The Kindly Ones is the sixth volume of Anthony Powell’s twelve volume epic, A Dance to the Music of Time. I have been working slowly through the whole sequence for the past few months, but recently had fallen out of the habit, so that as time passed the prospect of picking up the next volume became increasingly intimidating.
Which was my loss, because when I forced myself to pick up volume six, I remembered within a page quite how good a writer Powell is, quite how refreshing it is to dip into one of his books, and quite how much I enjoy this series. Twelve volumes makes for an intimidating target, that’s true, but so far each volume has been a genuine pleasure to read and there is a lightness to Powell’s prose which makes him slip down very easily indeed.
As with other works in the series, The Kindly Ones is formed of a handful of incidents in the life of the narrator, Nick Jenkins, each described in some detail. We open with his recollection of some scenes from childhood, just before the onset of the First World War. We then move back to his present, to 1938 and 1939 and a Britain again faced with the threat of war. This threat is one that in 1938 some still some dismiss as too unlikely to bear out, but which by 1939 has become an unavoidable certainty. In 1938 we accompany Nick on a trip to the country, culminating in a dinner party at the home of a wealthy industrialist and slightly drunken after-dinner party games. In 1939 Nick stays in a bed and breakfast run by an old family servant, arranging the affairs of a dead relative who had gone to stay there. Finally we have Nick’s efforts to use personal connections to get himself appointed as an infantry officer before the fighting starts – despite him having left it a little late and being just a touch too old.
Ordinary life then, ordinary life of the times in which the book is set at any rate. Part of the brilliance of the Dance sequence is how we explore the characters through their quotidian existences, dinner parties, dances, nights with friends, but through all this mundanity we also explore themes which are complex and subtle. Here the characters’ lives are overshadowed by the prospect of war, and by the Kindly Ones, the furies of Greek myth, the Eumenides:
I recalled Mrs Orchard’s account of the Furies. They inflicted the vengeance of the gods by bringing in their train war, pestilence, dissension on earth; torturing, too, by the stings of conscience. that last characteristic alone, I could plainly see, made them sufficiently unwelcome guests.
The Kindly Ones also follows the pattern of previous novels by introducing new characters and themes, while continuing to develop existing ones. If anything, Dance increasingly reminds me of a symphony, as we reach the middle parts more instruments join, more motifs emerge, but certain underlying refrains repeat and grant a consistency to the whole.
Here, recurring themes include the way some live by the will, forcing their perceptions and views upon those around them and by sheer obstinacy of vision controlling their own reality; the way human natures are essentially fixed; and the way people may change in their superficialities and circumstances, our perception of them may shift with greater knowledge or changes to our own situation, but the essence of the person remains the same throughout. Above all, the key theme remains the impossibility of knowing another human being or of understanding the inner truth of another couple’s relationship
One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.
The Kindly Ones also sees Powell return to the interest in spiritualism present in certain parts of British society during the inter-war years, introducing the somewhat comic figure of Dr. Trelawney, a spiritual guru leading a commune near Nick’s childhood home and who Nick encounters again when he is grown and the Dr. an old man.
As ever, Powell shows a sly wit, his descriptions of individuals frequently managing to bring them fully to life while being at the same time very funny. Here he describes Nick’s father, a man of constant irritability who forever finds the world ever so slightly not quite up to scratch:
My father really hated clarity. This was a habit of mind that sometimes led him into trouble with others, when, unable to apprehend his delight in complicated metaphor and ironic allusion, they had not the faintest idea what he was talking about.
And here Nick and his old friend Moreland discuss Trelawney, and the place of men like him in the world of 1938:
‘What will happen to people like him as the world plods on to standardisation? Will they cease to be born, or find jobs in other professions? I suppose there will always be a position for a man with first-class magical qualifications.’
The Kindly Ones themselves act as a running theme in this volume, both in the coming of war (in 1914 and again in 1939) and in the pricking of consciences. When Nick stays at the bed and breakfast, he encounters a man whose wife he once slept with, and ends up having to spend the evening drinking with him and hearing accounts of the marriage and the wife very different to those he once heard from her. Other marriages are no more successful, with resentment, infidelity and mismatched couples all making an appearance.
Not every aspect of this volume works, a comic episode in 1914 involving cars of the day ends with Uncle Giles stating his dislike of them, and how some Austrian archduke down in Bosnia just had a terrible mishap in one, getting himself shot. The conversation doesn’t wholly persuade, and is for me a rare example with Powell of his themes intruding a little too obviously into the characters’ reality. Equally, Powell continues to be far better at portraying the middle and upper classes, than he is the working.
Other elements, however, show Powell’s characteristic sureness of touch. Recently, I was discussing with Rob of The Fiction Desk how with long running crime series it can be a problem for an author to juggle the needs of writing an interesting novel with the desire of the fans to see what is happening to each of the characters established in earlier works. Rob pointed out that this is simply one of the challenges writers must face. At the time, I thought him a touch harsh, but reading this volume I see that in fact he was completely correct. When Moreland, Nick’s old friend, is reintroduced into the narrative I found myself for a moment struggling to remember exactly who he was among Dance’s vast and diverse cast. However, within a page he had, quite naturally in conversation, referred to the possiblity of himself writing a symphony – he came flooding back to me – Moreland, the composer, of course.
It was cleverly done, and it was noticeable given I had left a longer gap between volumes this time than usual quite how good Powell is at making sure you remember who people are. In a series of this breadth, this ambition to portray a whole society, it’s an essential talent and one Powell repeatedly displays to tremendous effect.
I don’t wish here to discuss plot, I rarely do on this blog, therefore there is a limit to how much more I wish to say at all. Powell is a writer of huge talent, Dance is a series with immense scope, in which characters come and go, living wholly convincing lives yet at the same time embodying themes of social change, aristocratic decline, disparate approaches to life, the crafting by people of their personal narratives and the illusions they live by and much more. I have touched on only a handful of the matters and characters contained in this (just 254 page) volume and the characters who recur within it and continue living their own lives in various proximities to Nick’s. Nick’s world is a breathing one, convincing in its internal connections and its sense that even the more minor characters remain consistent to themselves (sometimes by their still showing the same inconsistencies…).
The Kindly Ones includes then friendship, love, infidelity, guilt, fortune and misfortune. It contains a great deal of comedy, from curious individuals, unlikely (to Nick, anyway) developments and chance discoveries, but it also contains a fair helping of pain and loss and emotional bewilderment. As Moreland states:
One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people are. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be.