The Soldier’s Art is the eighth volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, midway through Autumn, deep now into war.
Nick Jenkins has taken up a role as assistant to Widmerpool, now a Major serving at divisional HQ. It is 1941, air raids are frequent and the monotony of military life is at odds with the constant threat of enemy bombs.
As ever in Dance, this volume takes us through a handful of episodes in Nick’s life: a mess dinner; a period of leave back in London; political infighting within the division. Each, again as ever, is meticulously observed. The tone, however, is darkening and there is far less of the humour that leavened The Valley of Bones.
Old characters recur, Stringham makes a fresh appearance, Bithel introduced in The Valley of Bones continues as commander of the Mobile Laundry Unit, Moreland recurs as do several others met through the series. Each though is disturbed by wartime, relationships altered, lives changed, all is in flux, although as Nick at one point says:
‘Everything alters, yet does remain the same.
A line that could summarise the philosophy behind the whole of Dance so far.
New characters are also introduced, generals, colonels, men who served in the last war pressed into service again in this. At divisional HQ, and at the senior ranks, a certain eccentricity can it seems be afforded, again military life throws together men who in peacetime would naturally have nothing to do with each other. Descriptions are of course excellent:
Hogbourne-Johnson, a full colonel with red tabs, was in charge of operational duties, the staff officer who represented the General in all routine affairs. A Regular, decorated with an MC from the previous war, he was tall, getting decidedly fat, with a small beaky nose set above a pouting mouth turning down at the corners. He somewhat resembled an owl, an angry, ageing bird, recently baulked of a field-mouse and looking about for another small animal to devour.
Equally, of another man:
Above all, he bestowed around him a sense of smoothness, ineffable, unstemmable smoothness, like oil flowing ever so gently from the spout of a vessel perfectly regulated by its pourer, soft lubricating fluid, gradually, but irresistibly, spreading; and spreading, let it be said, over an unexpectedly wide, even a vast area.
This is a critical book in the series, so much so that I am reluctant to say too much about it for fear of ruining its many surprises. It deals in themes of transience and loss, of uncertainty. Much of the book is spent with characters’ futures unclear, for the military the possibility of promotion, expulsion, transfer, variously before them. For the civilians, new relationships and failing marriages against a backdrop of wartime privation make things little better.
For all the encroachment of chaos though, just as many are lost or discomifited by war, some always profit from it. Widmerpool is in his element, ceaselessly maneouvering to appoint those he prefers to places of utility, to defeat those he opposes, to secure his own advancement. Nick is faring less well, now dependent on Widmerpool’s favour, knowing that when Widmerpool is finally promoted Nick’s own post will be redundant and without help he will likely be despatched to the Infantry Training Course – a prospectless dead end.
Through Widmerpool, and the other officers Nick meets, we again of course explore different philosophies of life, Widmerpool living the life of the will, imposing himself by sheer force of personality upon the world and shaping it to his liking, creating order, his own lack of self-insight his greatest weapon. Others are equally ruthless, but charming, while others experience life as something that happens to them (Nick himself of course chief among these). There is no judgement here, no condemnation, merely an examination of how some by choice determine their own fate, while for others fate seems imposed by others or merely random.
For me, this was a hugely sad novel, filled with a sense of despondency. 1941 was, I believe, the bleakest time of the war: the German invasion of Russia comes only near the end of this volume, and of course the Americans are still nowhere to be seen. It is a time when defeat is a genuine possibility, Europe has fallen and without our benefit of hindsight for Nick and his compatriots the fall of Britain too is a very real possibility. The nightly bombs claim lives, offstage men Nick has come to know are reported killed, death is everywhere. In volume seven we entered the valley of bones, here we are deep inside it. The title of this blog entry is a quote from Stringham, and becomes a savagely ironic comment on what is happening to many of the fashionable set he once belonged to.
With all that, there are still some definite moments of humour, Powell is an effortlessly witty writer when he wishes to be, I particularly liked this sly dig at amateur novelists:
‘I never get time to settle down to serious writing,’ he used to say, thereby making what almost amounted to a legal declaration in defining his own inclusion within an easily recognisable category of non-starting litetary apprenticeship.
A conversation between Nick and a general about the merits of Trollope is also very funny. More subtly, a conversation between Nick and Stringham veers from the tragic, to the absurd, to the comic as Stringham realises he is only talking about himself – asks Nick how he is doing – then interrupts to talk unselfconsciously again about his own concerns.
Finally, as throughout the series, there is a sense at times of classical drama, of the mythic reflected in the mundane. Here, Nick and Moreland exit a restaurant during Nick’s leave:
We paid the bill, went out into Regent Street. In the utter blackness, the tarts, strange luminous forms of nocturnal animal life, flickered the bulbs of their electric torches. From time to time one of them would play the light against her own face in self-advertisement, giving the effect of candles illuminating a holy picture in the shadows of a church.
Classicism, change, fate, philosophy, death, there is a lot here. With so downbeat a volume this wasn’t my favourite of the series so far by any means, but it still had real power, at times devastating effect. Here, some leave the dance, not everyone makes it out of this volume alive, and having spent much of seven previous volumes getting to know these characters, seeing their lives, the shock of their deaths is all the more real. Literature struggles with the finality and stupidity of death, here Powell meets it head on and by the sheer breadth and ambition of his work makes us feel it as few other novelists can.
Or that’s one take, but as Stringham says in one of the truest lines I’ve read in a while:
Like everything that’s any good, it has about twenty different meanings.