The Military Philosophers is the ninth book in the Dance to the Music of time sequence which I started reading back in January – goodness only three left!
Having so loved the last instalment – The Soldier’s Art – one of my favourites of the whole sequence – I expected much of the same with this one. I certainly found the last third of the novel very enjoyable, as the war draws to a shuddering conclusion, but the first two thirds of this novel I found rather harder to get a handle on. Powell’s writing can be ambiguous with some events shrouded in a kind of fog, and in this novel I found this more than ever – it may well have just been me though. I did think however, that this confusion beautifully echoes the upheaval and exhaustion that must surely have been felt by people at this point in the war.
As the novel opens Nick is now a captain and working in military liaison, looking after the Polish contingent, he is based in London working under Pennistone and Finn who we met before. Living alone in a flat in Chelsea, his wife Isobel is not far away, and he is able to see her from time to time. His posting allows him to run into other familiar figures, notably Widmerpool and Sunny Farebrother. The past is an ever present reminder of how things used to be, and on a visit to Polish HQ Nick is brought up sharply when he realises he is at what was formerly the Ufford hotel, a favourite haunt of his Uncle Giles. I love the way Powell reminds us of the past, the past is always there, a part of the present and the future, very much a part of the dance.
“Like Finn’s aching jaw on the line of march, the war throbbed on, punctuated by interludes when more than once the wrong tooth seemed to have been hurriedly extracted.”
Nick is later promoted to the supervision of Belgians and Czechs, as the war rumbles on. The war has claimed its casualties, and when Stringham’s niece – the notorious Pamela Flitton appears on the arm of Odo Stevens; another familiar face – she brings news of her uncle missing in Singapore. As I have come to expect, and am no longer surprised by, old friends and enemies constantly appear and re-appear, moving in and out of one another’s lives as the years pass. Nick meeting Pamela Flitton and Odo Stevens while sheltering from a bomb, and both he and Uncle Giles’ friend Mrs Erdleigh, being witness later to their row, just one of a number of coincidences. Widmerpool’s ambition and self-satisfied attitude to his own position has now assumed quite monstrous proportions, and there is virtually nothing left of that rather pitiful awkward figure we first met in A Question of Upbringing.
Now finally a Major, Nick finds himself in a party of Military attaches touring Belgium and Normandy late in the war, when arrangements are made for Belgian resistance fighters to be trained back in England. Meeting up with Dupont again, as he seems to every few years, Nick hears news of Peter Templer.
But the war does end, and so does Powell’s war trilogy in the middle of the Dance to the Music of Time. What a confusion it must have been, all that discipline, bombing, restrictions suddenly over after six long years.
“Was this the promise of a better world? Perhaps one had reached that already and this was a celestial haberdashers’s. The place was not even at all crowded. Most of the customers, if that was what they ought to be called, looked about forty, demobilization groups taking precedence on points gained by age, length of service, period overseas and so on. We wandered around like men in a dream. As one moved from suits to shoes to socks and back again to suits, the face of a Gunner captain seemed familiar”
With the war finally drawing to a close, Widmerpool is improbably engaged to Pamela Flitton, a relationship Nick expects to end at any moment. A thanksgiving service is held at St. Paul’s Cathedral attended by the foreign attaches, Nick meets Colonel Flores wife, and fails to recognise her as Jean, who he once loved. As the novel ends, men, including Nick queue up to receive their demob clothes, there is a very definite feeling of something momentous having ended.