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. Referring to Powell’s novels, he remarks on ‘a characteristic of yours, which I shall put into one of those phrases that never mean the same thing to two readers: the acceptance of absurdity’.
Vanderbilt gives some revealing insights into the bookseller’s life, with details about his customers, about the damaging restrictions imposed on import and export, and the sad decline of the industry, which eventually leads him to give it up. ‘In March I sold the bookstore,’ he reports to Powell in 1961, ‘which is to say I got out of the trap without quite having to chew off my foot.’
Powell’s letters, meanwhile, sketch an entertaining panorama of literary London of the 1950s, so much of it redolent of the world of his own fiction. As early as his third letter, he mentions J. Maclaren Ross, who ‘has written some very good short stories … but has, however, a way of disappearing from everyday life’.
In 1952 Powell was appointed literary editor of Punch, a position providing a rich source of material. Just before he joined it the magazine had been ‘in the happy position that it could not be worse’; now, however, with Malcolm Muggeridge in command, the future was bright.
With review copies rolling into his office, Powell reports on the books and also on their authors, many of whom, of course, are personally known to him. He writes of Evelyn Waugh and his new novel, Officers and Gentlemen (an ‘extraordinary mixture of good and bad’); of Kingsley Amis (‘a bright chap, but I am not so certain he is really a novelist’); and of an interesting new work by ‘an Indian West Indian named Naipaul’. Almost his greatest enthusiasm is reserved for Simon Raven, whose fiction, while full of defects, never fails to intrigue; Raven gives the feeling, Powell writes, ‘of consorting with the people who really wag the world, no matter who waves from the back of the long black car’.
Expertly edited by John Saumarez Smith and Jonathan Kooperstein, The Acceptance of Absurdity provides a fascinating footnote to literary life and the book trade on both sides of the Atlantic. Saumarez Smith, himself a distinguished bookseller, contributes an interesting prologue and epilogue, including an account of his own involvement with the correspondence.
Strangely, when in the early Sixties the Vanderbilts left America to settle in Europe the letters came to an end, and the two men never saw each other again.
Available from John Saumarez Smith, c/o Maggs Bros, 50 Berkeley Square, London W1J 5BA. Tel: 020 7518 7935, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.