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BOOK SEVEN ('The Valley of Bones'): We begin the 3rd Movement with the seventh book of 12. If you prefer to think of Anthony Powell's (rhymes with pole's, not towel's) masterpiece cycle in terms of months, 'Valley of the Bones' is July.
'The Valley of Bones' is a war novel that has nothing to do with war. Well, that is not right, there are signals that the war is beginning and the Nazis are invading countries in Europe. Nick Jenkins finds himself in command of a platoon training for war with the Germans. His company is a company whose officers are all primarily bankers and whose enlisted ranks seem filled with miners. Instead of a novel about a battle, or valor, or strategy -- we get a novel about marches, stolen rifles, moldy cheese, drinks, fights, and bureaucracy.
Having two brothers and a brother-in-law, a father-in-law, and a father who have all served overseas during the 1st Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, or the War in Iraq, I can attest from their stories that the introductory quote is absolutely true. One of the biggest parts of war is the sitting, the boredom, the drudgery. It is punctuated by insanity and violence, but the violence is rare often only felt by the tip of the spear. The romance of war is both a myth and a lie.
There is a quote that stuck with me from this novel, "A company commander...needs the qualifications of a ringmaster in a first-class circus, and a nanny in a large family".
If the idea of boredom, duty and bureaucracy seems to persuade you to look elsewhere for your Sunday, literary entertainment, you must not yet understand the full appeal of Powell. He is able to examine this reality of the rearguard of war with an eye that picks up little gems about war, the military, and those engaged in war that seem to transcend time and sides. "Looked at calmly, war created a situation in which the individual -- if he wished to be on the winning side -- was of importance only in so much as he contributed to the requirements of the machine, not according to the picturesque figure he cut in the eyes of himself and others".
Anyway, Powell is able to paint a picture of the boredom of war that reminds me of the literary equivalent of the Flemish masters. This novel is not the equivalent of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade. This novel is a painting of three soldiers, hung-over, pealing potatoes in the rain. And yes, even that has its own majesty.
BOOK EIGHT ('The Soldier's Art'): It seems almost by accident my pacing of Powell's 12 volume A Dance to the Music of Time brings me to book 8 in August. I didn't plan it. I fall into Powell in fits and starts. I'll read a couple books and move on to other books. But I keep coming back.
Anyway, a couple things stood out about this novel. The beginning starts out with Jenkins buying an army coat at a theatrical costume shop in London. The bent, elderly, bearded assistant mistakes Jenkin's motives for buying the coat, believing him to be in a play. It was beautifully done. It was rich, ironic, and anticipated the themes of war as theatre, etc. In the final act/chapter of this movement Powell brings it back around to dress when he is having a discussion with Chessman and remarks "It is a tailor's war, anyway" in response to seeing Cheesman wearing a waistcoat underneath his tunic.
Like every Powell book, this one involves dinners, drawing rooms (this one bombed out), friends rotating in and out of Jenkin's life. Some of these friends, however, leave permanently in this book. It was touching and like most all of the Powell books I've read, infinitely quotable. He weaves into each of his conversations pearls of wisdom, and clever observations about people and motives. It really is an amazing series.
BOOK NINE (The Military Philosophers): This is the last book in the Fall/WWII trilogy (3rd Movement) of A Dance to the Music of Time. It was at once the saddest of the series so far and also the most Proustian, with several direct quotations from Remembrance of Things Past and also several geographies in common with that other monster of 20th Century fiction.
The book had me hooked from the first couple paragraphs. To me, at least, it resembled (in a less funky and mad way) the opening section of Europe Central? You know the part. The very beginning too. Where, STEEL IN MOTION, with a black telephone/Signal Corps octopus vibrating, ringing, somnambulating, sleepwalking, eavesdropping, gloating as Europe Central buzzes.
See, here from the first couple pages of 'The Military Philosophers':
"from the secret radio Spider, calling and testing in the small hours..."
"Endemic as ghouls in an Arabian cemetery, harassed aggressive shades lingered for ever in such cells to impose on each successive inmate their preoccupations and anxieties, crowding him from floor and bed, invading and distorting dreams. Once in a way a teleprinter would break down, suddenly ceasing to belch forth its broad paper shaft, the column instead crumpling to stop in mid-air like waters of a frozen cataract."
Without giving too much away (meetings are held, rockets scream, people die, but the Allies eventually win) this novel centers on WWII from about 1942 to the end of the war. The war, except for the bombs and the V2 rockets is largely fought elsewhere by other friends. Nick is engaged primarily as a liaison officer (first with the Poles and then with the Belgians, etc.) where he learns how to maneuver through bureaucracy and personalities. Widerpool again (and also Pamela) seem to both act as catalysts whose actions impact heavily the lives around them.
I think it is also worth posting the Nestor poem in full that I (and Powell) borrowed a verse from:
Vulcan, contrive me such a cup,
As Nestor us'd of old;
Show all thy skill to trim it up,
Damask it round with gold.
Make it so large, that, fill'd with sack,
Up to the swelling brim,
Vast toasts on the delicious lake,
Like ships at sea, may swim.
Engrave no battle on his cheek,
With war I've nought to do,
I'm none of those that took Maestrick,
Nor Yarmouth Leaguer knew.
Let it no name of planets tell,
Fix'd stars, or constellations;
For I am no Sir Sidrophel,
Nor none of his relations.
But carve thereon a spreading vine,
Then add two lovely boys;
Their limbs in amorous folds entwine,
The type of future joys.
Cupid and Bacchus my saints are,
May Drink and Love still reign!
With wine I wash away my cares,
And then to love again.
In war time it is always interesting to see the interactions between the soldiers in the field and the POGs* (persons other than grunts). Powell plays with this a bit. Jenkins and Widerpool aren't exactly "safe" but their positions during the war keep them primarily in London. The war is being fought by other men. There is also tension between the above ground and below ground (secret) elements of the war. Again, towards the end of these war trilogies we see clothing used to convey the idea of the war as a play. One costume is exchanged for another as Jenkins is demobbed.
* this was a term I was first introduced to by my little brother who served as a "foot" or a "grunt" with 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.
12 of 16 people found this review helpful
What did you love best about A Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement?
I made it through all 12 of the Powell novels, and I found myself enjoying this set of three as much as any of them. The war years put Nick's experiences against a backdrop I feel I know, and the war itself brings a casual violence to the proceedings that I missed in some of the other dinner-party and art gallery scenes of the other movements.
That said, I think you have to start with the First Movement and move forward. These ultimately aren't independent novels so much as a continuation of what's come before.
What about Simon Vance’s performance did you like?
I would not have made it through these books without his sustained excellence. He does different voices with staggering subtlety and he reads with unusual speed, a definite plus when you're talking about more than 80 hours of listening.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I have stayed the course of all three Movements of this recording of the12 books that comprise A Dance to the Music of Time. After over 60 hours of listening I feel immersed in the lives of the many characters that the fictional narrator (a lightly veiled Anthony Powell) loves, socializes and works with in the years between the First World War until he is demobbed after the Second World War. This Third Movement has more dynamism as the characters play out their lives against the turmoil and uncertainty of the latter war and having got to know them better one cares more what happens to them.
It's been a pleasure to listen to such fine writing which suits being read aloud. A great deal of credit for the success of this mammoth recording is due to narrator, Simon Vance, who brings the characters alive with different voices so that I felt I was listening to conversations between real people.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
Possibly the best "movement" out of the 4.
For full review of the series - see Part 4.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
The authors almost gentle observations of human nature - funny, sad, compassionate and varied inhabitants of the near past, remind me of what it was to classically educated and the application of that wisdom to life. The whole series must be enjoyed with Hilary Spurlings character guide & and references: 'An invitation to the Dance' and you will never be lost or the same again.