Wednesday, 2 February 2000
Anthony Powell: The Soldier's Art (1966)
Review number: 430
More engrossing to read than the earlier volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time (because events start to move a little faster), the eighth novel in the series sees Nick Jenkins working as assistant to Kenneth Widmerpool. This means that instead of seeing, as before, just the results of Widmerpool's activities in his successful career, we experience the under-hand manipulation and self centredness which produce these results. Still in a battalion in Northern Ireland (this is not explicitly stated, but a deserter escapes across a land border), Nick is almost too far from the action of the war to be practising the soldier's art in any traditional form, but Widmerpool's scheming provides the reason for the title. This is the first book in the series in which the origin of the title is made explicit; it comes from a line in Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, which says that the soldier's art is to "think first, fight afterwards". It seems to me, particularly as I read this book just after rereading John Keegan's The Face of Battle, that thinking is what front line soldiers really need to avoid doing. However, it describes Widmerpool's unscrupulous scheming quite well, and Powell obviously seems to think that it brought success for a wartime officer.
The most bizarre event in the novel is the reappearance of Charles Stringham, who volunteered following his cure from alcoholism. However, rather than becoming an officer like others of his social status, he is the waiter in the officers' mess. Embarrassed, Widmerpool pulls strings to get him reassigned to the battalion's Mobile Laundry, which he happens to know is about to be moved to the Far East - a long way to move someone just to save a little embarrassment. Stringham turning up is exactly the sort of coincidence which mars the plotting of A Dance to the Music of Time - why should he be assigned to the officers' mess in Nick's unit out of all the possible billets in the wartime army?