The Music of Time

by Charles W. Morion
The advent of a new novel by Anthony Powell (The Soldier’s Art, Little, Brown, $4.95) in his marvelous series The Music of Time is of course a major event for his following, and this latest is faultlessly of a piece with the seven that have preceded it. The reader who has accompanied these fictional characters through the years in England between the two wars will be staggered by what now befalls some of his friends from the earlier books, and it is fair to say that Kenneth Widmerpool, who was merely objectionable as a schoolboy at the beginning of the series, now emerges as the most thoroughly dislikable personality in modern English literature. But like any book individually in the series. The Soldier’s Art is impossible to summarize and hard to describe; each leads gracefully to the next, and is, necessarily, unfinished business. A satisfied reader of the series thus far would sound about like this:
“I enjoyed it enormously.”
“What’s it about?”
“Well, nothing, really. Still, that’s not quite correct. It’s those same people again Moreland, Chips Lovell, Sunny Farebrother, Charles Stringham, Widmerpool. of course, Priscilla What ever-her-name-is-by-this-time — you know.”
“Yes, but what are they doing? What happens?”
“It’s very funny—parts of it, that is. I believed every word of it. Lovely stuff. Nobody can do this sort of thing the way Powell does . . .”
“What sort of thing?”
The prospective reader may demand, reasonably, something more coherent than these findings from one who has read the whole series. But Mr. Powell’s grand design does not lend itself to encapsulation: begin with a few boys in their final months together at a (good) public school, using one of them, Nicholas Jenkins, as a narrator, and let Jenkins go on to tell what the ensuing years bring them, and their relatives and friends, and the world in which they move. Their world is, roughly, upper-middle-class London, now facing in The Soldier’s Art the early stages of the blitz, its people more and more preoccupied with the military life and, often ludicrously, the military mind. The book ends with the news that the Germans are invading Russia; with its immediate predecessor, The Vil-ley of Bones, and the next book to come, as yet untitled, Mr. Powell will have completed in his series the three-volume segment that he proposes to devote to World War II.
What sets Mr. Powell apart from other writers who deal or have dealt with the period he is covering is the complete reality he achieves in his characters and all that they do. Whether they vanish for good after a miniscule appearance as part of a scene-setting or persist in one or another of the series’ larger patterns is immaterial: all come through vividly to the reader, convincingly, and without a word wasted. It may seem unlikely that one who writes so economically could devote, successfully, a good half of one of the earlier books to a couple of dinner parties, but Mr. Powell is unfailingly the master, in full charge no matter how he chooses to have it all told: if he stops and lingers at some point en route, the matter may recur, usefully, later on in the story, and if it doesn’t, it was all good reading anyhow. The first three pages of The Soldier’s Art, for instance, are Jenkins’ account of buying an officer’s greatcoat in a somewhat dubious shop on Shaftesbury Avenue “at the start of the whole business.” The episode was of no great importance, and a single sentence could have sufficed for it, but Mr. Powell’s unhurried details of the transaction bring his story alive, seemingly almost without effort on his part. Shall we meet again the shopman, “bent, elderly, bearded, with the congruous demeanour of a Levantine trader”? Meet or not, either way would satisfy the Powell readers.
Not the least of Mr. Powell’s assets is the pleasure — perhaps selfsatisfaction his readers can take in encountering unexpectedly and remembering a character from one of the earlier books. Like old friendships, these reappearances are nostalgic., calling to mind a time when both reader and character were unaware, in their relative innocence, of what fantastic changes the years would wreak on each. For a newcomer to sit down and try to read all eight books en bloc is to miss, inevitably, much of this recognitive zest and to risk being overwhelmed by so numerous a cast. If one began at the beginning and continued on a one-a-month quota, he could probably catch up with the series and lose nothing on the way.

Perhaps the high spot of The Soldier’s Art comes when Sunny Farebrother, unreported in the series since a brief and minor participation in Vol. I (A Question of Upbringing), confronts Widmerpool in what is as near to being a denouement as Mr. Powell ever permits himself. The collision between these two is no more than sketched in by Jenkins as narrator and witness, but Mr. Powell is as masterly in his omissions as he is deft in his characterizations. Although it was all only conversational, a duel with machine pistols would scarcely have been more ferocious.

Of Widmerpool, who once said, “No good being too gentlemanly,” Jenkins’ account tells us, “Like so many individuals who believe in being ‘ungentlemanly’, Widmerpool did not allow sufficiently for the eventuality of other people practising the same doctrine. Indeed, he used to complain bitterly if they did.”
Against him was Farebrother, who owned “rather a good” DSO and an OBE. “In his own way,” reports Jenkins, “as I learnt later, Farebrother was an efficient operator .... He squared his shoulders and smiled kindly, pleased, as well he might be, with the devastation his few minutes’ conversation had brought about in the promotion of Widmerpool’s plans.”
We await impatiently the return of Sunny (his given name was Sunderland) Farebrother in Vol. IX, and it is hardly conceivable that Mr. Powell will allow World War II to end without further recourse to him.