At Anthony Powell’s

The Valley of Bones

by Anthony Powell
Little, Brown, 243 pp., $4.50

Not long ago, wedged in a corner at a party, I was involved with an agreeable young couple in a conversation about the name of the man with whom Jean Duport had been sleeping at the same time as her affair with Nicholas Jenkins. Years later, Bob Duport, Jean’s ex-husband, had told Nicholas about her infidelity, without realizing that Jean and Nicholas had also been lovers. Wasn’t it Jimmy Stripling? No, that was before Jean and Nicholas had started their affair. Actually, this was another Jimmy, Jimmy Brent…. We were not, as one might suppose, very old friends reminding ourselves of an ancient and intricate scandal involving common acquaintances, the details of which became riper at each successive telling; but simply slightly reluctant victims of the compelling charm of Anthony Powell’s long and expanding novel, The Music of Time, which reaches its seventh volume with The Valley of Bones. This kind of fascination is not, of course, peculiar to Powell: it can be exerted by any author who erects and sustains a credible and self-consistent imaginative world. The admirers of Sherlock Holmes, avid for any detail of their hero’s life and personality, painstakingly reconstructing the Baker Street menage, offer one example at a low but engaging level. Similar, but more ambitious, are the efforts made by dedicated readers of Proust—one of Powell’s principal mentors—to enlarge on his characters’ biographies and tell us something about their later activities; offering, for instance, speculations about the behavior of the Baron de Charlus and the Verdurins in German-occupied Paris.

This is not of course a serious literary satisfaction, but the love of gossip from which it springs is probably an element in the traditional popularity of the novel as a literary form, even though modern critics of fiction remain deeply suspicious of it. Anthony Powell, though a very conscious artist, is unusual among contemporary novelists in ministering to this deep-seated desire to hear about people and then hear more about them, and what they do and what possibly outrageous things they are likely to do next. His two-hundred-odd major or minor characters, all incisively realized, drawn from strata of English society ranging from the middle-middle class to the aristocracy, have now been weaving in and out of each other’s lives at long or short intervals for almost twenty years: the first volume of the sequence, A Question of Upbringing (1951), opens with Powell’s quiet but observant narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, as a boy at Eton (identifiable as such though unnamed) in 1921; at the end of The Valley of Bones he is serving as a rather over-age subaltern in a Welsh regiment in the summer of 1940. Powell aims to complete the series in twelve volumes, so that at his present rate of progress it should be finished in 1974. Only a novelist with remarkable confidence in his creative powers and intellectual stamina, it seems to me, could devote so many years to such a large undertaking.

Powell’s principal strength lies in his sense of social fact—not the inert cataloguing techniques of the naturalists, but a rare sensitivity to the small but socially relevant gesture, and to what Lionel Trilling has called “a culture’s hum and buzz of implication.” The segment of English society that Powell chooses to write about is still remarkably cohesive, and was certainly far more so in the Twenties and Thirties: Oxford, Cambridge, the major public schools, all have close connections with the principal London foci of intellectual, professional, and business life. A surprising number of English people seem to know each other, or at least know of each other; some kind of link is preserved between disparate circles by a network of friends or relations or friends of friends. This state of affairs is bitterly denounced by outsiders as the “old-boy-network” or, more grandly, the Establishment. But it has great fictional possibilities and Powell has exploited them brilliantly, whilst also acknowledging the difficulties involved. In The Acceptance World (volume 3 of the sequence), Jenkins, who also writes novels, reflects: “Intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification, while understatement and irony—in which all classes of this island converse—upset the normal emphasis of reported speech.”

Powell’s attempt to reproduce these intricacies results in the leisurely complexity of Jenkins’s reflective passages—particularly in the earlier volumes—which tend to have an alienating effect on readers who like a brisker sort of fiction. One doesn’t, admittedly, discover in The Music of Time the laconic, concentrated brilliance of Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men (1931), which shows the same world in a sharper focus. And in parts of the sequence, the reflective passages are a little over-extended; the writing is occasionally flat or fatigued, particularly in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (volume 5). Although Powell’s achievement is respected, The Music of Time is still something of a minority taste; at least, I find myself trying to defend it rather often. Certainly, his use of sub-Establishment circles for his material does not recommend him to the more or less working-class, provincial, nonconformist attitudes that have been so formative in the literature of the last ten years or so. And yet Powell is anything but a snob: he chronicles the antics of the high bohenia or low aristocracy of Mayfair and Soho with the dispassionate patience of a dedicated anthropologist. There is an immediate contrast here with Evelyn Waugh, whose treatment of the gentry in Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy is affectionate, nostalgic, and intermittently sentimental. Powell, one feels, writes without presuppositions; he is merely fascinated by the unending absurdities that his tapestry exhibits; as Arthur Mizener shrewdly remarked some years ago, The Music of Time is the work of “an enormously intelligent but completely untheoretical mind.” Powell has never, it appears, felt the need of the abstract sustaining principles resorted to by other writers of lengthy fictions, such as Tolstoy’s historicism, or the disputed question of Proust’s debt to Bergson. His novel is a series of linked empirical observations, focused in the watchful consciousness of Jenkins, and usually expressed in fairly elaborate anecdotes about whichever of the characters are on the scene at the moment. The use of anecdote is at the heart of Powell’s methods as a novelist. Not for nothing has he written a life of John Aubrey and edited a selection from Aubrey’s Brief Lives.

With each successive volume the inherent patterns in the sequence become more evident. Although Powell is emphatically not an overt moralist like Evelyn Waugh, neither is he a passive camera-eye like the early Isherwood. When one has read or, better still, reread the six volumes that take the story from 1921 to 1939—A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, The Acceptance World, At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones—one is conscious of having encompassed a great comedy, or more exactly, a great work of English social comedy in a tradition that stems from Jane Austen; but, at the same time, there is a cumulative sense that this is a shabby and dispirited society, even though an entertaining one. Delight is, in the end, tempered by a sentiment rather akin to Matthew Arnold’s exasperated “What a set!” Among other things, Powell is writing about a world still suffering from the physically and morally traumatic effects of the Great War, and in a quiet and unembittered fashion he is continuing the anatomy of English society in decay embarked on by Ford Madox Ford in Parade’s End. But Powell avoids the clearcut distinctions of moralistic fiction, and clings to the principle, more often attested in life than in modern literature, that people can be pretty worthless and still remain excellent company.

Various figures rise above the amiable second-rateness of most of the characters and play a dominant role. One such was Nicholas’s seedy and mysterious Uncle Giles, who floated portentously in and out of his nephew’s life with hints at large financial dealings in the background; he is removed from the scene and decently cremated in The Kindly Ones. Again, there is the tough left-wing critic, J. G. Quiggin, an angry young man before his time; or the sinister tycoon, Sir Magnus Donners, with his obscure sexual tastes. But the presiding genius of The Music of Time is undoubtedly Kenneth Widmerpool. In the last chapter of The Valley of Bones Jenkins discovers him in a major’s uniform holding down a staff job at a base in Northern Ireland, and clearly destined to rise rapidly in his military career. We have previously seen him in a number of manifestations, from his first appearance in A Question of Upbringing as a fat and ungainly schoolboy, panting out of the mist in running kit at dusk on a winter afternoon. For Powell, Widmerpool embodies in an unusually pure form the power of the will: he is obtuse, pompous, socially inept, and at the same time possessed of an almost demonic energy and an unstoppable urge to succeed. We see him subsequently rising in commerce, covered in sugar at a society dance, delivering an incomprehensible lecture on international economics at an Old Boys dinner, moving in exalted circles during the brief reign of Edward VIII, becoming, for a short while, unsuitably engaged to the sophisticated divorcee, Mildred Blaides. Jenkins dislikes but reluctantly admires Widmerpool, who, for instance, can summon a taxi at a moment of crisis: “A cab seemed to rise out of the earth at that moment. Perhaps all action, even summoning a taxi when none is there, is basically a matter of the will.”

A fascination with the will is the closest Powell comes to a philosophical motif in The Music of Time; there are occasional references to Stendhalian heroes who embody the power of the will, and in The Valley of Bones he presents an extremely fine example of this type, or rather of someone who aspires to it. Captain Rowland Gwatkin, Jenkins’s company commander, is Welsh territorial officer who is a bank-clerk in peacetime. Once in uniform, however, he indulges in grandiose dreams about the traditional glory of soldiering and aims at becoming an embodiment of the ideal officer. Jenkins makes a characteristic reflection about the part in which Gwatkin has cast himself:

It was a clear-cut, hard-edged picture, into which Gwatkin himself, for some reason, never quite managed to fit. Even his name seemed to split him into two halves, poetic and prosaic, “Rowland” at once suggesting high deeds:

…When Rowland brave, and Olivier,
And every paladin and peer, On Roncesvalles died!

Gwatkin,” on the other hand, insinuated nothing more impressive than “little Walter,” which was not altogether inappropriate.

Gwatkin, for all his dreams of heroism, is revealed as sadly lacking in more prosaic elements, such as a sense of reality, and in the end is sacked from his command for incompetence. Ironically, his place is taken by one of his own subalterns, Idwal Kedward, another Welsh bank-clerk in uniform, who, though an apparently mild young man, possesses the efficiency and ruthlessness that Gwatkin lacks.

The Valley of Bones is a transitional work which gives Jenkins, and the reader, a vantage point from which to look back at his life during the Twenties and Thirties, at school and university, and then in the eddying circles of intellectual and fashionable London; he is not so young now, happily married (or apparently so, for we are told irritatingly little about his personal life) and a father. At the same time, this volume points forward to the later years of the war, when the kaleidoscope will be shaken far more violently than ever before, and some of the dramatis personae will certainly disappear from the scene: already, Nicholas’s brother-in-law, Robert Tolland, is reported killed at Dunkirk. Read for its own sake, The Valley of Bones is one of the solidest and most entertaining volumes in the sequence, enabling its author to cast a cool and penetrating eye on the complex follies inherent in military life. After thirteen years’ work Powell’s inventiveness is as abundant as ever.