Monday, July 21, 2008

book review - The Soldier's Art

The Valley of Bones ends with Jenkins walking into a room to find that Widmerpool has requested that he joins his staff. Surely this is the greatest example of all of the recurring partners that dance through the world described by Anthony Powell? Surely it is a chance for Jenkins to sidestep boredom and head straight into the action on the coattails of his old school friend?

Not quite. Widmerpool is totally self interested and seems to have chosen Jenkins to work for him as part of his attempt to get another pair of eyes and ears to assist him in his political war he is waging against various different departments. All Widmerpool cares about is himself and at the end with a promotion to Whitehall in the wings he is quite happy to leave Jenkins to fate.

But there are lessons about self-focus that are illustrated by the reappearance of Stringham. The ex alcoholic turns up serving Jenkins in the mess as a waiter and although the old school connection encourages Jenkins to ask Widmerpool to move him to something better the former school and university friend is clear about his priorities. He is only concerned with keeping himself on an even keel and even when moved to the mobile laundry unit he faces being moved into action in the Far East he is resigned to it.

Jenkins seems to want to get some glory, like his brother in law Robert Tolland who is killed in France during the retreat to Dunkirk, but at the same time is almost completely impotent. This book seems to underline his position in life, or lack of it and remind the reader of the futile mazes that those trying to get involved in the war faced if they were the wrong age.

There are always hints that there might be some connection that will work to Jenkins advantage and Sunny Farebrother reappears at the end and might be able to do something for his old acquaintance. But Jenkins has allowed himself to be identified in some quarters as a Widmerpool man and that could go against him.

The problem for Powell was always going to be that having established a series of characters in the early books that were damaged by their lack of valour in the First World War then it would put him in the same category if he followed suit. Clearly the first challenge was to get into uniform but having done that all he seems to be able to do is paperwork and the closest he gets to fighting Hitler is talking about him in the mess.

Of course the idea might be to show what happens to another generation unable to do their bit on the battlefield and draw out the consequences in the final books. But there is still a chance with the final of the wartime trilogy, The Military Philosophers, that Jenkins will get more of a heroic role to play. We’ll see soon.

Version read – Arrow paperback

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