Saturday, October 18, 2008

book review - The Military Philosophers

Of the three books in the series of Dance to the Music of Time that cover the war this is the most enjoyable. The other books that Anthony Powell wrote that covered the war had the main character Jenkins failing to find a role and hanging on to the coat tails of Widmerpool, hoping that his ambitious old school acquaintance will help him.

By the later stages of the conflict Jenkins is working in a department that liaises firstly with the Poles and then the Belgians. The war is coming to an end with the Germans in retreat. Jenkins still connects with people from his past with Widmerpool and Farebrother working in Whitehall. But a character that emerges, initially as just a minor mention driving Jenkins, suddenly becomes something quite obsessive. Pamela Flitton, the niece of Charles Stringham is an odd woman.

You are introduced to a woman who is rude, sexually a tease and spreading herself through London and at the same time an enigma that Jenkins keeps meeting but never quite getting to unwrap. She is going through men at a rate of knots and manages to bewitch most of the Poles and Belgians that Jenkins has to work with.

She also manages to drive Templer into the jaws of death making him feel too old sitting in Whitehall so he goes out to chase bullets. She also mingles with Odo Stevens who she leaves in the middle of an air raid.

If there is a theme apart from Pamela emerging it is about remembering the past. The numerous references to Proust are not accidental and then underlined when Jenkins and the allies visit the hotel Proust described in his books. This is not just about allies rediscovering the countries that they had been locked out of for years as Hitler was in control.

There is also a sense of Jenkins mulling over his own past as he hears of the deaths of his old school friends Peter Templer and Charles Stringham. Memories of the era that is described in the first couple of books is fading fast. There is a sense of how much the war cost a certain generation and a certain class. Those that had been able to exploit their connections and had their eyes on power managed to use their war to their advantage.

But those that came into the conflict already battered and weak were finished off by enemy and friendly fire. Although not too much is said it is the death of Stringham as a POW in a Japanese prisoner of war camp that is most poignant to Jenkins.

It is for that reason that as he sits with foreign officers at the service of remembrance he thinks of those he has known to have died and casts his mind back to a Proustian world of safe and comforting childhood.

As he leaves the church to walk off into a military-less future he comes across his old flame Jean and is reminded of a pre-war world and the reader is pulled back from further recollections. Unlike Proust, who naval gazes for too long over the same period Powell seems keen to move the reader on.

And onwards we go to the next volume...

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