The Valley of Bones is volume seven of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It continues the overall seasonal theme of the series, here heading into autumn, and into war.
As the novel opens, it is 1940 and Nick Jenkins (the series’ narrator) finds himself attached as a junior officer to a Welsh infantry regiment on exercises, but which has no immediate prospect of a combat posting. This is not then a novel of war in the conventional sense, indeed it is no spoiler to say that in this novel Nick does not go to war at all, rather here we see with Nick the tedium and daily grind of army life, its absurdities, its necessities, the boredom and the loneliness of men forced into each others’ company and away from the company of those they love.
For most of this novel Nick is apart from his family and friends, the characters we have grown used to are absent. Instead, we meet new faces, people with whom Nick shares the officers’ mess and the men under them. As ever, these are well realised and credible, Captain Gwatkin with his ambitions to be a great soldier, held back however by his caution and his over-romanticisation of military life; Bithel who is hopelessly ill-suited to the job, but who lied to the recruiters about family connections and past glories in order to gain a place; Kedward, solid and capable, efficient but without (perhaps efficient because without) the eccentricities of Gwatkin or Bithel.
Among the enlisted men too there are well crafted individuals, Gittins, the extraordinarily parsimonious manager of the Company Store (“where he guarded every item as if it were his own personal property acquired only after long toil and self-denial. Nothing was more difficult than to extort from him even the most insignificant replacement of kit.”); Corporal Gwylt, the company womaniser; verbose (but competent and reliable) Company Sergeant-Major Cadwallader, there are many others each well realised even where their parts in the narrative are small.
The quality of the characterisation is key here, this is a novel in which little happens in one sense, most of it is spent in the company of men who have little meaningful to do, the pleasure in large part is observing them with each other, the social nuances implicit in men being thrown together despite often having nothing particular in common.
Often it’s very funny, the interactions between officers and men, Nick hearing the men late at night in the company store – listening to Lord Haw-Haw and discussing the consequences of Germany winning the war (“If Hitler wins the war, I tell you lad, We’ll go down the mines for sixpence a day.”), or how terrible it would be to be required to go up in an aircraft, which reminds one of them of a story:
‘You make me think of Dai and Shoni when they went up in a balloon.’
‘And what was that, I wonder.’
‘They took two women with them.’
‘Did they, then?’
‘When the balloon was in the sky, the air began to leak something terrible out of it, it did, and Dai was frightened, so frightened Dai was, and Dai said to Shoni, Look you, Shoni, this balloon is not safe at all, and the air is leaking out of it terrible, we shall have to jump for it, and Shoni said to Dai, But, Dai, what about the women? and Dai said, Oh, fook the women, and Shoni said, But have we time?’
Powell himself served as a second lieutenant in a Welsh regiment, where he was much older than the average officer and where as a writer his background was quite different to the others, who were mostly Welsh bank managers. In Valley, Nick has the same experience, indeed the events in Valley and the events in Powell’s own life almost directly correlate: the regiment’s duties, its posting to Ireland, the weeding out of weaker officers, the relocation of the regiment to a crumbling manor house, all this happened to Powell and all of it happens to Nick too. It’s hardly surprising I was so impressed by how real it all felt, it’s based very closely it seems on Powell’s own experience of army life. So closely, that to read of his time in the army would actually spoil the few plot developments in the novel.
The book also captures well the strange mix of the vitally important and the utterly absurd that Nick finds in the army. A general’s inspection becomes a bizarre interrogation of the men as to their like or dislike of porridge for breakfast, a cup of tea becomes more important than almost anything on Earth, almost:
In the army sleep is prized more than anything else; beyond food, beyond even tea.
And yet, while exercises go comically wrong, while some of those present should clearly never be allowed near a loaded weapon, underlying it all is a terrible seriousness. Britain is at war, some of these men will go into combat, some will not return. Where an exercise goes wrong it’s funny in part, Gwatkin’s obsession with getting every detail perfect meaning that he misses his overall objective, but the point of the exercise is ultimately to keep men alive when their time for fighting comes. It is funny, but it is also really nothing of the sort.
As the book continues, death creeps in at the edges. One man dies in what may be suicide, may be murder by Irish separatists, may be just an accident in the dark with a rifle that probably shouldn’t even have been loaded. Nobody really knows, the man is still dead. Duty continues, the war becomes a little more real.
Nick goes on leave, spending time with his heavily pregnant wife, with family and friends. Here Powell takes a moment to fill in more of his larger canvass, updating us as to the progress of other characters, some with wartime are flowering, aspects of their character previously unrealised coming to the fore. Also, Powell shows the social change conflict brings, grand houses being adapted for use by troops. War is an opportunity for some, a leveller for others.
If I were to criticise, I could note that this is the most male of the novels so far, women are largely offscreen, the army is a world of men and their interactions with women are highly restricted, mostly involving encounters with girls near their camps. There is, as always with Powell, a sense that the women do have inner lives – we gain further insight into Nick’s old lover, Jean Templer – but by and large women are absent from this particular narrative and mens’ relations with them reduced to their simplest:
‘Not feeling much like going on the square tomorrow, are you?’ said Stevens. ‘Still, it was the hell of a good weekend’s leave. I had one of the local girls under a hedge.’
It’s difficult to see, however, how the novel’s masculine flavour could be avoided given it is a story of army life from the perspective of one man in one regiment. The absence of women and the effect on men of their absence is part of what the novel talks about, and as such it’s difficult to address that while still having well rounded female characters present.
Slowly, the war comes closer. Some men earlier detached from the regiment to active duty are reported dead at the front, Nick hears of other deaths, some people he knew in peacetime. The war is starting to change his world more fundamentally than its immediate impact of relocating him and forcing him to live with strangers. As readers, we learn something of what life during wartime was like, the original readers I suspect would simply have been reminded of it.
Valley is a remarkable work, witty, well observed, with a tremendous grasp of period and a mounting sense of what is to come. Reading Powell is like diving into a pool of clear water, immensely refreshing, invigorating even and it quite washes away any feelings of ennui that reading lesser works occasionally brings on. I’m tremendously excited about starting the next in the sequence.