The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 13 March 2018

The Soldier's Art

A Dance to the Music of Time, No. 8

by Anthony Powell

In our journey through the 20th century, along with Anthony Powell's narrator-protagonist Nicholas Jenkins, we watched him grow from a young man, to a man with a career, and then dropping, quite suddenly, into the army as the world drops, quite suddenly into a brutal global war. So it goes in Powell's low-key and brilliant A Dance to the Music of Time series of novels. In Volume 7, we saw Jenkins's first months in the army, passing through exercises in a mildly ominous march to war. War is now here. This novel opens with an air raid, one of hundreds during the blitz (here referring, perhaps, to the Belfast Blitz, shorter but just as brutal as the London Blitz). There is a remarkable quality to this episode. The sirens are blaring and the bombs are falling, but a handful of characters mildly smoke and chat while walking on a requisitioned cricket ground, the horizon lit by the fires of the blitz. There is a down-to-earth feeling, something that Powell does so well, making a time and a place very real to the reader, without melodrama.

As ever, Nick is an observer of the life around him. Some things rise into sharp focus, surprising small events that paint portraits of the characters involved. Others recede surprisingly into the background. Nick's wife, Isobel, resides off stage, with their newborn baby, somewhere south of London and, even though Nick takes leave to go see them, it is only the first night of his leave we see here, a night of tragic drama. Familiar faces from previous novels arise here, Charles Stringham, Chips Lovell, Nick's sister-in-law Priscilla, Sonny Farebrother, and, of course, the anti-hero of the series, now-Major Kenneth Widmerpool, who contrives to become Nick's commanding officer.

But it is the small dramas that make Powell's novels so compelling. Stringham is recovering from alcoholism by taking menial army jobs as a waiter and launderer. Widmerpool schemes in a low-level way, satisfying his ego and bearing the embarrassments that seem to be his fate. The war has shaken the ground they all stand upon. Jenkins is philosophical. Others are ready to shake up their lives and relationships in the face of falling bombs. The moments of highest drama, the tragedies of war, fall somewhat in the background, shifting and sorting the landscape of Powell's fictionalized portrait of his life. The book ends at an almost arbitrary moment, reflecting the arbitrary shifts of army life. The real action seems yet to come.

Then again, maybe it won't. After all, one of the undercurrents of the whole series of twelve novels is its commonplace experience, the way this one circle of men and women experience the mundanity of existence that flows in the foreground of great world events. Maybe it isn't for every reader, but it is yet some of the best writing in English one is likely to encounter.

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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 Kindly Ones] [The Valley of Bones]