Miskatonic University Press

Westlake and Powell

literature reviews

“When Widmerpool appeared on his ‘run’ in the cold late afternoon mist, wearing a sweater once white and a cap at least a size too small, Jenkins was returning from the High Street.”

I just finished The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, which is just what it says it is. Levi Stahl edited it and put together a wonderful collection.

Donald E. Westlake is one of my favourite writers, foremost of course for the Parker novels, which are stone masterpieces (except for the one even Westlake doesn’t like, where Parker actually cares about someone), but also for, to pick a few, Put a Lid On It, the Dortmunder novels (which showed me that comic crime novels don’t have to be bad), and The Ax, a better novel about business, the economy and the upper middle class than pretty much anything else out there in the last two decades, but because it’s a crime novel it got sidelined.

Westlake was a great admirer of Anthony Powell, also one of my favourite authors, whose twelve-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time is one of the finest works of English literature. I can’t remember when I first found this out, but it might have been when I read Plunder Squad and found this in part three (always the part in the Parker novels where you see what the other characters are doing), chapter two:

The air conditioner had been on, but Sternberg switched it off first thing, turned the thermostat up to seventy-three, and opened the window slightly. By the time he’d unpacked and desanitized everything, the air in the room had a bit of life in it. Sternberg stripped to his boxer shorts, turned down the bed, settled himself comfortably with his pillows behind his back, and opened the Anthony Powell novel he’d started on the plane. It was Magnus Donners he wanted to identify with, but he kept finding his sympathies going to Widmerpool.

If you don’t know Powell, this means nothing. If you do know Powell, first you wonder what the hell he’s doing in a Parker novel, and then you think about Donners and Widmerpool, and you think about Sternberg and what an insight that is into him. Then you think maybe it’s time you reread the Dance, and then you get back to Plunder Squad, because once you’ve started a Parker novel you can’t put it down.

Now, Levi Stahl also likes Powell. He wrote a foreword for the University of Chicago Press (where he works) edition of Venusberg. So I wasn’t surprised there was a mention of Anthony Powell in The Getaway Car. Westlake has very high praise for Rex Stout, and in a 1973 letter, he says:

Rex Stout has done something very rare in his novels. He has created an on-going mini-world, a sealed-off chamber as distinct from our world as Middle Earth. When I pick up the latest Ross Macdonald I expect his character in our California, but when I pick up the latest Rex Stout I know I will enter once more into that same alternate universe, in which Archie Goodwin will drive a Heron through the streets of some city called New York. The only other writer I know of currently working in that sort of separate continuum (not counting fantasists like Tolkien) is Anthony Powell, with his Dance to the Music of Time series; which is where that comparison ends, since Powell’s purposes and methods are very different from Stout’s.

There are a few other bits about Westlake and Powell online. Ethan Iverson (who helped Stahl with the book) says in Westlake and Powell (check the whole post for more):

Westlake told me that Anthony Powell was his favorite novelist. When I read A Dance to the Music of Time, I understood why. I’ve been through Dance twice, and will read it again.

Westlake had some strange theories about some famous books. He thought that the uninitiated should start reading Dance beginning with the fourth volume. “The first three are only really good after you read the rest.” (He had a similar idea for Nabokov’s Ada, that you should skip the first couple of chapters and only read them after you finish.) I am a completist, so I ignored his advice and began Dance with A Question of Upbringing, which I found thrilling – after the first couple of pages. Every volume of Dance starts in an abstract, highly erudite place, almost like Powell doesn’t want anybody but the committed to dig in.

I’d ignore Westlake’s advice too. Start with the first book, but don’t expect it will actually go anywhere. The second book, with the astounding 150-page description of dinner at the Walpole-Wilsons’, the Huntercombes’ ball, and the party at Milly Andriadis’s (and the temporally complex way you’re introduced to Mr. Deacon), is where I got hooked.

Terry Teachout also likes them both, as Iverson’s Interview with Terry Teachout shows:

EI: Westlake was the guy who told me to read Anthony Powell.

TT: I love that. I love the moment when we discover that one of the characters in a Parker novel is a Powell fan. And that it’s Widmerpool whom he identifies with - that’s the really funny part.

EI: There’s a surprising number of people who love Parker and Dance to the Music of Time, which seems like the least likely combination imaginable.

TT: They’re both acts of serial storytelling. The effects of the series come from our increasing intimacy with their key characters. Another part of what’s fascinating about A Dance to the Music of Time is that it resembles life in that people who you like, die. Or are transformed in such a way that you don’t like them anymore.

From a 1973 interview by Vince Cosgrove:

My admirations are not necessarily my influences. My favorite living novelist is Anthony Powell [author of the 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time”]. If I ever took an influence from him it would destroy me because he writes such a controlled but leisurely way that if I put anything of that into my stuff, it would break the springs. I love those books.

From a 2006 interview by Paul Kane:

PK: What writers have especially influenced you?

DW: I was about 15 when I read Hammett’s THE THIN MAN and first discovered what writing could do. He told two stories, one open and one concealed. The open story was a light romantic comedy with a slight mystery in it. The concealed story was a very sad tale of a man who has lost his role in life and has no way out. I hadn’t known you could tell the reader something without actually saying it, and I’ve loved that effect ever since. Nabokov was a master of that. But I also love good writing just for its own sake, and go back to reread Anthony Powell every once in a while. I have to be careful with him, though. After I’ve read Powell a while, my sentences get longer and longer. That works with him, but not with me.

Some of the best parts of The Getaway Car are where Westlake is analyzing other writers and why their books work or don’t. “The Hardboiled Dicks,” a talk given at the Smithsonian in 1982, is a masterful analysis of the genre, especially about Hammett (who he liked) and Chandler (who he didn’t). There’s an essay on Peter Rabe where he sets out why some of Rabe’s books are excellent and others are very poor. (He wrote Rabe for background information, and Rabe would have read the piece: Westlake is honest, and when something’s bad, he doesn’t hedge.) There’s a letter with advice to someone on the draft of a novel, and it takes a lot of experience and wisdom to clearly get to the problems like he does. Westlake has little time for Ross Macdonald, either, for example in this 1977 interview with himself and his pseudonyms:

Moderator: What about Ross Macdonald?

Donald E. Westlake: The former editor of the New York Times Book Review has admitted in print that that was the result of a conspiracy to see if he really could boost an author he liked onto the bestseller list. Since he claimed that was the only time such a conspiracy occurred, Macdonald is a fluke.

Moderator: Do you have an opinion about his work?

Donald E. Westlake: He must have terrific carbon paper.

Ouch.

I wish Westlake had written an essay about Powell and the Dance. His analysis would have been crisp, deep, fresh, respectful, irreverent, wise, warm, personal, and you couldn’t have put it down.

The thing is, Powell would never have even picked up a fucking Westlake novel. But we know that, and we accept it, because that’s who Powell was.