The Soldier’s Art
Life is short, and Anthony Powell’s “Music of Time” sequence is long: eight volumes down, apparently at least four to go. Is it worth all the trouble? Tastes differ, and some magisterial votes have been cast against Powell. According to Edmund Wilson, he is “just entertaining enough to read in bed late at night in summer, when [through some freak of the US mail?] his books usually reach me.” Many of us, however, would be ready to pipe up for him even on a grey winter’s dawn. He has wit, style, and panache, in a world where those qualities are in permanently short supply, although imitations abound; his ear for give-away dialogue is dauntingly exact; and he has created a whole zooful of memorable characters (still, when the theoreticians have done their worst, the novelist’s primary skill). Admittedly it is possible to feel that he overreached himself setting up quite such elaborate scaffolding for “The Music of Time,” and certainly his (or his narrator’s) general reflections on life and its vicissitudes tend to be rather lame. A Marcel Proust he’s not. Nevertheless, I think the novels gain by being read cumulatively rather than piecemeal. To watch careers diverge or intersect, to spy out improbable affinities, to trace the unexpected new groupings which form after each shake of the social kaleidoscope—these are quintessential Powelline pleasures, and they need space. They also call for an adroit technique, and he is a master of foreshortening and narrative tempo. His devices can turn into mannerisms: he has a perverse habit of stretching out his thinnest material like chewing gum, to see how far it will go, while his mock-mandarin running commentary is not without a taint of fussiness. But the general effect is one of economy and finesse.
For most of Powell’s admirers perhaps the ultimate proof of his excellence as a novelist is that without resorting to violent satirical distortion he should be able to get so much comic mileage out of such unappetizing specimens, that he should be able to make their fate so engrossing. In the prewar sections of his sequence, apart from occasional forays into Bohemia, he deals mainly with English country house society at its most vapid and classbound. Wittgenstein used to say that whenever he got back to Cambridge the first thing that made him want to turn and run was the sound of a well-bred undergraduate voice saying “oh, really?”, and there is a good deal of “oh, really?” about Powell’s characters. They are mostly foppish, lack-adaisical, unforthcoming members of an aristocracy which is losing its grip; a few of them even seem a bit soft in the head. Yet in Powell’s hands they are something more than farcical zombies. A melancholy shading gives the picture depth.
WITH THE COMING of war the social range of the sequence naturally widens. The Valley of Bones, which appeared a couple of years ago, was a wan, at times very funny …