Agents and Patients is the fourth novel by the English writer Anthony Powell. It combines two of the aspects of 1930s life, film and psychoanalysis. In what Powell himself has acknowledged is a roman a clef of sorts (Anthony Powell, Journals 1987-1989, 121), a comically critical eye is cast across entre deux guerres society and its often self-indulgent, usually unsatisfied quest for contentment.
Published in 1936, the novel reflects some of Powell’s recent experience scriptwriting for Warners in London. The epigraph from John Wesley which gives the novel its title distinguishes between actors and those acted upon, equating freedom with the condition of ‘agency.’ Powell’s fourth novel illustrates the painstaking, sometimes painful, process by which one young man recognizes the truth of Wesley’s assertion in his own life, thereby, perhaps, reaching a change in his status as the novel ends.
As is usual in Powell’s fiction, the settings are often restaurants, parties, and private apartments (though a Berlin film studio also figures significantly), with social behaviour in such surroundings the sustained focus of comically critical and detailed attention. Of Powell’s pre-war novels, Agents and Patients is most insistently focused on the questions of what one wants from life and how one might recognize moments when such desires have been achieved, even when the results are unexpected. The novel continues Powell’s evolution of the style and technique he will employ in A Dance to the Music of Time.
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