The Soldier’s Art – Anthony Powell

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There is irony in the title The Soldier’s Art, because it’s obvious that many of the skills Nick develops and the tasks he completes in this volume have little to do with being a soldier, and even less to do with any art or skill. Nick is simply a military bureaucrat.

Nick’s boss, Widmerpool, attended the same school as Nick, and was the first character we met in volume 1. He was bottom of the pecking order, the butt of schoolboy jokes, and generally regarded as doomed to failure. So it is ironic that as the saga develops he becomes the most successful of the old boys Nick meets intermittently on life’s long journey.

It’s clear there is something special about Widmerpoool. His success is down to being single minded, hard working and seemingly without empathy. This allows him to navigate life in the army, and indeed life itself without allowing personal feelings or conscience to intervene or drive him off course.

And when Nick’s old school friend Stringham turns up as a waiter in Nick’s mess hall, we get a clear message that early success, manifest charm and popularity at school do not always lead to a happy and successful life. Stringham is off the booze now, but is a hollowed out figure, grumbled at and bullied by the officers as he serves them food, and clearly a spent force.

Nick feels some compassion and a little embarrassment at finding his old school pal serving him at table. He mentions this to Widmerpool, who instructs him to be more professional, and to get over it. However Widmerpool thinks again and transfers Stringham to the mobile laundry, despite knowing he is sending him off to a more dangerous post in the far east. Once again Nick worries about Stringham’s future but Widmerpool shows no such concerns. He simply does not feel empathy; he lacks a human dimension.

I suppose this inhumane element of army life is reflected in the way Powell opens this volume with descriptions of the army base and its offices. Here he compares the various functionaries to different Egyptian gods. To be honest I found this section a bit boring, and skipped through it.  I wanted to get on to what I think Powell writes about best, human relationships. But it might be worth going back to reread these pages at a later date. I can see that Powell put some considerable thought into them, using Egypt and its strange gods as a metaphor for the dead hand of bureaucracy. After all it was in Egypt that bureaucracy began. Ask Joseph.

I found the power play between Widmerpool and the other officers more interesting though. Anyone who has worked in a large institution will recognise the machinations and arm wrestling that goes on behind the scenes. The real agenda is always about personalities, and personal success, and rarely about the job in hand.

True to form this volume ends with an amusing confrontation in Widmerpool’s office in which Nick witnesses the changing fortunes of Farebrother, Hogbourne-Johnson and Widmerpool himself. First one and then the other appears to have gained victory in some minor struggle for power and advancement. Widmerpool sees success within his grasp, and to some extent it is, as he is promoted to the War Office in London, but not before he has to deal with some of his own personal failings. Powell does not let him off, and Widmerpool’s arrogance makes his momentary downfall even more entertaining.

Once again Powell introduces characters from across the army in this volume. Widmerpool sets out to prove that Diplock, Hogbourne-Johnson’s right hand man is embezzling money and goods. But Diplock is pretty smart as it turns out. And there is Stringham, and a drunken Bithel. Stringham and Nick attempt to show Bithel some compassion, and carry him through the streets to bed. But when Widmerpool gets involved he seizes on the opportunity to dismiss him. It’s the correct, professional choice, but not a humane act.

Another minor character commits suicide in The Soldier’s Art, and once again it is linked to marital infidelity, a theme that runs throughout the saga. This time it is Biggs, an officer in Nick’s mess, who is found hanging in the cricket pavilion.

Then Nick spends time in London where he meets Chips Lovell, Priscilla’s estranged husband. He tells Nick of his plans for a reconciliation and goes off to find her, but minutes later she comes in to the pub with her lover Odo Stevens. He is egocentric and a charmer, seeking adoration and praise from everyone in the group, including Audrey Mclintick, who is now living with Moreland. She is a flighty piece. In a previous volume she was receptive to Stringham’s drunken charms. Then she ran off with another musician, her lodger, leaving her husband to commit suicide. Now she is with Moreland, but is clearly flattered and possibly tempted by Odo Stevens.

Powell kills off one or two of these dissolute characters at the end of this volume, wielding the sword of justice in the form of a German air raid. Never say he is a man without a moral compass.

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