Anthony Powell, A Dance…vol. 3

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time. Collected edition vol. 3

Vol. 7: The Valley of Bones (1964) The title arises from a reading in church from Ezekiel (the famous song ‘Dry Bones’ derives from the same Old Testament source). WWII has started and Nick is a lowly officer at a training unit. There’s a whole lot of new characters: fellow officers are variously pompous, officious or ineffective, or a combination of these. The other ranks are slightly less eccentric, but still full of quirks.

David Pennistone is one of the most interesting of the recurring characters; Nick had met him years earlier at the famous society party thrown by Mrs Andriadis (other characters from this event will pop up later). He’s an intellectual, reading Vigny on the military life when Nick encounters him on a train, and thinking of writing a piece on Descartes. He’ll feature fairly prominently in the next few volumes.

Nick learns more about his former lover Jean and her wayward attitude to the men in her life. More complications arise with his wife’s extended family and other former friends and acquaintances. The dance involving partners changing and dropping out continues, with several surprising developments.

Nick by this time early in the war had written, he says, ‘three or four’ novels (the imprecision is telling). But now, as war becomes ever more overwhelming, he feels too ‘inhibited’ to write. There’s an unsurprising darkness, as well as the usual dazzling satire, in this wartime trilogy.

Humour is wickedly threaded into the more serious aspects of the narrative – and the depiction of characters. One of Nick’s fellow officers remarks that he’s glad he’s married: it means he ‘[doesn’t] have to bother any more about women.’

8. The Soldier’s Art (1966) Widmerpool, as patronising, sinister and creepy as ever, is now Nick’s officious but ineffective superior at their unit in N. Ireland. He’s embroiled in childish, jealous rivalries with his peers, desperate to seem more efficient than everyone else, but succeeding only in appearing ludicrous. He’s a superb creation, probably the most interesting and complex character in the sequence: a comic monster, summed up in this withering comment from Nick –

There was something impressive in his total lack of interest in the fate of all persons except himself. Perhaps it was not the lack of interest in itself – but the fact that he was at no pains to conceal this within some more or less hypocritical integument.

The ‘dance’ of characters brings more of Nick’s former acquaintance into play, still relentlessly changing partners with each other. Former school friend Stringham pops up as a lowly mess waiter, revealing the class system operating as pervasively as it does in the outside world.

There’s a fair amount of rueful reflection on the vagaries of military life in time of war. There are also some shocking revelations; some characters die in the Blitz.

9. The Military Philosophers (1968) Time has moved on; this volume covers a period roughly 1942-45. First a captain, then a major, Nick is at a war office post, working at first in liaison with Polish allies, then with others. The massacre of Polish officers at Katyn forest casts a dark shadow over this final novel in the wartime sequence.

Widmerpool is again his superior officer, as arrogant and selfish as ever. There are more reappearances of usual suspects, but the most striking new arrival is Pamela Flitton (played by Miranda Richardson in the 90s TV version, depicted on the front cover of this volume).

She’s a glamorous ATS driver for Nick’s unit. She emerges as an egregious flirt with a destructive surliness in her treatment of her various conquests. Nick learns that she’s Stringham’s niece (by various complex marital connections).

There are more fatalities among Nick’s circle as the Nazis, losing the war after D-Day, deploy their final lethal onslaught on London: V1 and then V2 rockets. Pamela is revealed to have been involved in a sinister, clandestine plot in Cairo that included others of Nick’s acquaintance.

The tone becomes increasingly Proustian – not just in terms of the meandering prose style, but also in the settings (Nick finds himself on a mission to a northern French resort that turns out to be Proust’s Balbec), and there’s a long quotation from this parallel roman fleuve.

In his military role, Nick learns more painful lessons: after witnessing bad behaviour by a senior commander, he recalls another of philosopher Pennistone’s more cynical insights: that such officers need mollycoddling; they’re like ‘ballerinas’ in another world – Borneo, for example. The fawning obsequiousness Nick had formerly deprecated in some junior soldiers in their dealings with top brass he now realises is essential for survival in this army.

Between the Potsdam conference and the first atom bomb, Nick hears that Pamela has become engaged to the last person he’d have expected. At a social event she displays her usual venomous contempt for her new beau: this does not bode well for the embarrassed fiancé.

After attending the victory service at St Paul’s, Nick meets another key figure from his past. This is going to complicate his life in fascinating ways. I’m looking forward to the final three volumes in this brilliantly realised sequence. How will he fare in post-war civilian life? How will he manage to step his way through the next stage of the dance?

 

A novel of the troubles: Louise Kennedy, Trespasses

Louise Kennedy, Trespasses (Bloomsbury paperback, 2003; 20221)

Mrs TD urged me to read this novel when she’d finished it – especially as its protagonist shares my family name. Louise Kennedy writes about the region she grew up in: the Belfast area of N. Ireland. Trespasses is a powerful novel set there early (late 1960s-early 70s) in what became known as ‘the troubles’.

Her central character is Cushla Lavery. Her first name is Irish Gaelic for ‘beat of my heart’ or ‘darling’. One of the features of this divided community is that people are usually identifiable as either Protestant or Catholic by their names (‘Cushla’, being a Gaelic name, would immediately indicate that she was Catholic), the schools they attended, or the towns or areas they live in.

Cushla’s family pub is in a relatively quiet and peaceful area, in that theirs is a Catholic-run business, but the clientele are largely local Protestants (some of them associated with the paramilitaries), or British soldiers who don’t interact with the locals, including Cushla, very sensitively. They were supposed to be peacekeepers and restorers of order, but their behaviour (in Kennedy’s fictional scenario) is hardly likely to make the volatile atmosphere any calmer.

Cushla is a young primary school teacher, and takes under her wing a seven-year-old Catholic boy whose family are in a dangerously exposed position, as they live in a predominantly Protestant part of town. There’s a touching love story. Not surprisingly, given this tinder-box environment, not everything turns out well.

This might all sound a bit grim, and it is. Some of Kennedy’s characters are intended to show how intolerance and prejudice fuelled the flames of the troubles (a fiery priest, a rather creepy headteacher, those boorish soldiers). But there are others portrayed with such warmth and sympathy that the humanity and potential for love and kindness are shown as not entirely destroyed in the midst of all the terrorist atrocities, bombs and killings.

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to that very sketchy outline. As a person whose family has its roots in this region, I found Trespasses particularly moving: despite all the pain and suffering, the hatred and bigotry that form the background to the novel, Kennedy succeeds, while avoiding sentimentality or over-simplification, in making us care for her central characters, and believe that the forces of decency, humanity and kindness can still just about survive in such dreadful circumstances.

Powell, A Dance…vol.2

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time vol 2 (Arrow Books, 2000)

I posted in January about the first in this sequence of 4 bulky 3-volume editions of the 12 novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. My response then was less than enthusiastic. Now I’ve finished the second volume, which contains these three novels:

At Lady Molly’s (1957)

Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960)

The Kindly Ones (1962) – the title refers to the Eumenides or The Furies, the Greek deities of divine vengeance and retribution.

I’m now firmly hooked: A Dance to the Music of Time is brilliant – witty, and written with a purring elegance beneath which there’s a wickedly sharp critical portrayal of the (mostly upper-middle-class) large cast of characters.

The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is now (it’s the mid-30s for most of these 3 novels, and ends with the start of WWII) a novelist of moderately successful standing. He’s got over his love affair with Jean, who’d married a former school acquaintance of his, Bob Duport, and settled into married life with Isobel Tolland – one of a large number of siblings (their aunt is the ‘Lady Molly’ of the first novel here). He makes some alarming discoveries, however, about the true nature of Jean (and, for that matter, many of the other characters) – he’s not usually the most discerning or omniscient of narrators, despite his capacity for turning an epigrammatic phrase, and his shortcomings in reading people, especially women, are starkly exposed again.

It’s difficult to do justice to the subtlety of Powell’s achievement in these novels in a short space here; the slowly accreting narrative and lack of notable incident are central to his purpose. He takes his time in demonstrating the relative skill or ineptitude of his creations, as they join partners and then change them. Widmerpool, the eccentric figure of fun from school days, pops up regularly, and is becoming an ever more complex player in the drama: at times seemingly the solipsistic fool, but always vaguely menacing.

As in Max Ophuls’ excellent 1950 film (based on an Arthur Schnitzler play from 1897) ‘La Ronde’, it’s the inevitably cyclical turn of events, the rhythmical change of partners in that looping dance through time, that underlies and governs things. The participants have far less agency than they tend to realise. Nick relates what he sees of this with varying degrees of understanding; as a bemused participant himself, his view is as partial as the rest of his acquaintance.

I’ll try to give some examples of the exquisite style and tone of this deceptively languid sequence of novels.

Early on (p. 32) there’s Nick’s friend Barnby’s Wildean insight into the nature of the minor aristocracy invoked in describing the ‘lonely, derelict character’ of uncle Alfred Tolland (ie uncle to the siblings including Lady Isobel), who’d sat morosely next to Nick at one of their former school’s old boys’ dinners – these references to scenes in earlier novels in the sequence regularly appear, all part of the meticulously constructed architecture of the novels. Barnby had quipped that ‘melancholy is the curse of the upper classes’ (32).

Character description is another rewarding feature of Powell’s approach. These generally appear in the big set pieces that punctuate the narrative, such as parties at Lady Molly’s, drinks in seedy London pubs, or meals at the Chinese (formerly Italian) restaurant named in the second novel here.

Miss Weedon is the former secretary to Mrs Foxe; she takes over supervision of her employer’s drunken grown-up son, Charles Stringham. Nick remembered her looking at Charles when he and Nick were boys with ‘adoration’; she’d been his sister’s governess as well. Charles, she declared, had never grown up. She only tolerates conversation with Nick at one of the many parties he attends because he’d said he and Charles had been friends since school. She looks at Nick ‘with a kind of chilly amiability’. As a boy, Nick had thought her ‘formidable’:

I still found her a trifle alarming. She gave an impression of complete singleness of purpose: the impression of a person who could make herself very disagreeable if thwarted.

Later, when she’s revealed as engaged to an elderly general (a friend of Nick’s family), he concludes that this is consistent with her ‘taste…for power’ – she enjoyed her ability to control wayward Charles, and now sees the general as another such project (p. 163).

Nick meets Jean’s ex, Bob Duport, in a seedy hotel – he’d gone there to arrange the funeral of his bad penny uncle Giles, another recurring character, who’d been staying there when he died. Nick had never liked Bob, and was even more inclined to antipathy when Bob reveals that Jean had been unfaithful not only to her husband, but to her other lovers (including, unknown to Bob, Nick himself). She had orchestrated the end of the affair with Nick with a lie about having to move abroad. Nick realises he’s joined a long list of men she’d treated badly. He concludes, with bitterness and resignation:

For the moment, angry, yet at the same time half inclined to laugh, I could not make up my mind what I thought. This was yet another example of the tricks that Time can play within its own folds, tricks that emphasise the insecurity of those who trust themselves over much to that treacherous concept. I suddenly found that what I had regarded as immutable – the not entirely unsublime past – roughly reshaped by the rude hands of Duport. That was justice, I thought, if you like. (p. 655)

Powell is perhaps overfond of that unusual double negative structure that Orwell advised against in English usage (‘not un- something’).

Nick muses further on Miss Weedon’s ability to capture the heart of the worldly old general:

One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.

‘Valéry asks why one has been summoned to this carnival,’ [Nick’s friend] Moreland once said, ‘but it’s more like blind man’s buff. One reels through the carnival in question, blundering into persons one can’t see, and, without success, trying to keep hold of a few of them.’ (691)

‘Carnival’ here is a variation on the recurring metaphor at the heart of these novels: the revolving performance in which the performer-dancers are not entirely aware of the rhythms, the formal pattern, that influence their movement.

Which returns me to a quotation I included in my first post on A Dance to the Music of Time, from p.2 of the first volume of three novels: ‘they [AP’s characters] can be unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’