THE FISHER KING by Anthony Powell


Email this review


Recently published in England, this is Powell's first full-length novel since he finished his herculean (or Proustian) 12-volume epic, A Dance to the Music of Time, in 1977. For those who like Powell, all the usual trademarks are here: elegance, droll humor, understated drama. For those who don't, it may be slow-going. The novel takes place on a cruise ship, the Alecto, which is making a circuit of the British Isles. Among the holidayers are Valentine Beals, his wife, Louise, and their two old friends, the Middlecotes. Beals is a hack writer of immensely popular ""historical thrillers"" (and far more intelligent than either his work or his audience); for the Middlecotes' edification--and as a kind of parlor game during the long cruise--he begins to speculate on the presence of Saul Henchman and his young, beautiful mistress, Barberina Rookwood. Henchman is a world-famous photographer, wealthy, but badly crippled in the war, and possibly impotent; and it's Beats' fanciful but serious idea that Henchman is really a modern Fisher King, the emasculated sovereign of Arthurian legend who spent his time fishing. Mainly through Beals' eyes, we meet the other passengers: Gary Lamont, a 40-ish newspaper tycoon with a heart condition; Robin Jilson, a pale, melodramatically frail young man (seemingly out of another era); and Mr. Jack, a drunken PR man on the skids, whose claim to fame is that Henchman took a famous photograph of him and his lover (a prostitute) during his early days of gritty realism, before he turned to portraits of the wealthy and powerful. By the time the cruise draws to a close, Beals' speculation seems borne out as ""productive"" relationships give way to ""unproductive"": Barberina leaves Henchman for Jilson (in his own way, another cripple) after fending off a play from Lamont, and Henchman and Mr. Jack disembark at the Orkneys for a lonely fishing trip. Beals' Fisher King parallel seems forced and a little tenuous, and the novel, with much of its drama unspoken and even unacted, can be simply dull. But Powell fans will appreciate their master's usual mix of refinement, grace, and polished plotting.

Pub Date: Sept. 22nd, 1986
Publisher: Norton