And so to July’s Anthony Powell – “The Valley of Bones”, book 7 in the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, and the first volume in my collection titled “Autumn”. It’s perhaps a little scary to realise that Nick is being considered in the autumn of his life while still so young, but I suppose we need to remind ourselves that life expectation has changed somewhat! Or maybe it is just the autumn section of the stories – whatever!
I’ve now begun to expect that the start of any new Powell will throw me straight in at the deep end, into an unfamiliar situation with a set of new characters. However, the beginning of VOB does this with a vengeance, as Nick is in the army and posted to a regiment who it quickly becomes clear are Welsh! The first two chapters are darkly humourous as we meet Nick’s CO, Gwatkin, prone to quite dramatic mood swings, plus a number of other officers and ordinary soldiers. There is also Blithel, whose (false) reputation precedes him and who turns out to be a bit of a strange alcoholic. The regiment get shipped off to Ireland and there is much fumbling about with orders and military exercises going wrong. Gwatkin proves to be very erratic, and prone to take out his failures on others.
“Romantic ideas about the way life is lived are often to be found in persons themselves fairly coarse-grained. This was to some extent true of Gwatkin. His coarseness of texture took the form of having to find a scapegoat after he himself had been in trouble.”
Before long, Nick becomes the scapegoat on one the troop’s first military exercises, although Gwatkin tries to make it up later.
Nick is then shipped off from Wales to Aldershot to some kind of pointless-sounding training course where he befriends David Pennistone (whom he had run into a long time ago at a party). And then, after the two excellent chapters of Nick in the army, Powell hits us with a cracker of a chapter with the weekend gathering from hell as our hero visits his sister-in-law’s, where Isobel his wife is staying. He’s met with old faces, new faces, characters we’ve only heard mentioned before, sworn enemies, sexual undertones – it really has it all and ends with Nick having to go back to camp while Isobel faces labour!
Back in Ireland, Gwatkin is going to pieces, having fallen in love with a local barmaid, and drifting off into dreams at inappropriate moments. Things continue to crumble in the regiment until Gwatkin is replaced and Nick is hauled off to HQ to meet the DAAG (Deputy Assistant Adjutant General apparently!) who turns out to be an old friend….
This is quite a switch in style and material for Powell, as we are dealing with war which is obviously a serious matter. However, this doesn’t stop him taking his usual humourous look at things and I did find myself laughing out loud at several points. He is particularly good on pointing out the boringness and futility of much of army life, and this evident from the beginning when it is revealed that many of the men in charge in the regiment were once bankers – obviously a profession that well prepared them for fighting! (ahem!). He also captures brilliantly the gulf between the remote, somewhat dippy officers and the lower ranks of the soldiers, particularly in the sequence where the General makes a spot inspection and seems more concerned about the troops’ breakfast habits than anything else:
“… the General stood in silence, as if in great distress of mind, holding his long staff at arm’s length from him, while he ground it deep into the earthy surface of the barnhouse floor. He appeared to be trying to contemplate as objectively as possible the concept of being so totally excluded from the human family as to dislike porridge.”
I have to say that I did find myself having recourse to Wikipedia at times, though, to sort out some of the more complex military ranks!
The writing is superb as always, and Powell’s normally labyrinthine sentences are often reduced to shorter, almost staccato phrases in places, reflecting the change in the world around him and the necessity for often quick-fire decisions and actions. In particular, he shows a genius for reproducing dialect, and the lilting, sing-song intonations of the Welsh language are beautifully reflected in the speech of the soldiers.
“Now, see it you must, Gareth… In time of peace, in the mine, you are above me, Gareth, and above Sergeant Pendry. Here, that is not. No longer is it the mine.”
Having visited Wales almost annually for many years, I can testify to the accuracy!
An interesting underlying theme in VOB was the effect of the war and army life on relationships between men and women, and also the changing attitudes of women. From early on, it seems that it is ok for soldiers, even married ones, to lust after, and liaise with, any women they come across; but when Sgt Pendry’s wife is reported to be having an affair he falls to pieces, and has to go home to try to sort things out. So should she wait faithfully at home while the soldiers take their chances with local girls where they can? Powell’s (and his characters’) attitude to women are ambivalent – some of the soldiers seem happy with a quick shag under a hedge, others envisage much more noble affairs and Nick in places seems to defend the fact that women are being just as promiscuous as men – he is slightly more open-minded than many of his colleagues. The War caused a large shift in attitudes to women, and indeed of women’s expectations and this is reflected a little here, though is to be found much more in women’s writing of the period (many of the reprinted Persephone books come to mind).
But always in the background is the knowledge that War *is* a matter of life and death. There are casualties here – Sgt. Pendry is one of them, although not through seeing action, and Nick loses a family member, albeit a remote one. We are aware that there are likely to be more.
“The potential biographies of those who die young possess the mystical dignity of a headless statue, the poetry of enigmatic passages in an unfinished or mutilated manuscript, unburdened with contrived or banal ending.”
Once again, this is a marvellous piece of writing by Powell. Although much of the book takes place in camps around the country, we are not completely cut off from Nick’s former life and contacts; and in fact, Isobel does have her baby although remotely, at a distance, which is how Powell deals with Nick’s marriage! He brilliantly captures the boredom and banality of the army and as Nick says:
“A French writer who’d been a regular office said the whole point of soldiering was its bloody boring side. The glamour, such as it was, was just a bit of exceptional luck if it came your way.”
I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the next book, as I’m not sure what the DAAG has in store for Nick, and I am afraid that there will be more casualties…
(NB – Yes, the appalling Widmerpool does make a fleeting appearance – but I’m not saying where….!)