by Anthony Powell
We've all had the experience of watching world events unfold as if in slow motion, marveling that seemingly rational people seem determined to head down a path so clearly dangerous, taking entire countries down to destruction. We've been sure that our leaders have taken leave of their senses. How could normal, intelligent people act so clearly outside of their own best interests? One could argue that this concern is resurgent in world politics today. What we often forget is that the run-up to World War 2, which arguably began upon Hitler's ascent to power in 1933, still took six long years to lead to the invasion of Poland. It didn't happen overnight, though the long retrospect of history makes it seem so. This broad view, the slow-motion collapse of security and freedom from fear, is captured beautifully in Anthony Powell's 1962 novel The Kindly Ones, the sixth volume in his epic series A Dance to the Music of Time.
If you've been following the story so far, the long arc of Nick Jenkins's life, then you'll notice the jump backward he takes in the opening chapter of this book. Here, he is a thirteen-year-old boy, living near an army town in a bungalow that evokes the mysteries of Imperial India. Powell's portrait of the time and place is, as usual, compellingly drawn, highly atmospheric and populated by distinct idiosyncratic characters. There are many familiar faces from the previous volumes of the series, along with the prominent figures in the staff of the house. Their lives rise in the story here, as we're exposed to their insecurities in the brilliantly drawn run-up to the start of World War 1. Inklings of dramatic events abroad undermine the cozy security of home and hearth. And we're left with the tableau of Uncle Giles and the eccentric Dr. Trelawney standing in the road and facing a hinge of history.
When we jump back forward to the 1930s, just at the point of the disastrous Munich accord, those foreign forces are shaking our characters again, making a mess of their careers, making it impossible to concentrate on creative endeavours when disaster might fall upon them all at any moment. And yet life must go on. (Does any of this sound familiar in today's unsteady political environment?) After Munich, everyone is waiting for another shoe to drop. The Soviet-Nazi nonaggression agreement makes war a certainty. And in the midst of this, Powell tosses powerful events in the lives of Nick Jenkins, his old butler Albert, Uncle Giles, Dr. Trelawney, and an array of lively characters, each well provided with his or her own motivations. We read of vague notions of what other characters have been doing with their lives as war approaches. Charles Stringham sobers up. Widmerpool profits on metals trades in Turkey. Albert the butler goes to work at a run-down seaside hotel. Nick learns of Jean's obscure romantic travels. His own wife, Isobel is, curiously, a background character, as Nick tells us so little of their relationship or about his professional pursuits. This is more a portrait of Nick's friends and family connections, after all.
As always, so far in this engrossing series of novels, Powell's story-telling skill is remarkably well-honed, perhaps more in this volume than in the previous books. He infuses Nick's narration with an ominous sense of forboding as the war approaches. His writing carries a significant punch of style and structure, intimation and fatefulness. We see these characters as we do the characters in our own lives, those who draw forward or recede as time and events unfold. Nick finally finds his moment of action, and his life is going to be transformed, at last, by war. We'll have to wait for the next volume to see how it goes for him. In the meantime, this book, with the whole series, is another remarkable achievement.
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Also by Anthony Powell: [A Question of Upbringing] [A Buyer's Market] [The Acceptance World ] [At Lady Molly's] [Casanova's Chinese Restaurant] [The Valley of Bones] [The Soldier's Art]