The end of the war approaches, and in The Military Philosophers, Nick is posted to London. One doesn't look at a string of pearls and remark the beauty of the fourth one along - one is ravished by the ensemble. So it is with Dance to the Music of Time, and yet, and yet, if I had to choose, this might be the finest novel of them all. First, the mood is lightening, though the war is still very present and weariness and loss are everywhere. But there is enormous richness in the cast of characters, some superbly funny passages, and much serious reflection. And there are a couple of passages of prose which are amongst his finest, and some hardly visible technical mastery which is dazzlingly effective and entirely unobtrusive. I had real difficulty selecting a passage or two to highlight, but I've done my best. If you know this book, you will have your own favourites; if you don't, when you read it, you will be continually surprised at the gems on my cutting room floor.
To start with, there is the most wonderful portrait of the civil servant of legend, one Blackhead. Early in the book, Nick is told: "Until you have dealings with Blackhead, the word 'bureaucrat' will have conveyed no meaning to you", and we are then treated to an extended whimsical essay on his status, then to an exquisite example of his method, too long to quote here. But professional writers, and civil servants, know that to write briefly is much harder than to write at length - Horace's tag is perfect for all time. Here, this is toyed with, reversed and left hanging, to illustrate and amuse. Blackhead has written a long minute, or official note, on how stores should be issued to Allied troops:
Blackstone had written, in all, three and a half pages on the theory and practice of soap issues for military personnel, with especial reference to the Polish Women's Corps. Turning from his spidery scrawl to Pennistone's neat hand, two words only were inscribed. They stood out on the file: Please amplify. D Pennistone. Maj.
Blackhead, of course, misses the point and is outraged at this slur on his competence, believing that Pennistone really thinks he has missed some crucial information. But later, all is explained (David Pennistone is a philosopher serving in the Army in the same branch as Nick):
"What on earth were you about, David, minuting Blackhead please amplify?"
"Has it upset him?"
"Good ... Renan says complication is anterior to simplicity. I thought Blackhead would make an interesting experiment for trying out that theory".
"We can only pray Renan was right".
"Renan would find prayer charming but ineffectual".
Later, Nick is in France, escorting visitors round newly liberated Normandy (the war is still on), and leaving their hotel one day, realises too late that he has stayed at one of the key locations in Proust, Balbec (or Cabourg in real life):
... a faint sense of disappointment superimposed on an otherwise absorbing inner experience was in its way suitably Proustian too: a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent ...
A rather pessimistic, but wonderfully true comment. No wonder he is such a fine novelist, who can face reality like that and not be downcast. And what a novelist, what a web he is weaving for us. Six, nearly seven, novels earlier in The Acceptance World, Powell (or Nick) describes a large South American family seen while he is waiting in the Ritz. They are quite incidental, they take no part in the action, they are merely a focus for Nick's musings. And here, in MP, he is talking to a South American military attache, who remarks that:
I was here - what - fifteen years ago, it must be. With all my family, an absolute tribe of us. We stayed at the Ritz, I remember. Now ...
And that is all. But a tiny silver thread has been drawn across seven books and fifteen years, binding the characters and reader into a complex web of knowing and understanding, strong and almost invisible. But now the war is over, and it is on to happier times.