The Military Philosophers
Pictures of Fidelman
With The Military Philosophers Anthony Powell reaches forward into the mid-Forties and completes the third, penultimate movement of “The Music of Time.” The concluding installment of his wartime trilogy, it is also to my mind the most successful—partly, I think, because in spite of the title it is the one least saturated in military mystique. Unless one happens to share the author’s predilection for regimental lore and red tabs and the nine-and-thirty ways of pulling rank, there are times when the atmosphere of the two preceding volumes, The Valley of Bones and The Soldier’s Art, turns undeniably oppressive. The new book, by contrast, is more spacious. We have left behind, not the army itself, at any rate the parade ground and the officers’ mess: the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, now has a desk job in Whitehall, acting as a liaison officer first with the Poles and later with the Belgians and Czechs. Displaced cavalry commanders and military attachés waltz around like characters in an operette; haut fonctionnaires intrigue; local bureaucrats abstruct. And a strong sub-plot is provided by the sexual depredations of Pamela Flitton, last glimpsed half a dozen volumes back as a five-year-old bridesmaid being sick in the font, now a full-grown and formidable vixen.
Whatever one puts it down to—the metropolitan setting, the cosmopolitan milieu—The Military Philosophers represents a return to Powell’s most accomplished comic vein. It is also, on occasion, unexpectedly moving—unexpectedly, because both Powell’s principal literary modes depend to a large degree for their success on a positive withholding of sympathy. His comedy is brisk, hard-headed, masculine, traditional and toryish in its outlook; at the same time his preoccupation with patterns, with the picturesque groupings and regroupings of experience, suggests the detachment of the aesthete who values life primarily for the striking compositions that it yields. But while he is certainly a writer who keeps his distance, the presence in his work of a “straight” sympathetic narrator, however self-effacing, is enough in itself to ensure that he goes beyond unalloyed burlesque or pure heartless aestheticism. Feeling keeps breaking through, not always obliquely either.
There is one particularly fine instance in the present novel. Jenkins is accompanying a delegation through Normandy shortly after the Liberation, traveling through “a Corot landscape of tall poplars and water meadows executed in light greys, greens and blues.” As so often, his experience is fixed and framed like a work of art. Then an old man waves at the passing convoy; suddenly it is all “too much,” and he breaks into tears. Admittedly an incident like this is exceptional in its directness. More typically the anguish of war is only hinted at or implied, as in the episode where Jenkins and his colleagues have to handle some of the diplomatic complications of the Katyn massacre, and habitual understatement turns grim rather than comic.
Among the incidental pleasures of the novel, two passages stand out: a mordant character sketch of a famous British Field-Marshal (unnamed, but …