VINE VOICEon 27 May 2006
Gore Vidal, admired and respected Dawn Powell and wrote a long article called,"Dawn Powell, The American Writer". Here he explains her writing "The novels of Dawn Powell have no truck with hypocrisies. She does not judge, excuse or sentimentalize, viewing her characters with a fine indifference to their manifold failings. Her almost Flaubertian aesthetic morality was often misread as sour detachment, but it was anything but. As she noted in her diary, "The satirist who really loves people loves them so well the way they are that he sees no need to disguise their characteristics -- he loves the whole, without retouching. Yet the word used for this unqualifying affection is 'cynicism.'" The Powell Effect is strikingly evident in her handling of the Clare Booth Luce character in her roman à clef "A Time to Be Born." The character is, in every conventional sense, a monster of sexual and literary deception, and a consummate liar and user, yet seen through Powell's clarifying lens her actions become understandable -- one even comes to accord her energies a respect akin to that we have for Becky Sharp. To feel, really feel, the heartbreak of an objectively contemptible character is an exquisitely mixed literary experience.. ." For his part, Gore Vidal offered a simple reason for Powell's sudden popularity: "We are catching up to her."
Dawn Powell came to New York City from Ohio. Many of her characters also were transplanted Midwesterners in the big city. The characters she writes about with her perfect economy, the writers and gallery owners, the publishers and businessmen juggling their mistresses, the gold diggers and sexual misfits and those that just slum, she offers no judgment about but is amused by their actions. We are all wise about these people, we see that virtue goes unrewarded and that luck smiles and frowns. However, her characters are rarely wise about themselves. We see through these people but at the same time understand their actions, they are not unworthy. Lisa Zeidner, writing in The New York Times Book Review, tells us Powell "is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more plaintive than Willa Cather in her evocation of the heartland, and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh." Ernest Hemingway called her his "favorite living writer." She was one of America's great novelists, and yet when she died in 1965 she was buried in an unmarked grave in New York's Potter's Field. It has only been recently that Dawn Powell's legacy has come to fruition. Her satire is perfect and biting and humorous.
"A Time To Be Born" is a study of cynical new Yorkers stalking each other. The story centers around a wealthy, self involved publisher, Julian Evans and his novelist wife, Amanda Keeler. Amanda Keeler has always been thought to be based on real life Clare Boothe Luce, who married Henry R Luce, cofounder of "Time" magazine. Her character is a monster of sexual deception, and a liar and user, yet we seem to agree that her actions are understandable. Dawn Powell always denied that Amanda Keeler was based upon the real-life Clare Boothe Luce, until years later when she discovered a memo she'd written to herself in 1939 that said, "Why not do a novel on Clare Luce?" Which prompted Powell to write in her diary "Who can I believe? Me or myself?" When Vicky Haven shows up in NYC from Ohio, Amanda assists her with a flat that Amanda uses as her love hideaway. Vicky falls in love with Amanda's lover, and thus all these characters in pre-war America 1942, are in "for a bumpy ride". We feel the heartbreak of all of these characters and that keeps us off-stride. A fast paced and literary novel, the like of which I have not read in a long time. Dawn Powell has written twelve novels, and I am set to read them all . She is an extraordinary satirical novelist and one to be admired. As she aptly states:
"Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out." --Dawn Powell
Highly Recommended. prisrob 5-27-06