The Military Philosophers – Anthony Powell

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The volume brings to the end Nick Jenkins’ experiences as a soldier in the second world war. He has taken a step up the military ladder and is working as an allied liaison officer with the Poles in London. That takes him to the war office, the heart of war time London, though his role there is rather minor.

Once again we meet characters from Nick’s past, including old school friends and members of Nick’s extended family. The novel brings these two threads together in an amusing little story involving Widmerpool.

At the beginning of the novel we meet this recurrently inept and ridiculous character in his new job in the war office, where he has important duties to perform ensuring the safety of the nation. Yes, just as now, we were in safe hands.

Nick arrives at a meeting chaired by Widmerpool. Farebrother is there and it seems that his star has been outshone by Widmerpool’s. Peter Templer is also there, disgruntled and fed up with his role in the war. Widmerpool accompanies Nick walking back to the office, and it’s apparent that this moment of companionship is all an exercise in impressing his old school friend. Nick though is not really interested in Widmerpool’s politicking.

Later Nick finds himself driven around London by a beautiful young woman called Pamela Flitton. She is Stringham’s niece. We learn that he has been taken prisoner at Singapore, and is thought to be dead.

Pamela is magnetically attractive, with dark hair and very pale skin, but she is a difficult woman. Nick surmises that she gets off on torturing the men who fall for her. Even Peter Templer, ace seducer and womaniser has not been able to tame Pamela, which is one of the reasons he is so down about life.

Pamela is bad tempered, plays fast and loose, and seemingly ignores all the rules. Soon there are hints of her involvement with a foreign soldier, maybe an agent, of indeterminate nation, though claiming to be Polish. It seems that this indiscretion loses her the job as a driver, but she finds other fish to fry.

Later we meet her again. She is sleeping with Odo Stevens, Priscilla’s old lover, and now some sort of secret agent. Nick meets them in night time London, seeking escape from the interminable noise of the flying bombs by pacing the ground floor of their hotel. Odo is bullish and full of himself as usual, but Pamela cuts him down to size by cruelly describing his inadequacies in bed.

Another rave from the grave is also ambling round the foyer of the hotel: Mrs Erdleigh, Uncle Giles’ old flame, and one time spiritual accomplice of Dr Trelawney. She causes ructions by making predictions about Odo and Pamela’s future, leading to a massive row and the end of the relationship.

Later Nick is promoted and goes on a tour of Normandy and Belgium with various noteworthy representatives of allied nations. He meets the field Marshall – I guess this might be Monty as Nick makes various comments about his dress sense, referring to the famed sweater.

One night Nick stays in the hotel described by Proust in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I might be inspired by this to finally read a novel I should have read at university as part of my French course, but typically at the time, never did. I’m currently looking for an English translation with the French on opposite pages, if anyone knows of one.

Finally back in London we discover that Widmerpool is engaged to be married to Pamela. Talk about doomed relationships! She messes him about at a posh war office reception, arriving late, in scruffy clothes, and not bothering to be introduced, at the same time being late enough to ensure that Widmerpool will be late for a dinner appointment with some important government minister.

To further discomfort him she blames Widmerpool for Peter Templer’s death in the Balkans. Widmerpool had obviously been spilling state secrets and getting himself in a bit deep in an attempt to impress Pamela with his important role in the war. He tries to absolve himself of blame by saying he was not directly involved in the actual decision to abandon Templer to his nasty end, but Pamela has her nails in deep and keeps on pinching.

Finally at the service in St Paul’s to mark the end of the war Nick helps a South American diplomat to find a seat. Later this man introduces Nick to his wife who turns out to be Jean, Templer’s sister and Nick’s old flame.

Once again it’s a small world. Too small really. I may have said it before – but I could see why Powell hated FR Leavis so much. Leavis would have hated all these coincidences, and would have said so. For him novels had to adhere to psychological realism, and plots should never depend on twists of fate.

It’s just a different philosophy I suppose. A Dance to the Music of Time is not really a novel in the sense that Leavis would have meant. For him great writers showed human life in a way that ultimately would teach us how to be, one that would reveal moral values and universal truths.

Powell does a bit of this, but reading these books is more like sitting next to an old pal  on the sofa, and opening another bottle of port whilst he rambles on about his life and tells you about all his old pals. I like it for that.

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