Tony’s Book World has been laboring to keep the Dawn Powell Revival going. His passion and the quotes he provided from Powell’s diary convinced me to try one of her novels. He suggested I start with one of her “New York” novels. I chose Turn, Magic Wheel. The title comes from a beautiful fragment of Theocritus:
Turn, magic wheel,
Bring homeward him I love.
The story behind the book is interesting. It seems that Powell was part of the “in” writing clique, evidenced by the praise lavished on her writing by Hemingway. Her access and familiarity with that world provides the setting for this novel about a writer writing about the ex-wife of a famous writer. The first character we meet is Dennis Orphen, a writer whose new book is about to be released. His new book is a thinly veiled satire of the relationship between a Hemingway-like writer (Andrew Callingham) and Callingham’s first wife (Effie Callingham née Thorne). So, Powell authors a book which is a thinly veiled retelling of the life of a real writer’s ex-wife whose main character authors a book which is a thinly veiled retelling of the life of a real writer’s ex-wife. Hall of mirrors, effect. Wicked.
Having recently read Cloud Atlas and City of Glass, I was slightly disappointed that the title of Orphen’s novel wasn’t Turn, Magic Wheel and that Dennis Orphen wasn’t instead named Dawn Powell. The circle would have been complete. Anyway, the backstory created a bit of distraction for me.
Nevermind how the book could have been written, how was it written? Well, as Tony promised. It was written well.
Dennis Orphen is an author who mines the lives of his friends, acquaintances, and strangers he observes. The narrator tells us that Dennis Orphen’s defining feature is his curiosity, “the motivating vice of his career, the whole horrid reason for his writing.” Dennis has warned himself that, some day, he will have to “pay for this barter in souls”. The reader is so far unaware that Dennis has written about his best friend and in an unflattering light, so the reader can think that maybe he will not have to pay. But he has written a book about his friend and it does portray her in an unflattering light. Of course there will be a reckoning.
Powell was obviously intimate with New York City literary- and high-society life. She skewers it well.
Dennis looked over the Mirror, a stale one as it was only today’s. He read Barclay Beekman’s sprightly report of the six hundred dollars raised for the Free Milk Fund by Mrs. Ten Bruck’s brilliant Firebird Pageant and Ball at the Waldorf. It seems the costumes alone cost over fifty thousand dollars, but the rich spare no expense when it’s to help the little babies of the slums.
Aside from the parties and pretensions of the rich, Powell captures personal relationships perfectly.
Mrs. Callingham (Effie) is in the throes of formerly requited, but long since unrequited, love. Her ex-husband Andrew long ago ran off with a younger, prettier woman, but Effie holds out hope that he will return to her and, thus, keeps his last name.
There was even something a little brave, a little galant, about fighting selfishly for your love. It did show a fiery metal that was more appealing to a man than the martyr spirit. But if you didn’t have that fire, if decency was stronger in you than passion, if the beloved’s happiness was to you the object of love . . . One did what one could, Effie thought. One did what was in one to do, and then waited. Waited for what? Her mind turned the pages of Dennis’s book . . . “waiting always for him to come back” – “the hunter will return, he will see the wise gentle wife she has become in his long absence.”
Betrayed by Andrew Callingham, she is now betrayed by Dennis, her closest friend and confidante. She had tried to hold on to her status as Andrew’s wife by continuing to annouce herself to the world as “Mrs. Callingham”. And the wealthy set obliged. She had entrée, in part, because she had the connection to Andrew. That set will read Dennis’s forthcoming book though, they will realize that it is about her, and they will laugh at her. Not to her face, of course, but it will sting the same. The entire façade of her long-distance marriage crumbles around her.
This crumbling is the crisis of the novel and the crisis in the relationship between Dennis and Effie. Their relationship is complex, tightknit, and platonic. Dennis has a girlfriend who is married, Corinne. Dennis finds little in Corinne besides her looks and her frequent availability for rendezvous. There is no depth to their relationship which is how Dennis likes it. He writes and he hangs out with Effie. In fact, he was her pillar. He was the one person in the world with whom she let down her guard. And now he has ruined that.
Dennis runs into trouble with his own romantic relationship, Andrew has left his second wife (Marian) who arrives in New York deathly ill, and Effie has a crisis of identity. The crisis sends her reeling towards a Miss Haversham-like fate, even as she consoles Marian whose primary concern is winning back Andrew rather than impending death.
Powell brings it all off with wit and a clever dissection of relationships both romantic and otherwise.
The rift between Dennis and Effie threatens not only Effie’s world, but Dennis’ happiness.
These last few days without the protective hedge of Effie Thorne’s all-sufficient friendship – a friendship that had been worn by both as an armor against the rest of the world and against all other contact, without this buffer Dennis had felt himself drawn, sucked into bondage to Corinne, he glimpsed aghast the unamusing sinister face of scandalous, unreasoning, ruinous, self-destroying Love, and this must not be.
Powell, it seems, was not particularly sentimental about romantic love. She writes elsewhere in the book, this time conveying Effie’s thoughts:
She caught his hand and held her lips to it desperately, but even while she held it this moment was gone; there is no present in love, only past and future, so that kissing him she was far away lonely for him.
Perhaps this is why critics must have called her a cynic. She portrayed romantic love as it often does live and die. She did not write fairy tales where Mr. Darcy finds the perfect Mrs., or even the passionate chase of a Heathcliffe or a Gatsby. She wrote of more ordinary loves, which, while less spectacular, can be so much more painful. Effie waiting, rather than fighting, is an agonizing character. The reader wants her to let go, give up this idea of Callingham. The man is a cad, a serial-womanizer. Everything we know about life and about Callingham tells us that he is not the type of man to return.
I am re-reading The Lights of Earth and find it curiously parallels Turn, Magic Wheel. Berriault must have been familiar with Powell. I would not be surprised if she decided to retell the story from a spurned mistress’s perspective. Whatever the case, Berriault and Powell have kindred styles, similarly beautiful ways of describing the excrutiating arc of doomed relationships. The comparison is high praise for Powell, as Berriault is one of my favorite writers.
Thank you, Tony, for introducing me to Dawn Powell. This is a writer to whom I can return with confidence. And I will.