Read The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell Free Online
Book Title: The Military Philosophers|
The size of the: 647 KB
Date of issue: May 5th 2005
ISBN 13: 9780099472483
The author of the book: Anthony Powell
Format files: PDF
Read full description of the books The Military Philosophers:“The Military Philosophers” is the third and final part of the Autumn sequence in the Dance to the Music of Time. It also covers the second world war up to the time of final victory. As usual, I looked into the first pages for a powerful, allegoric image to set the mood and to act as a catalyst for the flow of memories. I’m not sure I hit the right spot or if I’m simply lucky, because I have two images for the price of one admission:
First, there is a reiteration of the feelings of alienation and inadequacy as Nick Jenkins struggles to adapt to the World of Will, now with the narrator marooned within the endless corridors and darkened rooms of a Whitehall building:
Endemic as ghouls in an Arabian cemetery, harassed aggressive shades lingered for ever in such cells to impose on each successive inmate their preoccupations and anxieties, crowding him from floor and bed, invading and distorting his dreams.
Secondly, there is a musical reference underlining the grotesque, pointless and often humorous aspects of administrative work in this alien landscape. Jenkins compares one of his fellow inmates to the dwarf singing the opening aria of a famous Wagnerian opera:
Toil without fruit!
The strongest sword
That I ever forged ...”
From this inauspicious beginnings though, emerges one of the most unusual and intriguing episodes of the Dance so far. Because it turns out that Nick Jenkins is not as clueless and as inefficient as he led us to believe. He’s finally found his niche in the immense machinery of war and, even in his small cog role, he puts his talents to good use in the service to his country. As a liaison officer between the British and their different allied nations in Europe, Jenkins has more of a diplomatic, socializing role than the Regimental front line commanding officer he failed at in the previous book. His upbringing, his cultural and social talents, his calm, detached atitude are all good assets for dealing with Polish, Belgian, French, Slovak, Yugoslavs and other exotic officers now fighting the war from the British soil. Jenkins is even showing signs of a reawakened interest in the study of ‘la comedie humaine’ that first led him to become a writer:
A claustrophobic existence offered, in this respect, the consolation of exceptional opportunities for observing people and situations closely in a particular aspect of war.
The move back to London marks also a return to the ‘gossip column’ aspect that defined for me some of the prewar episodes of the Dance. What makes this book special is that the ‘gossip’ takes a turn toward a high octane spy game involving several of the ‘old’ characters in the series, like Widmerpool, Farebrother, Odo Stevens, a mysterious foreigner whose name might or might not be Szymanski, Balkan royalty and a ‘femme fatale’ that keeps showing up in the most unexptected locations, not unlike Widmerpool in previous episodes.
I am slightly reluctant to go into details about the relationship between these characters, mostly because, unlike previous installments, book number nine actually has a plot of sorts, the above mentioned spy game that (view spoiler)[ ends tragically for one major character, Peter Templer, and the evil mastermind turns out to be Widmerpool, who becomes more and more repulsive with each new book (hide spoiler)]. I can still comment though on the character study, the big selling point of Anthony Powell, the ace in the hole that, together with his inimitable phrase contruction, makes the Dance one of the major artistic achievements of the period.
Characters usually fall into one of two broad categories as far as Powell is concerned : manipulators, denizens of the world of Will, and contemplators, or artists. Given the war setting, the first category is in the ascendant, a move already predicted by the actions of Widmerpool in the previous novel. A single, effective quote will I believe suffice to define the category in the guise of one of the ‘players’, Sunny Farebrother:
He does put himself over. A remarkable fellow in his way. Ambitious as hell, stops at nothing.
As a side note, Powell can unleash some powerful satirical broadsides from his contemplative battlements. The funniest episode for me was the revenge one of the ‘philosphers’ (Pennistone) exacts from one the petty tyrants that seem to gather like sharks to the smell of blood in the halls of government power. I’m talking around the epitome of the abusive clerk here, a figure of almost mythical proportions :
Until you have dealings with Blackhead, the word “bureaucrat” will have conveyed no meaning to you.
(view spoiler)[ fight them with their own weapons, Pennistone advises, as he sends back a twenty page memo with a request for additional commentary (hide spoiler)]
Pennistone is I believe the ‘philosopher’ in the title. I seem to remember he was quoting some French aphorism when he first met Jenkins in book number seven. Now he connects the dots in the liaison business and converses with Jenkins about the real politiks world:
A great illusion is that government is carried on by an infallible, incorruptible machine. Officials – all officials, of all governments – are just as capable of behaving in an irregular manner as anyone else.
Irregular behaviour in this part of the Dance revolves around the intriguing and ubiquitous presence of the beautiful Pamela Flytton, a young lady that seems to bear witness to American Pulps claim that the ‘female of the species is deadlier than the male’. For a while, in the opening pages of the novel, I thought that Nick Jenkins is flirting with adultery, given his fascination with Miss Flytton. I should have remembered our narrator reluctance to be candid about his own love life and his tendency to play coy with details of his marriage. Jenkins is definitely more of a voyeur than a player in this field:
Few subjects are more fascinating than other people’s sexual habits from the outside; the tangled strands of appetite, tenderness, convenience or some hope of gain.
Miss Flytton turns out to be much more than ‘the other woman’. She is at least the equal, if not the master of the men of will, like Widmerpool, Farebrother, Odo Stevens, Bob Duport and their ilk. Her motivations are obscure, and only another master of dissimulation and allegory is capable of geting a grip on her personality. I am hinting here at the return of another fascinating character of the Dance, the medium, Cassandra-like Mrs Erdleigh, who takes a look at the palm of Pamela during an air-raid:
What do most people know about any of their fellows? Little enough. Only those know, who are aware what is to be revealed. He may have betrayed the day of your birth. I do not remember. The rest I can tell from your beautiful face, my dear. You will not mind if I say that your eyes have something in them of the divine serpent that tempted Eve herself.
Mrs. Erdleigh continues by quoting a French chiromancy expert : ‘... la debauche, l’effronterie, la licence, le devergondage, la coquetterie, la vanite, l’esprit leger, l’inconstance, la paresse ...’ reinforcing the femme fatale image already established in earlier observations by Nick:
Giving men hell is what Miss Flitton likes.
- - -
Pamela Flitton gave the impression of being thoroughly vicious, using the word not so much in the moral sense, but as one might speak of a horse – more specifically, a mare.
Men line up though to be abused and insulted and dumped like used handkerchiefs by the beautiful Pamela, and in typical Powell fashion, we are warned that we might expect to see more of her dancing in the future. She’s just too good a character to waste after one novel. (view spoiler)[ She is hilariously compared to a bombshell as she is finally linked to the other Nemesis of Jenkins’ life: During the period between the Potsdam Conference and the dropping of the first atomic bomb, I read in the paper one morning that Widmerpool was engaged to Pamela Flitton. . They deserve each other, yet I despair of the results of their collaboration. Templer is an early victim of their machinations (hide spoiler)]
I am overusing spoilers in my current review, but I would still like to mention some of my favorite characters from previous books, and what they end up doing or dying here. A more slick and adept female manipulator than Miss Flytton is ending not only engaged to her male counterpart, but also as one of the top agents at MI5 (view spoiler)[: Tuffy Weedon dates Sunny Farebrother. She is a widow after her husband, General Conyers, dies in service to his country. Conyers is one of my all time favorites, and his send-up is appropriately respectful:
General Conyers, also an air-raid warden, had collapsed in the street one night, pursuing looters attempting to steal a refrigerator from a bombed house. He died, as he had lived, in active, dramatic, unusual circumstances; such, one felt, as he himself would have preferred.
Widmerpool is not forgotten. His entrances have become more predictable, but his ego and his ambitions grow to monstrous proportions:
I have come to the conclusion that I enjoy power. That is something the war has taught me. In this connexion, it has more than once occured to me that I might like governing ... (hide spoiler)]
Slowly, painfully, the war grinds its way towards an end. Nick Jenkins’ graduation into the world of Will is a subtle reference to a quote of his Uncle Giles, all the way back into the first volume of the series. Giles used to claim that in this world it is important who you know, not what you are, and Nick applies the principle to the solving of a pressing military crisis. (view spoiler)[ He uses back channels and family connections, bypassing his superior Finn, in order to expedite the movement of a dangerous militia from Belgium to England: “If the worst comes to the worst we can invoke Matilda.” (hide spoiler)] . His newly acquired skills are also on display during a trip to recently liberated Normandy, riding herd on a group of fractious and colourful foreign high officers. Some of the details here are supposed to be autobiographical, inspired directly from the author’s war experience, and the best example I have is the portrait of an unnamed but easily recognizable Field Marshal:
The eyes were deepset and icy cold. You thought at once of an animal, though a creature not at all in the stylized manner of the two colonels at my Divisional Headquarters, reminiscent of the dog-faced and bird-faced Egyptian deities. No such artificial formality shaped these features, and to say, for example, they resembled those of a fox or ferret would be to imply a disparagement not at all sought. Did the features, in fact, suggest some mythical beast, say one of those encountered in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, full of awkward questions and downright statements?
The visit to Normandy serves a second purpose in reaffirming the almost forgotten artistic credentials of Nick Jenkins. For a second time in the current novel, we have open and unambiguous references to Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, “A la recherche du temps perdu”. After a London full quote of a diplomatic ball given by the Duchess of Guermantes, Jenkins is now captivated by the atmosphere of Cabourg, the source of inspiration for Combray, I think.
The final pages of the novel are infused with pathos and truly raise the rating from a high four to a full five star treatment. Friends departed are remembered in an emotional St Paul’s Cathedral service after the victory:
Some are sick and some are sad,
And some have never loved one well,
And some lost the love they had [...]
Fading is the world’s best pleasure.
The return to civilian life after six long years of war, with all the insecurity and the broken ends in need of pick up, the memory of a prewar society probably gone forever, are showcased in a monumental scene in a repurposed exhibition hall, in the fitting company of one of the ballroom butterflies of yesteryear:
We wandered around like men in a dream. As one moved from suits to shoes, shoes to socks, socks back again to suits, the face of a Gunner captain seemed familiar.
The last surprise return of a previous Dancer ,(view spoiler)[ Jenkins’ former lover Jean Duport (hide spoiler)], raises an already high interest I have in next month’s episode, “Books Do Furnish A Room”, my favorite title in the series.
Read information about the authorAnthony Dymoke Powel CH, CBE was an English novelist best known for his twelve-volume work A Dance to the Music of Time, published between 1951 and 1975.
Powell's major work has remained in print continuously and has been the subject of TV and radio dramatisations. In 2008, The Times newspaper named Powell among their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
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