Powell’s sophomore novel, Venusberg, follows journalist Lushington as he leaves behind his unrequited love in England and travels by boat to an unnamed Baltic state. Awash in a marvelously odd assortment of counts and ladies navigating a multicultural, elegant, and politically precarious social scene, Lushington becomes infatuated with his very own, very foreign Venus. An action-packed literary precursor to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Venusberg is replete with assassins and Nazis, loose countesses and misunderstandings, fatal accidents and social comedy. But beyond its humor, this early installment in Powell’s literary canon will offer readers a welcome window onto the mind of a great artist learning his craft.
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Lushington collected the pieces of typewritten foolscap and shook them together so that the edges were level. Outside, it was raining. The literary editor said:
'Seeing the world broadens the outlook. You can learn a lot abroad. They're a funny lot foreigners. I always go abroad for my holiday. I like it over there. The food makes a change. I shouldn't wonder if it wasn't pretty cold where you're going. Still I expect you'll be sorry to leave old London all the same. We have some fun here when we do. I don't know any town like it. I don't really.'
The literary editor took out his penknife and, breathing hard, trimmed where his thumbnail had a jagged edge. Lushington opened a box of paper clips and took one out. He pressed the paper clip through the corner of the sheets of foolscap upon which he had begun an article, and put them into a small dispatch case. The literary editor finished off the nail by biting it, shut the penknife and put it back into his pocket. Miss Arnold said:
'I expect you'll give up newspaper work when you get out there, Mr. Lushington, and go into business and become a millionaire. All the best men become foreign correspondents for a bit. They say there is nothing like abroad for training.'
The literary editor said: They've taken the place of the old diplomat. Better educated. Better informed. Better paid. And, of course, more reliable. But they carry on the same fine tradition.'
Lushington said: 'Well, you will remember about trying to use both those two stories of mine for the feature page, won't you? It would be a great help if you could. I'd be very grateful.'
I'll have a look at them just as soon as I have a moment to spare, which ought to be some time the day after tomorrow.'
Lushington shut the dispatch case and picked up his hat. Water dripped down the outer panes of the windows, one of which rattled three times at regular intervals. Outside it was winter. Miss Arnold said:
'Well, good night, Mr. Lushington and good luck.'
The literary editor said: 'So long, Lushington, and all the best, and don't forget to put that dope in the post to-night so that Booth gets it in time for the woman's page.'
Taking the dispatch case and pondering in his mind whether he would go home and finish the article and go to bed, or call on Lucy and sit up all night and finish the article, Lushington went down the stairs which were of stone like those of a prison or lunatic asylum and were, in effect, used to some considerable extent by persons of a criminal tendency or mentally deranged. In the atmosphere there was a smell of icy damp paint permeating the rawness of the night. The wind circulated through the corridors and up and down the lift-shaft. He walked down several flights of stairs wondering whether he had remembered to pack his evening shoes. At the entrance the man with the birthmark on his face who sat at a desk in a cubicle and asked people their names and controlled the house telephone without much success said:
'So you're saying ta-ta to us all for a bit?'
Shaken by a fit of coughing, a bronchial upheaval like a tornado in its suddenness, the man said:
'Grand weather for travelling, I don't think.'
He struck himself several times on the chest and then spat through the door of the wooden cubicle in which he was confined, neatly, and far out into the corner of the passage.
'That's a nasty cough of yours,' Lushington said.
'Rise and fall of the leaf finds out them with weak chests.'
'It sure does.'
'Suffered from asthma since I was a little kid not so high.'
The man passed his hand lightly over his birthmark and said:
'It's the truth. Well I hope it keeps fine for you.'
'And I,' said Lushington, 'hope it keeps fine for you.'
He went into the street where it was raining and cold. The lights disappeared suddenly in the windows of the pub on the other side of the road and deciding in favour of Lucy he got into a bus. Inside he tried to think of a joke to round off the article with. The bus bumped along through the rain. No joke quickened within him. It was too cold a night for that sort of joke, one of the good universal kind.
Coming of that professional stock who, like the Jews, live secretly, holding at intervals well-attended family conclaves, remaining securely out of touch with life, Lushington had begun his career in the City. An almost absolute business inability and perhaps some hereditary flaw in his character had led him to journalism and being ambitious he hoped one of these days to become dramatic critic on a paper with a decent circulation. Meanwhile he was going as special correspondent to a country on the Baltic, the name of which he could never remember. He was a serious young man with a pink and white face who believed implicitly in eventual progress on a scientific basis although he had had Anglo-Catholic leanings in his City days.
There was nothing at all extraordinary in Lushington's appointment to this post. It was the sort of thing that happened everyday. More than this it had been what he had wanted not so long before and was to some extent the delayed action of past intriguing. He was, in short, as the literary editor had said, lucky to get it. But there was a circumstance that gave to the appointment some of the tang of a stale joke, a flavour used-up but at the same time forceful and disturbing like a tune running tiresomely in his head. This significance consisted in Da Costa being honorary attaché at the legation of that same Baltic state. Da Costa was not only an old friend of Lushington. He was also the man with whom Lucy was in love. Lushington could not therefore avoid reflecting on hearing of his good fortune that he was both leaving Lucy and going to a place where he would be reminded perpetually of her feelings for Da Costa.
Lushington and Da Costa had been at school together. Da Costa's setting was similar to Lushington's without being precisely the same. He came of a large and moderately influential family whose possibly Iberian ancestors had made money in India, nabobs under the Regency, and who, marrying with discernment, had formed a vaguely empire-building tradition. Da Costa himself did not belong to this tradition. It embarrassed him a little. But now in the last resort he had found himself unable to circumvent it. After coming down from Oxford he had hung about working at a thesis on comparative religion. And then Lushington had introduced him to Lucy and the trouble had begun.
Da Costa like Lushington was shy. But whereas Lushington's shyness took the form of creeping about rooms pretending that he was really not there at all, Da Costa's manifested itself in shouting loud and laughing and upsetting things to counteract this feeling of personal inadequacy. As it happened Da Costa was good at games and examinations so that his difficulties were pretty fundamental ones and not merely adolescent non-adaptability setbacks. For example unlike Lushington he was bored by the society of women. He could stand them only for an hour or so on end. This was due to an unusual mental orientation or perhaps to laziness because he was not prepared to concede the exactions of time and energy that prolonged intimacy with one would require. In some ways, they attracted him to a considerable extent and once he had been induced by friends to spend a weekend with an intellectually cultured chorus girl. It was not however a success and, in any case, as Da Costa himself used to point out, he had not enough money to prolong the relationship. Then for a short time he was always seen about with a major's widow. But it did not do. There was something, as his friends used to say, lacking. In spite of this and perhaps because of it women liked him. Among them Lucy.
Lushington had met Lucy at the house of the man who wrote the music column for his paper. Nothing had marked their meeting as in any way out of the ordinary. Lushington liked her but it was not until several weeks after this first meeting that he fell in love with her and it was some months later before he had the courage to tell her so. He had never been in love before, except slightly with one of his first cousins, who was already engaged to a man in the Treasury, and he was surprised when he found that Lucy returned his feelings. He was not at all certain what he ought to do.
In due course she became his mistress. She was not a vicious girl but she had had two husbands and had become accustomed to doing as she wished. But all the time she knew that he was not what she was looking for. That was one of the reasons why she would not marry him. Lushington on his side, surprised when he found that Lucy was attracted by him, was amazed when he found himself living with her and before he had begun to consider their relationship as anything less than a phenomenon he had lost her by introducing her to Da Costa just at the moment when he was beginning to feel that she really belonged to himself. He lost her in the sense that she gave him up as a lover. His place was not taken by Da Costa because Da Costa was for a long time unaware how matters stood and even when he became aware took no steps in the matter. Something about his unbalanced manner and respectable background had appealed at once to Lucy but he felt towards her, as towards most of the women whom he met, only an amiable lack of interest. However it flattered him at first that he should have made such an impression on her and then annoyed him when he found that he had caused a great deal of unnecessary trouble and had gained one of those emotional responsibilities which he devoted so much of his time to avoiding.
For a short time the situation had adjusted itself by all three of them going about a great deal together because they liked each other's company and this system enabled Lushington to be with Lucy and Lucy to be with Da Costa. It was a working compromise but it got on everybody's nerves. In the end it was Da Costa who decided that he could stand it no more. He decided to leave England, and his family, who had repeatedly requested in the past that he should do something useful, had suggested that he should join the legation of a relative who was minister at this obscurely northern capital. The idea was fostered by his elder brother who was married and had several children and who had once been called the most popular man in Throgmorton Street. The post of honorary attaché was considered by the Da Costa family to be the very thing. Da Costa himself liked the idea because, being a young man with wide interests, he wanted to see abroad and, although he was unsatisfactory as an attaché, he himself found congenial the purely formal social contacts of his profession which was in this respect a great improvement upon what he had been accustomed to in London. His relative, as it happened, retired soon after his arrival but this was due to a personal whim and was unconnected with Da Costa's shortcomings. In the meanwhile a new minister had not yet been appointed and as the routine work at the legation had to be completed somehow the chargé d'affaires made no effort to eject Da Costa during the interregnum.
And now Lushington's newspaper had decided to send him to the same place. He was to stay there for some months and write about the political situations. Undeniably it was a good job. But at the same time there were drawbacks.
The bus stopped and Lushington got out and went through the passage with posts across it which led to the square where Lucy lived. The rain was falling in a measured way on the leaves of the trees inside the square's railings. He rang the bell. Then he waited, listening to the rain and the noise of the water running down the wall of the next house where one of the outside gutters had burst. Lucy opened the door herself. She was wearing a dressing-gown over her pyjamas and said:
'Oh it's you, is it? Come in, sweet, but I'm afraid there isn't such a thing as a cigarette in the house.'
'Why are you dressed like this? Are you ill?'
'I'm just going to bed. I'm going to have a bath and then go to bed. Why have you come to see me now?'
She was fair and had short curly hair and she held the dressing-gown tight across her body so that it showed her figure and her round, knowing, little breasts. He went through the door and followed her into the sitting-room. She slipped her arm through his and into the pocket of his overcoat, taking his hand. Lushington put his hat on the table. Then he kissed Lucy.
'Why have you come now?' she said.
She finished kissing him and went away and lay down on the sofa, under a tartan rug, turning sideways and resting her head on the end of the sofa. Lushington took off his overcoat and sat down in one of the armchairs. He said:
'It's settled that I go to-morrow.'
'By boat. I thought I might make a story of it for the paper.'
'Are you glad to be going?'
'I don't mind much either way.'
'Why aren't you glad?'
'Well I shan't be seeing you for some time.'
'You must find someone else,' she said. 'You must really. You can't go on like this. It's absurd. Besides it's awful for me. Can't you find someone else?'
'Perhaps I will out there.'
'It's funny you're going to the same place.'
'It's in the news you see. They've been having political troubles. Revolutions and so on. Front page stuff, almost.'
'Don't go and get shot.'
'I expect I shall.'
'It's a pity I can't come with you.'
'Yes why don't you?'
She pulled the rug almost over her head and turned away from him towards the inside of the sofa, doubling herself up. There was a pause. She lay there looking a little like a sick child, very slight and taking up hardly any room on the sofa. Outside the rain came thudding against the window. Lushington said:
'You haven't told me why you are dressed like that yet?'
'I'm not well. I'm going to have a bath and go to bed.'
'What's wrong with you?'
'I don't know,' she said, 'I'm just not well. I haven't been well for weeks. I hate everything. That's why I'm not well. There is nothing to be done about it. But tell me about yourself. What has been happening? Anything?' 'Nothing much. Except that I'm going away. And I've told you that.'
'Who was that with you when I saw you the other night? In green?'
'I don't think you know her. I met her somewhere. She looks rather nice don't you think?'
'I hate those slit eyes. You're not in love with her or anything like that, are you? I don't trust your taste.'
'No, I'm not.'
Lucy laughed and threw the rug on the floor and stretched out her arms. Then she stood up, still laughing. She said:
'Anyway I suppose I ought to have my bath now.'
'Do you mind if I finish off an article on your typewriter?' Lushington said.
'There's paper in the drawer.'
He watched her go into the bathroom, a narrow den leading out of the sitting-room and heard her turn on the geyser. He sat for a few moments in front of the typewriter thinking of the first time he had seen her.
At seventeen Lucy had run away with her first husband who was rumoured once to have held a war-time commission in a guards battalion. Her father, a captain retired from the Marines, who had lost his wife's money by judicious investments, lived in a bungalow on the south coast with his eight children and this used sometimes to make him appear a discontented man. But his wife was a woman who looked always on the bright side so that in later life Lucy used to say that she could never remember which of her parents had contributed most towards her elopement. Lucy had been married at Torquay and her husband had worn an old Etonian tie which he had seen on his way there in a glass case on Paddington station. But although he had initiative he was an ignorant and rather greedy man and the marriage had lasted less than eighteen months.
Not long after the decree was made absolute it became apparent that she was more than remarkably good-looking. She showed signs of becoming a film star. But she was a girl who felt that life should be full of meaning and she broke with her second husband, a film producer, because he adapted one of the minor classics too freely. After that she lived on alimony and occasionally had lovers. But somehow it was not a success although as a sex she liked men and in the evening she used to sit in her room and play the gramophone or read a book because, although this was not very amusing, it seemed better than going about with the people who were her friends. She often said so. She often told Lushington when he became her lover that she felt like this. Also it filled up the time while she waited for the ideal man, who became as the months went on an increasingly improbable figure, because her adventures, particularly those on the films, had caused her to develop a mild but insidious megalomania. But even after she had decided that Da Costa was what she wanted Lushington used often to visit her because she could not have Da Costa who was not interested in anyone at all.
Excerpted from "Venusberg"
Copyright © 1932 Anthony Powell.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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