The Soldier’s Art

You think you know someone and then they turn around and do something so surprising that you wonder if you ever knew them at all. So it is with Nick Jenkins, the narrator of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of  Time and arguably Powell’s own fictional alter-ego. I find myself part way through the first chapter of the eighth volume in the sequence and realise he is not the person I took him for. It would be unthinkable to be so astonished at a hitherto unrevealed facet of, say, Plantagenet Palliser’s character by the end of The Duke’s Children – the sixth in Trollope’s series of political novels in which he is a more or less constant feature. Indeed this was his seventh appearance if one is to take into account his fleeting cameo as a minor, young romantic figure in one of the Barsetshire novels (a youthful aberration that is perhaps out of character but not irreconcilable with his sober, maturer incarnation in the later series).

We have seen Jenkins/Powell be somewhat disparaging of the fictional author St John Clarke – a thinly veiled and rather unkind caricature of John Galsworthy – and reference D H Lawrence with apparent approval. But I am taken aback by his seemingly snobbish response, as a literary person, to Trollope when he encounters General Liddament reading a frustratingly unidentified Trollope novel during a lull in a military exercise. The book is described as small which might imply either one of the shorter novels but could equally be a pocket edition if a longer novel or even a part volume. 

The General “suddenly…raised the book he had been reading in the air, holding it at arm’s length above his head…he waved the small volume backwards and forwards, its ribbon marker flying at one end…

‘What do you think of Trollope?’

‘Never found him easy to read, sir.’

…General Liddament…seemed to share none of that indulgence for those who did not equally enjoy his favourite author…

You’ve never found Trollope easy to read?’ (Powell’s italics)

‘No sir.’

He was clearly unable to credit my words…

‘Why not?’ he asked at last.

…I tried to think of an answer…a few worn shreds of lobg-firgotten criticism were just pliant enough to be patched hurriedly together…

‘…the style…certain repetitive tricks of phrasing…psychology often unconvincing…sometimes downright dishonest in treating of individual relationship s…women don’t analyse their own predicaments as there represented…in fact, the author does more thinking than feeling…of course, possessed of enormous narrative gifts…marshalling material…all that amounting to genius…certain sense of character, even if stylised…and naturally as a picture of the times…’

‘Rubbish,’ said General Liddament. 

He sounded very angry indeed…

‘All I can say is you miss a lot…Whom do you like if you don’t like Trollope?’

For a moment I could not remember a single novelist, good or bad, in the whole history of literature…Seeking to nominate for favour an author not dissimilar from Trollope in material and method if handling, at the same time in contrast with him…in possessing great variety and range, the Comedie Humane suddenly suggested itself.

‘There’s Balzac, Sur.’

Balzac!'(Again Powell’s italics.)

General Liddament roared the name.”

I am reminded by the conclusion if this lengthy passage (for which I make no apology in quoting at length in a place devoted to Trollope) by a similar explosive exclamation at a crucial moment in the musical The Music Man. And in spite of my own liking for Balzac’s work, I have to side with the General in almost every particular in this debate. 

Jenkins may be expressing a commonly held literary view that Trollope was middle-brow comfort reading – a kind of equivalent in book form of school dinners with sponge pudding and custard that provided a source of comfort and reminders if home to small bits (and girls for that matter)of a certain class, torn from their family home and packed off to boarding school. This explanation was trotted out to account for the ride in popularity Trollope enjoyed during the war, accurately related by Powell, as an antidote to the depressing events of the time. The Soldier’s Art is set still in the period of the phoney war which Powell sends up at the start of the first two chapters by a deliberate juxtaposition of the military and unreal theatrical worlds. At the start of the book, Jenkins buys his officer’s uniform from a theatrical costumier who assumes he us an actor wishing to use it in a west end production. In chapter two, Powell refers to events in various theatres of the war – a conscious play on words- such as Greece which are going badly as “noises off in rehearsals that never seemed to end, breeding a wish that the billed performance would at last ring up its curtain…However, the date of the opening night rested in other hands than our own; meanwhile nobody could doubt that more rehearsing, plenty more rehearsing, was going to be needed…”

Immediately following the debate on Trollope’s merits between the General and lowly second lieutenant Jenkins, the General demonstrates a level of humanity and understanding if Jenkins’s plight as Widmerpool’s assistant at Divisional HQ that Jenkins would not have foreseen. The General, having concluded the argument, goes on to offer, almost in passing, a way out for Jenkins which, in spite of this being followed by a dramatic turn for the worse in the military exercise requiring the General’s immediate and full attention, he dies not forget. Indeed the General follows through as promised a few days later. 

In this, as in his liking for and defence if Trollope, I am wholly in the General’s camp. No doubt Trollope himself would have applauded the empathy for a subordinate shown by the General and approved of his supportive intervention on behalf of his junior officer. 


1 Comment

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One response to “The Soldier’s Art

  1. Glenn Shipway

    Well said, Mark.

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