Ahead but not out of sight

Call it the agon of friendship: the way no one is as easy to hate as a friend. Their successes make you green; their failures embarrass you. Long acquaintance ploughs furrows in your mind where all your acid rain collects. Admit it.

Dawn Powell admits it, in her social satire A Time To Be Born. It’s a novel that, by all accounts, perfectly preserved the atmosphere of interwar America, and it’s about one of Powell’s favorite themes, women from the midwest trying to make it in NYC; but the element of its satire that transcends such provincial if exquisite themes is that she admits the truth about the agon of friendship.

I think the source of the most powerful satire is almost always something like this: opening a compartment in the mind we admit exists when we see what’s found there, but we tacitly agree to ignore most of the time for the purposes of civility. Yet the compartment remains, acknowledged or not, and motives lurk in it, motives all the more potent for their invisibility. The universal satirist—the one who opens this compartment—holds us riveted with a species of embarrassment, precisely as if they had appeared naked in public.

That’s what the first few pages of A Time To Be Born felt like to me, anyway. A beautiful evocation of society at large just before WWII gradually morphs into the inner monologue of Ethel, who is visiting her very successful old friend Amanda on an errand to beg a favor. Ethel’s attitude is perfectly summed up like this: “As an old friend from way back she naturally wanted Amanda to get ahead but not out of sight.”

The first chapter is an initiation into the excruciations of Powell’s satire. As Ethel approaches her friend’s house, interacts with her friend’s servants, and finally enters her friend’s bedroom—feeling like a supplicant approaching the feudal throne—she ping-pongs back and forth between a sort of envious panic and increasingly ludicrous self-reassurance that in the final analysis she’s better off than Amanda: “Ethel hated to do anyone the favor of being jealous.” It’s hilarious and painful, and I felt a creaky door swinging open in my mind onto one of those unpleasant compartments.

So she’s a good satirist, which is no small thing; but Powell is more and better than that, too. She keeps up a constant, flaying attention to the moral smallness of her characters’ inner monologues that simultaneously makes them sympathetic. Now that’s hard. She does it in the large, because over the course of the novel you more and more want things to work out for these characters, for them to be happy; but she can even pull it off in the space of a single phrase. Here, for example, she’s describing the way that Amanda tried to remake herself into a sophisticate when she was a young woman. Among other things, Amanda acquired “a brand new English accent that occasionally slipped down like a tiresome shoulder strap and showed a Middle-Western pinning.” There’s something sweetly sad about the pretension Powell describes here. It’s all in that simile.

Your thoughts?