These days it seems to take me longer to get round to posting a review of the latest book that I’ve read than actually reading it. I guess this might be explained by the fact that however busy each day might be, I still usually read for a while when I get into bed, partly as a way of unwinding. So even when life is pretty hectic, I still tend to get a decent amount of reading done, whereas finding the time to sit down to blog is often more difficult.

Anyhow, I read The Military Philosophers a couple of weeks back. It is the ninth book in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, and it completes the trilogy of installments covering the Second World War period.

The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell

This novel covers the last couple of years of the war, a period during which Nicholas Jenkins is working in Whitehall, on liaison duty between the British military and other Allied and Neutral forces, with a particular focus on the Free Poles. Thus we are able to observe more about military life, especially that of the more bureaucratic echelons of the army. At one point Nick, who has become a Major by this point, escorts a group of senior embassy attaches on a visit to meet the General. Rather than the pillar of strength and decision that we might expect to find in one so elevated, Nick likens him more to an old maid:

There could be no doubt, so I was finally forced to decide, that the longer one dealt with them, the more one developed the habit of treating generals like members of the opposite sex.

The other surviving characters also make appearances, most notably Widmerpool, who is now carving out a significant niche for himself in the British Cabinet Office. As ever he is hideous in his own unique way, yet also quite fascinating to observe.

Nick also encounters Charles Stringham’s niece, Pamela Fitton, who has grown up since Nick last saw her, and who has turned into something of a femme fatale. She turns up as an ATS driver for Nick’s unit, and we later discover that her move was encouraged after she had caused a certain amount of disturbance in her previous posting. Certainly her name seems to be linked to any number of military men, good and bad. Anyway, the most surprising thing happens when this beautiful but hard woman is announced as being engaged to Kenneth Widmerpool. At first NIck assumes that it must just be some crazy spur-of-the-moment thing that will soon be seen for the mistake that it surely is, yet this realisation never seem to come.

The war is eventually over and at the end of the novel there is a fascinating and beautiful account of the victory ceremony at St. Paul’s cathedral. This momentous event, where Nick is surrounded by the great and the good, in the beautiful and ancient cathedral, during a service full of powerful rhetoric, causes Nick to meditate on many things. This is a brilliant section, as Nick reflects on much of the senselessness of war that he has witnessed and lived through.

Language, pronunciation, sentiment were always changing. There must have been advantages, moral and otherwise, at living in an outwardly less squeamish period…[although] such a mental picture of the past was largely unhistorical, indeed totally illusory… The past, just as the present, had to be accepted for what it thought and what it was.

The novel ends with another memorable scene, where Nick is invited into a huge warehouse of a shop to trade in his military uniform for some civilian clothes. As if a mere change of clothing will be all it takes for a soldier to slip back seamlessly into his old civilian life. This is another poignant and intelligent novel, and I look forward to reading the final three books of the series in due course.

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