I confess I am very behind with August’s episode of Dance to the Music of Time – life and other books got in the way – but I’m going to try to read two of the books in one month. In the meantime, here are my thoughts (belatedly) about book 8 in the sequence.

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Actually, episodic is the right word to describe Powell’s novels, as it’s become clear by now that each chapter relates the story of an event, or series of events, that have made up an episode of Nick’s life. And how like real life this is, because very few of us remember our lives sequentially; instead, particular times, places and happenings stand out in our memories, and so Powell is adept at capturing what the real experience of remembering is.

“The Soldier’s Art” continues from “The Valley of Bones” with Nick now working for Widmerpool at Divisional HQ. It is 1941 and so the War is taking hold. Being employed by the wonderful Kenneth is not the most scintillating of jobs, and Nick obviously craves something more. A fluke conversation with General Liddament leads to a recommendation for a position with the Free French forces, and Nick is due for an interview during his forthcoming leave. Meanwhile, Widmerpool is heavily involved in army politics, jockeying for position with a colleague, Colonel Hogbourne-Johnson. And in the Mess, a shock is in store, as an unexpected Mess Waiter turns out to be an old friend of Nick’s, who unfortunately draws the wrath of Biggs, an unpleasant Captain.

There are only three long chapters in this book and the second covers Nick’s leave in London. The interview for the Free French does not go well, as Nick’s language is not up to the job. However, he manages to meet up with old friends, having a drink with Chips Lovell, and dinner with Moreland and, most unexpectedly, Audrey Maclintick. Emotions are running high as Priscilla Lovell, Nick’s sister-in-law, has been having an affair with Odo Stevens, and turns up at the same restaurant with him as he is off on a posting. Chips, meanwhile, wants a reconciliation and has gone off to a gathering where he thinks she will be. Nick goes home with Moreland and Audrey, where they encounter Max Pilgrim with some dramatic news….

The third chapter sees us and Nick back at HQ where there are all sorts of upheavals going on. The Mess Waiter has been transferred to the mobile laundry; Bithel, who is in charge of that unit, is caught drunk by Widmerpool (despite Nick and the waiter’s attempts to cover up) and our Kenneth has him dismissed from the army. Widmerpool’s behind the scenes manipulations go a little too far and despite his promotion, there is a hint things may not go well for him. And Nick, previously unsure of what would happen to him on Widmerpool’s promotion, is summoned to the War Office!

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This is one of the shorter books of the sequence, but my goodness! it delivers quite a punch! I’ve worded my comments as carefully as I can above because I don’t want to give out any spoilers, but there is plenty of drama in this book and I was really gripped from beginning to end.

The War starts to hit home in a particularly hard way, and what is surprising that much of the dramatic action happens when Nick is on leave in London. The first deaths that really affect us take place amongst civilians, in the blitz, and so are more powerful because we are not necessarily expecting them. One character seems to have some kind of premonition of what is happening and their leavetaking is touching and poignant. There is much Widmerpool in this book, and it’s fascinating to look back to the first volume, “A Question of Upbringing”, and recall his appearance at the start, his dogged running reflecting his stubborn, determined nature.

There are unexpected reappearances, as there usually are, and some losses referred to almost casually – which makes the event even more shocking. Powell is always adept at delivering these, but never so much as here – I came out of this book feeling quite emotionally wrung out!

The portrait of army life is of course excellent – the petty everyday brutalities, the boredom, the relentless procedures, the caste system of the ranks – but it is the despair caused by the war that is shown so well here. The norms go out of the window and people taken unexpected actions: a suicide by a solid army man thrown into sudden anguish; the union of Moreland and Audrey, who previously very much disliked each other; and the breakdown of marriages and normal relationships as a kind of recklessness takes over.

It’s become clear that one of the most important elements in these books is friendship and Nick/Powell reflects on this complex relationship:

“Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward – in contrast with love – is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment; like love, too, bearing also within its embryo inherent seeds of dissolution, something more fundamentally destructive, perhaps, than the mere passing of time, the all-obliterating march of events which had, for example, come between X and myself.”

It’s going to be hard to pick a favourite of these books when I’ve finally read the whole sequence – if, indeed, that turns out to be something relevant to do – but I have to say that this has been one of the most gripping I’ve read so far. There’s a poignancy to it, a combination of ageing and changing and loss. One character quotes Browning from “Childe Roland” (the title comes from this poem):

“I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
As a man calls for wine before he fights,
I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights
Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards – the soldier’s art;
One taste of the old time sets all to rights.”

There is a sense that more losses are to come before the world is set to rights – I can’t wait to get into the next book, but in many ways I don’t want to! Excellent writing as always by Powell; a remarkably good book!

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