. He threw them singly and slowly—one—two—three—four—five.

'Thank you, sir, thank you.'

The ape-man now passed the sword through the elbows of the other so that the flat of the blade pressed against his back. The fair man began to groan and to struggle violently as if he were on the point of having a fit. His position and gestures recalled some high-renaissance picture of Jacob wrestling with the Angel in which the Angel is not pictorially represented, being suggested only by the contortions of Jacob. After a time the fair man freed his arms from the chains and threw aside the spiked board. Then he loosened the gag and spat it out on to the cobbles. He stood squirming with the handcuffs. The ape-man said sternly:

'At the close of this remarkable exhibition my friend will oblige with a display of eating coal and candles.'

He put down the sword among a heap of assorted instruments of torture, which with his coat and hat lay on a piece of newspaper, and picking up a comb he began to tidy his hair. Chipchase, who had a bad circulation, was getting chilly, and he entered the crowd in search of Maltravers. Stepping over one of the smaller children who had fallen to the ground, he said:

'Shall we go? I don't think this is so good a show as the organ and the transvest male dancers.'

'It has its points.'

'Well, I'm off.'

'All right, I'll come too. Do you want a lift?'

'Which way are you going?'


'No,' said Chipchase. 'You're no good to me in that case. I've got to cover a show at the Frott Gallery. I missed the private view.'

They went off together towards the side street where Maltravers had parked his car, a torpedo-shaped gamboge machine bought second-hand from the editor of a motor paper. Tuned-up, she was rumoured to do eighty-seven. Maltravers climbed up and stepped in to avoid opening the door.

'Give Reggie my love,' he said.

'And mine to Sarah.'

Maltravers waved his hand and drove away. Chipchase turned up his coat-collar and slunk off, keeping close to the walls of the houses to avoid the wind.


Excerpted from Agents and Patients by Anthony Powell. Copyright © 1936 Anthony Powell. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6

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