I am still working on the best way to describe A Dance to the Music of Time
in a sentence or two and how to persuade someone that they should read a twelve-volume epic about a posh English guy's really rather unremarkable life. Nick Jenkins, our stalwart protagonist, is now in his thirties as World War II breaks out, and rest assured, he will not be storming the beaches at Normandy, interned in a POW camp, or even working in secret outfits, though many of his associates and even childhood friends will be doing all those things. Instead, he will do what he has been doing throughout this series: quietly observing events around him with his own presence subtly understated. He has a marvelous gift for being the hero of his own story in his own mind just like anyone else, without appearing to be for the reader.
The Third Movement contains the books The Valley of Bones
, The Soldier's Art
, and The Military Philosophers
, and together they cover the entire span of World War II. I wouldn't recommend starting the series here; seriously, you should start from the beginning because you can't possibly absorb the immaculate, immersive detail of Powell's writing unless you've been following along with Nick Jenkins and his huge and growing dance card of secondary characters since his public school days.
All the same, although the soldier might abnegate thought and action, it has never been suggested that he should abnegate grumbling. There seemed no reason why I alone, throughout the armies of the world, should not be allowed to feel that military life owed me more stimulating duties, higher rank, increased pay, simply because the means to such ends was by no means clear.
At the beginning of this volume, Nick has just managed to obtain a second lieutenant's billet. He's kind of old for a subaltern, so he's stuck with a bunch of other older civilian retreads in a unit that gets shipped off to garrison duty in Ireland to do not much of anything. That is the dominant tone of The Valley of Bones
; Nick is bored and unfulfilled, far from home but not actually anywhere near anything interesting. Everyone is waiting for the war to start.
Yet the Third Movement packs more drama than any of the previous ones, because war does break out and things do happen. Big things. Maybe not in Nick's immediate proximity; he describes the Blitz, even as V2 rockets are literally falling around him, in the same wry, unhurried voice he used to describe the debutante balls he attended as a young bachelor. But as with all the previous books, you have to sit back and really think about what you've just been told.
Epic fantasy authors get cheap accolades for killing off important characters over the course of their long, rambling series. In The Soldier's Art
and The Military Philosophers
, Anthony Powell kills off several characters who've been moving in and out of Nick Jenkins' life since volume one, characters that I fully expected to last to the end of the series. And it all happens offstage, coming to Nick as news from abroad, delivered with mechanical indifference in the middle of a war. As with his love affairs and his marriage and his wife's miscarriage and the marriages, divorces, deaths, even suicides of friends in the first two volumes, Jenkins does not reveal any great depth of emotion as he narrates his life story. We are left to infer, by his words alone, by the course his thoughts take, that he really is as flesh and blood as the characters he comments on (in Powell's authorial voice) so eloquently.
When people really hate one another, the tension within them can sometimes make itself felt throughout a room, like atmospheric waves, first hot, then cold, wafted backwards and forwards as if in an invisible process of air conditioning, creating a pervasive physical disturbance. Buster Foxe and Dicky Umfraville, between them, brought about that state. Their really overpowering mutual detestation dominated for a moment all other local agitations.
I am really starting to love this saga, even though I've been reading it veeeeeery sloooowly because there are pages and pages and chapters where nothing happens, and yet you don't want to skip any of those pages because the writing is so good. It is Powell's prose that draws you in, slowly, gradually. It is the rich tapestry of lives and events that he weaves, telling dozens of little stories on every page. Oh, here's Sunny Farebrother again, whom we haven't seen since the second book and whom Nick hasn't seen in twenty years, popping up as a commanding officer. And here's Nick's childhood friend, being shipped off to the Far East with spectacularly poor timing.
Many old friends resurface, not least of which is Kenneth Widmerpool, whose rise to power seems unstoppable.
Widmerpool is the closest thing this series has to a "villain," yet even when Jenkins has had entirely too much of him, he still seems to view his old school chum with a mixture of fascination, distaste, nostalgic fondness, and disgusted awe. Nick spends most of The Soldier's Art
slaving away as Widmerpool's flunky, only to be discarded, thrown under a bus, without a second thought because of Widmerpool's almost psychopathic indifference to anyone who isn't immediately of service to him. Yet Nick is still cordial with Widmerpool when they meet again toward the end of the war.
I said this series doesn't really have a villain, but Powell introduces one hell of a femme fatale at the end of the Third Movement: Pamela Flitton.
Flitton is a tempestuous, voracious succubus who works her way through most of the British army and half the foreign troops with the anger of an avenging Lilith. That her wrath for the male species and her delight in bringing ruin is never really explained just makes her that much more of a scary, beautiful enigma. She is the niece of Nick's old friend Charles Stringham, which makes him uninterested in her charms, which makes him about the only man she approaches with even a modicum of sociability, and so as with all the other dangerous and formidable characters he meets, he is able to observe this sexual force of nature at work without quite being directly involved.
Although a minor scene, one of my favorites was the return of the card and tea leaf-reading Mrs Erdleigh from The Acceptance World
, who has the steel ovaries to insist on reading Pamela Flitton's palm. The meeting of these two dames is nothing more than a quiet conversation in a darkened building during a Blitz raid, but it has the feel of two samurai staring each other down across a bridge, like in those stories where one turns aside without either ever drawing his sword.
Pamela held out her palm. She was perhaps, in fact, more satisfied than the reverse at finding opposition to her objections overruled. It was likely she would derive at least some gratification in the anodyne process. However farouche, she could scarcely be so entirely indifferent from the rest of the world. On the other hand, some instinct may have warned her against Mrs Erdleigh, capable of operating at as disturbing a level as herself. Mrs Erdleigh examined the lines.
So, how else could the Third Movement end but with Nick mustering out of the army at war's end, reflecting on all the old friends who are gone, and Pamela marrying Kenneth Widmerpool?
I'm going to take a break and read a few other books, then finish up this series with the Fourth Movement.