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 …