The third season into Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time” series, and I finally feel that I’m understanding what’s going on. Powell’s series is very British, and early on I missed a lot of action because it was hidden amongst the understatements and other polite forms of communication. I read this group of three much more closely, and I feel that I got much more out of it. “Autumn” (as my three in one volume calls this group of three) is the World War II years for Jenkins and his life comrades, although in the first volume, The Valley of Bones, we don’t get to see too many of his schoolmates until the very end. Jenkins, who waited too long to join the British army and slightly too old for the rank and file, is assigned to a Welsh regiment made up mostly of the men of one small town. The lieutenant is an ex-bank clerk with delusions of grandeur, who is frustrated by the abilities of the men assigned to him as well as his own ambition. In some ways, this lieutenant resembles Widmerpool; both men are driven by their desire for acceptance by society. Jenkins, the bobbing buoy in the storm of all this ambition, seems almost goal-less. Even his previous occupation as a writer seems worthless in the light of war, and he flounders, searching for a place to fit in and make something of himself. The Welsh regiment is not it, and at the end of The Valley of Bones, Jenkins finds himself becoming an aide de camp of Widmerpool, who has become the Q&A (roughly, the military police) of a division. At the end of the book, this prospect seems quite despairing to Jenkins, although he is resigned to his fate, which could be worse, he surmises, but not much.
We learn much more about Widmerpool and his ambition in The Soldier’s Art. Jenkins, acting as his lackey, gets first hand knowledge of both Widmerpool’s strengths (hard-working, detailed, thorough) as well as his weaknesses (vain, petty, unscrupulous). One of the strongest scenes yet in the series is a segment herein where Jenkins attempts to help Stringham, who has recovered from his alcoholism, but only managed to achieve a position as a waiter in the Army. Jenkins wants Widmerpool to find Stringham a better position, but Widmerpool at first will have none of it. Widmerpool feels that a man must achieve his own positions, without any string-pulling from his friends. Of course, this is totally hypocritical–he is quite willing to let people pull strings to help his fortunes, and is willing to manipulate the course of actions if they are beneficial to himself (such as having Jenkins assigned to him). Jenkins goes on R&R, and when he returns, he finds that Stringham’s been reassigned to the laundry on Widmerpool’s suggestion. Thinking Widmerpool has turned a new leaf, he thanks him, then learns that the laundry is due to be shipped out to a nasty portion of the war. The strength of this series by Powell is that all the action above takes place in amongst three of four other developing storylines, including a rivalry between Widmerpool and a office at the same rank, a chance for Jenkins to get out from under Widmerpool’s office, and the ongoing blitz of London. Keeping it all straight is difficult at times. Of the books in the series, this is probably my favorite or next favorite so far.
The “Autumn” trilogy ends with The Military Philosophers. Jenkins and Widmerpool separate, each into different parts of the military governance–Widmerpool into intelligence, Jenkins into foreign liaisons. Now that he’s back in the city, Jenkins is reunited with his wife and many of the parts of society that being assigned to a country regiment had denied him. Even though the war goes on, and some of Jenkins’ in-laws are killed by German bombing raids, the book is concerned as much with the love affairs of the characters as the affairs of the war. Most prominently, Templar’s sister, Pamela Flitton, is introduced herein, and the information regarding her dealings with characters that we have met in the preceding eight volumes provides much of the plot. In fact, at one point, where Jenkins is grilling another character regarding Pamela, the character says, “Why do I need to tell you this? Are you from MI5?” because Jenkins, and the reader, has already tied much of what has happened together through the grapevine of other friends and relatives.
I don’t think of “The Dance” as a gossip novel, but in many ways, that is how it seems. Action often takes a back seat to the machinations of talk, and the most interesting bits are the surprises that spring from how characters do not relate to one another as seen through Jenkins’ eyes. Things do happen–bombs burst, sugar gets poured over heads, intercourse happens–but they become stronger by how they are perceived by the characters than their actual effect. I’m looking forward to the next few books, anticipating Widmerpool’s fall from grace and some truth and reconciliation that ties up a lot of what has gone before.
[Finished June 1998]