I had been a bit concerned about embarking on the autumn phase of Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. The fact is, volume 6 ‘The Kindly Ones,’ which was the last of the summer books, was not my favourite in the cycle. The novel was about the build up to World War 2 and did not wholly work for me, a fact not helped by the the knowledge that the next three books (‘The Valley of Bones’, ‘The Soldier’s Art’ and ‘The Military Philosophers’) would be set during the war itself and so may be significantly less successful cosy escapism than the wonderful early volumes.
Of course, I should not have worried. The idiocies of military life provide as many targets for Powell’s barbed wit as I could have wished. From Captains Gwatkin who ‘loved to find fault for its own sake‘ to Cocksidge of whom we’re told ‘his own habitual incivility to subordinates was humdrum enough, but the imaginative lengths to which he would carry obsequiousness to superiors displayed something of genius,‘ the new characters introduced are as wonderful as any of the scholars or bohemians of the previous books. Meanwhile, established figures also have a chance to shine, such as Lovel who is now in the marines ‘Although incapable of seeing life from an unobvious angle, Lovell was prepared, when necessary, to vary the viewpoint – provided the obviousness remained unimpeded, one kind of obviousness taking the place of another.’
I had also been worried about a lack of Widmerpool, the socially awkward and obsessively selfish anti-hero of the series. His frighteningly inevitable rise in society and business are such that he must thrive in the bureaucracy of war and so move beyond our narrator’s bumblingly comfortable milieu. Fortunately, a society which so cherishes Widmerpool must inevitably reflect his personality, including his ‘exceptional mixture of vehemence and ineptitude.’ Instead of missing him, I found all of the autumn novels infused with a wonderful Widmerpoolish sensibility, the state of war being exposed as risible and pathetic but also unstoppable and destructive.
I’m really excited about what’s to come next. I no longer expect the winter finale to the cycle to be bleak and depressing, though I confess I’m unable to predict what new twists of fate Powell has reserved for his massive cast of characters. I also have the warm glow that comes from knowing I’m finally ready to read volume 10: ‘Books do Furnish a Room.’ As if in preparation, Jenkin’s enduring love of literature is increasingly brought out and mocked in the autumn novels; there feels no better place to end this post than with a few of his autumnal reflections on being a reader:
‘”I read quite a lot.”
I no longer attempted to conceal the habit, with all its undesirable implications. At least admitting it put one in a recognisably odd category of persons from whom less need be expected than the normal run.’ (From ‘The Soldier’s Art’)
‘Blake was a genius, but not one for the classical taste. He was too cranky. No doubt that was being ungrateful for undoubted marvels offered and accepted. One often felt ungrateful in literary matters, as in so may others.’ (From ‘The Military Philosophers’)
‘I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on to those who possess them already.’ (From ‘The Valley of the Bones’)