Few subjects are more fascinating than other people’s sexual habits from the outside

The Military Philosophers is the ninth volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Dance is broken into four seasons with three books in each, this then is the last book of Autumn.

In the first six volumes, Spring and Summer, Powell introduced a huge and complex cast, each skilfully brought to life. Part of Powell’s mastery is his ability to introduce and reintroduce characters, reminding the reader who they are without tedious exposition or the need for caricature. By the mid-point of the twelve volume whole he has populated a living London, a world filled with friends, family, lovers, rivals, acquaintances.

The Autumn novels cover the war years, and now that I’ve finished The Military Philosophers I can say that nothing else I have read has brought home for me the cost of those years. War novels typically show the horrors of the front, the casual death and sudden brutalities. Powell is not so obvious. He takes time to let us get to know people, as in real life we may not like all of them but we become accustomed to them. Then, as the war continues, many of them leave the dance never to return. As a rule they do not leave in dramatic fashion, Nick Jenkins (the narrator) is an intelligence officer in London and so when he hears of deaths he hears of them second hand, news of another exit. The effect for the reader is that as time goes on people simply stop being part of Nick’s (and our) world. They become an absence, an emptiness where once there was a person.

There is a huge power to this, some deaths may be dramatic in their own terms, but the effect in the novel is as in life – as one gets older from time to time one hears that a friend, family member, distant acquaintance even has died and one never sees them again. One hears that a great-uncle was hit by a car, a friend’s sister fell ill and didn’t recover, a multitude of fates all with the same end. In the war, that experience we all have (if we live long enough) is magnified many times over, and by the end of The Military Philosophers many of Dance’s characters, major and minor both, are simply gone.

The Military Philosophers opens in Spring 1942, and closes in 1945 with Nick Jenkins picking out his demob suit. As ever, the novel focuses on a handful of incidents over its period, a cabinet office meeting, time spent on liaison duties with allies, a night sheltering from an air raid, a tour with various military attachés of liberated France, the thanksgiving service for the end of the European war.

By this point, the possibility of severely damaging the work for others by discussing plot details is very high, part of the pleasure of Dance is how the courses of people’s lives turn, how some succeed with seeming inevitability while others fade from view. Early promise is fulfilled or frustrated, people marry or remarry, those we think we know are seen in new lights. Powell uses the space he has given himself to show how people change, or don’t, as the years pass and part of the increasing triumph for me of this series is how despite the fact my own life and background bears no resemblance to anyone in Dance, the pattern of their lives rings true for me all the same.

All of which makes this sound terribly serious, and though it is it’s also very funny. There’s a continued use of (often wonderfully inappropriate) classical references, and though I’m reasonably good on my classics I’m not a patch on Powell and it’s obvious if I were better there are extra levels here I would pick up. Even with my understanding though, it’s hard not to be amused at the excess of some of the comparisons, such as here where Nick heads to his boss’s office after a meeting in a basement office:

Like Orpheus or Herakles returning from the silent shades of Tartarus, I set off upstairs again, the objective now Finn’s room on the second floor.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had too in Powell’s prose, his excellent descriptions such as here where he details a rather desolate scene in liberated France:

In one of these secluded pastoral tracks, a Corot landscape of tall poplars and water meadows executed in light greys, greens and blues, an overturned staff-car, wheels in the air, lay sunk in long grass. The camouflaged bodywork was already eaten away by rust, giving an impression of abandonment by that brook decades before. High up in the branches of one of the poplars, positioned like a cunningly contrived scarecrow, the tatters of a field-grey tunic, black-and-white collar patches jut discernible, fluttered in the faint breeze and hard cold sunlight. The isolation of the two entities, car and uniform, was complete. There seemed no explanation of why either had come to rest where it was.

And here, in a much earlier scene, where Nick is required to visit the office of one of the more obfuscatory elements of the British civil service:

The stairs above the second floor led up into a rookery of lesser activities, some fairly obscure of definition. On these higher storeys dwelt the Civil branches and their subsidiares, Finance, Internal Administration, Passive Air Defence, all diminishing in official prestige as the altitude steepened. Finally the explorer converged on attics under the eaves, where crusty hermits lunched frugally from paper bags, amongst crumb-powdered files and documents ineradicably tattooed with the circular brand of the teacup. At these heights, vestiges of hastily snatched meals endured throughout all seasons, eternal as the unmelted upland snows. Here, under the leads, like some unjustly confined prisoner of the Council of Ten, lived Blackhead.

Blackhead is a minor character, a type almost, the Platonic form of the civil servant made flesh, “the mystic holy essence incarnate of arguing, encumbering, delaying, hair-splitting, all for the best of reasons.”

Other characters are developed in this volume, most notably Pamela Flitton – a strikingly attractive girl whose “rankling animosity against the world in general was discharged with adamantine force…” Flitton moves from man to man, provoking minor scandals and using her near-irresistible magnetic force to lure men to her often to their vast disadvantage. Like so many, she is a person who lives by the will, her sheer force of personality bending the world around her. Existing characters recur, Peter Templer, Odo Stephens, Mrs. Erdleigh and others.

And, of course, Widmerpool returns. Widmerpool by this point is the nearest thing Dance has to a protagonist, his will carrying him ever upwards to new heights of power and prestige. He is a monster, a man who shows no loyalty or compassion at all to those he leaves behind in his wake, yet remains a brilliantly drawn character. I particularly liked this line, where Widmerpool runs into Nick and his wife at the theatre: “Widmerpool, who had met Isobel in the past, peered closely to make sure I was out with my wife, and said good evening.”

As the story moves into France, references to Proust become more explicit, with Nick encountering some of the locations that are used in his In Search of Lost Time. I haven’t read Proust yet, it’s my project for 2010, and I rather regret that because in part Dance seems inspired by Proust’s work and as with the classics there are references I suspect I’m missing that I would pick up if I’d read In Search already.

At the end though, a work as layered and complex as Dance will always be at least partly inaccessible, there will always be more in there, nuances that another reader would see that I do not. That’s inevitable, and in a way is a testament to the work. I’m already excited at the prospect of finishing the series, now too I find myself looking forward to one day rereading it, so that I can see it all unfold again with knowledge of what is to come.

Still, for now it is the mix of comedy and tragedy (an appropriately Grecian contrast which Powell would appreciate) that sticks with me. Death, fear, disappointment, ruined hopes, but also friendship, warmth, the foibles of humanity. The follies of the powerful come up often, there is a wonderful section involving a race between a party of foreign generals for who gets the only bath in a guest house. There’s also a marvellous section consisting largely of Nick’s thoughts wandering as he sits in the victory thanksgiving service, musing on the meanings of the hymns and observing the people around him:

General Asbjørnsen certainly enjoyed singing the words. He was quite flushed in the face, like a suddenly converted Viking, joining in with the monks instead of massacring them.

There’s a humanity in all of this which runs right through this work, this series indeed. Not perhaps a love for us all, but at least an understanding.

As I move towards the last three volumes of Dance, I am increasingly of the view that this is one of the great works of literature, a masterpiece. The statistics, 3,000 pages, twelve volumes, are deeply offputting I admit. But the reward is worth it, each novel is itself only around 250 pages and each is enjoyable and challenging in its own right. This is deep stuff, lightly written, an example of what at its best literature is capable of.

The Military Philosophers

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13 Comments

Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, English Literature, Powell, Anthony

13 responses to “Few subjects are more fascinating than other people’s sexual habits from the outside

  1. I really am going to have to start this once I’m finished with the Zola cycle.

    A couple of points:
    Pamela Flitton sounds a great deal like the wife of Guy Crouchback in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour. Same time period too…

    On the 2010 project–Proust–are you going to break off and switch to other books or just go at it full-tilt? I’ve read bits and thought it marvellous but I haven’t read the entire Remembrance–all volumes. I’ve always thought I’d read it one day. Which translation are you going to read?

  2. I think I’ve got the Kilmartin and Moncrieff translations, I’ll have to check though. I’ll be reading them as I have the Powell’s, I’ll read one then read some other books then read the next. I’ll probably aim to read one every four to six weeks, which means there’ll be plenty of other stuff along the way. Six volumes in one go I think would kill me.

    I have to go back to Sword of Honour, I read the first years ago and loved it, then never read the sequels. I should restart the whole thing.

    Pamella Flitton’s a great character, but there are so many great characters in this. I’d be fascinated to see your take, given you have experience of Zola and Balzac and I think Powell’s more influenced by French literature than he is English.

  3. Just a quick comment: I checked a couple of available translations side by side a few years ago and selected the Moncrieff-Kilmartin. It seemed superior.

    I think that’s a good idea to go slowly with other books on the menu too.

    I have a Wilkie Collins I want to start soon. It’ll probably take me until Xmas to read it.

  4. In some ways I think the comparisons with Proust are fair, in others definitely not. As your review indicates, Powell does build towards a climax — for me, that is the most significant accomplishment of Dance. Proust instead drills down. He is a better writer and it is a bigger accomplishment but I don’t think it is a stretch to compare the two. I also appreciate the way your review accepts that characters in this work just “disappear” because of the war — I think it is a signifcant way that Powell chose to portray this aspect of war.

    Pamella is one of literature’s most interesting characters. She is without both guile and morality, which makes her a bit of an odd thing. And as for Widmerpool…..

  5. The comparisons with Proust are unavoidable on this volume Kevin, Nick spends time in a location from Proust and comments on how excited he is to see places from the work that’s been so important to him. Powell clearly wants the reader to make the connection, he doesn’t leave it to chance.

    That said, I’m not in a position to make a comparison yet. It’s clear there’s an inspiration, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they end up with the same goals or destination (clearly not from what you say). Watch this space in 2010 for my thoughts on that issue.

    I thought Pamella a tremendous character, her amorality being clearly part of her allure, as so often with Powell the portraits are taken from life, perhaps not particular people (well, I don’t care if they’re particular people), but from types of people who’re all too true.

    The disappearing aspect is I think very powerful, as I said I think it does mirror life, at least my experience where people one has grown used to suddenly (and from my perspective offstage) depart and never return. It’s a terrible thing, one I think Powell captures very well.

    It’s also a very undramatic view of war, lots of logistics, arrangements, bureaucracy, while elsewhere people don’t come back. Chilling, and in some ways more effective than the more common horrors of war stuff one sees.

  6. I appreciate your thoughts about Powell’s portrayal of war. He does avoid the dramatic and spectacular and instead concentrates on the mundane (some reminders of Waugh in this) which was a far more common phenomenon. I agree that that more realistic portrayal in some ways is more chilling. And as I follow your progress through the 12 books I cannot help be agree that this is a truly magnificent piece of work — perhaps under-recognized because Powell is so carefull in laying the ground and only really gets to his point in the later volumes. Keep up the good work — I can’t wait until you get into the last three volumes. Your project has already inspired me to commit to a reread but I won’t be starting it until you are done.

  7. To be honest Kevin, I suspect twelve volumes and 3,000 pages is a large part of why it’s under-recognised. I think it’s more referenced than read, and I think a lot more people have read volume 1 than volume 2 or onwards.

    Apparently the same’s true for Proust, I understand sales of volume 1 outstrip all the rest put together.

  8. I certainly have heard the same information with Proust and personal experience tends to confirm it. Having said that, in many ways Powell’s 12 volumes are better connected than Proust’s (at least for me they were) since they build the story to a conclusion. I would agree with the idea that it should actually be regarded as a four-volume work, each containing three parts (that happens to be the way my Folio Society edition is printed) which makes it a little less daunting.

  9. I wonder if that’s less daunting than as I’ve done it, with twelve individually fairly light volumes?

    I find sole volumes least daunting, but then I read a lot on public transport so carrying around compendium editions becomes very unappealing. Where that’s not an issue, perhaps seeing it as four decent sized novels makes it a bit less intimidating.

    Even twelve though, if you’re a regular reader it’s just one book a month, it’s not that big a commitment.

  10. Quite right about the portability issue, Max. I read in a lovely Eames chair so a volume of substance is not only not a problem, it is an advantage. I also agree that Powell should be regarded as a leisurely project. If you are up to it, there is a very good DVD rendition of A Dance to the Music of Time (BBC, I think, but not sure) that is well worth watching (Sheila and I went through it twice in rapid succession and have visited it a third time since). In some ways, it is a strange contrast to the novels — while I think Powell builds the books to a conclusion and personally found the later ones better, the complexity that works so well in the books doesn’t come through on the screen. Having said that, the early episodes are very well done and add some impressive visual images to the book.

    Somewhat off topic, kimbofo (who lives in Ken) has read Sparks’ A Far Cry From Kensington and liked it — I can’t wait until you revisit your childhood with it. Sheila (who lived there for a year at the end of the 60s) found it very good as well.

  11. The Sparks is definitely on the list Kevin, though I’ve got a Pynchon to read next and next week I’m planning to get back to Powell (I’m keen to finish the series this year).

    I do plan to get the tv series eventually, I’m watching Brideshead Revisited at the moment on a vaguely related note which is excellent if you’ve not seen it (I can’t recall if you have, as of this moment).

  12. We do own a copy of the Brideshead DVD collection and revisit it once a year — it is a wonderful piece of television. We also recently bought and watched The Pallisers and were quite surprised to see that Jeremey Irons and Anthony Andrews presaged their Bridie roles in the last few episodes of the Trollope series. It too is worth a look when you have the time.

  13. Have you read any Trollope Kevin? If so, how did you find him? He’s beloved of the British political classes, but otherwise not I think now as widely read as he once was.

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