After reading I Capture the Castle, I was wondering what to read next, when I realised that it had been quite a while since my last instalment from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series. In fact, checking this blog, I saw that I had not read anything from the series since finishing The Valley of Bones (volume 7) back in December. So, I decided to pick up the series again with volume 8, The Soldier’s Art.

The Soldier's Art by Anthony Powell

Spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know plot details, stop reading now!

This is the second of the war trilogy, and is set around 1941. We find Nick Jenkins stationed at divisional HQ, where the tedium and apparent pointlessness of much of army life is highlighted. Once again, in sharp contrast to stories set on the front line, the life Nick experiences during his army service is remarkably uneventful, consisting mostly of long hours of paperwork.

At this point in the series, it is striking just how differently the lives of the relatively small set of Nick’s original school friends and associates have turned out. Just as during his civilian life, Kenneth Widmerpool is single mindedly pursuing ever higher rank and position. In fact, during most of the time period covered in this book, Nick is working directly for his former school classmate. Widmerpool’s character remains much the same as ever: cold, logical, wilful and entirely insensitive to the emotions of others. It is not that he is an intentionally cruel man, rather that he just does not seem to possess normal social skills, such as empathy or an interest in others.

Another of Nick’s old school friends, Charles Stringham, makes a surprise appearance on the scene, when he turns up at the same base, in the role of Mess Waiter. As Nick is an officer and Charles only a lowly new recruit, these once close friends are now barely able to converse with one another, due to the strict military hierarchy imposed upon them. However, there is one classic scene when Charles (a former alcoholic) encounters his officer, Bithel, wandering around the base stone drunk, and telephones Nick to ask him to help get Bithel safely off to his bed before he is seen by any senior official. Here is a snippet:

What’s happened?

You know my officer, Mr. Bithel?

Of course.

You will therefore be aware that – like my former unregenerate self – he is at times what our former mentor, Mr. Le Bas, used to call a devotee of Bacchus?

Bithel’s drunk?

Got it in one. Rather overdone the Dionysian rites.

Passed out?

Precisely.

Nick tries to help Stringham find a more rewarding position, but Stringham seems stoic, if not downright masochistic, in his keenness to remain in as humble a role as possible. Later, much to Nick’s horror, after Stringham joins the mobile laundry service, he gets sent off to the Far East.

Whilst much of Nick’s time within barracks is remarkably routine, his few days’ leave in London is anything but uneventful. One fateful evening begins with Nick meeting up for a drink with his old friend Chips Lovell, who tells Nick of his current marriage problems. After Chips leaves (to go to the Café de Madrid), Nick stays on at the restaurant, where he is joined by another old friend, Moreland, and his lover, Audrey Maclintick.

Coincidently, Chips Lovell’s estranged wife, Priscilla, along with her lover, Odo Stevens, happen to appear in the same restaurant. The five end up sharing an awkward table together, although Priscilla leaves early in some distress. Later that night Jenkins hears that a bomb hit the Café de Madrid and killed almost everyone there, including Chips Lovell.

Nick tries to phone Chips’s wife Priscilla, but the line is down, so late though it is, he treks off across London to tell her in person. When Nick finally arrives at the Jeavons’s house to inform Priscilla, he discovers that in the very same evening the house has also been bombed, and that both Lady Molly and Priscilla have been killed.

So, as might be surmised from the above, a sombre tone pervades the novel, as Anthony Powell explores the isolation and separation that the war brought to so many.

As this instalment has left me with so many questions, I think I am going to have to follow it up immediately with the next instalment: The Military Philosophers.

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