In this ninth volume in the sequence of novels, Powell reaches the later parts of the Second World War and, almost disconcerting, stays there. Previous volumes have been marked by a slippery tendency to pay little heed to chronology and to follow up asides by reference to related events which either preceded or followed on from those being narrated. In this way,Powell has accurately reflected the mind’s tendency to place emphasis on patterns and relationships with casual disregard for temporal constraints. There is only one significant forward leap to a post-war conversation which provides the reasoning behind particular appointment which appeared obscure at the time. Other than at this, there are a few wrapping up commentaries on the fates of minor characters who will not feature further in the series, but otherwise Powell remains strictly within the three year period covered by the events. The effect of this is to give the novel a denser feel than previous volumes. As readers we are kept in the oppressive atmosphere of the time, focussing solely on those immediate concerns of getting through the war, without the respite and contrast of dropping out into less fraught periods. It makes for a heavier, more claustrophobic read.
Powell now overtly seeks comparison with Proust’s Rembrance of Things Past. He has narrator Nick Jenkins reading the novel(s) as events unfold and actively cite references to equivalent events in Proust. Intriguingly, he treats the fictional characters of Proust’s cycle as real characters in his own series. Thus, Proust’s character Prince Odoacer is explicitly stated to be “a relation – possibly great-uncle” of his own character Prince Theoderic. Indeed, Powell quotes at length a passage of perhaps a page and a half from Proust’s work to illustrate a point. Furthermore, in chapter four, the events take place at Cabourg, the vaguely unfashionable coastal town on which Proust based his fictional setting for his novels, calling it Balbec.
Powell also for the first time makes a female character central to the narrative. Pamela Flitton permeates the whole novel, appearing repeatedly in the various episodes related. However, she is often described through the eyes of others rather than appearing in her own right. Thus she is the object of discussions between Jenkins and various people he meets in the course of the novel. Several of them reveal that they have slept with her and others express a wish to do so or have done so when the opportunity presented itself. Her promiscuity is notorious and much discussed by the exclusively male commentators. This, while it is no doubt an accurate reflection of how such views would have been discussed at the time when the story is set and also at the time of its writing (1968, when the pill was only just emancipating females from the risk of pregnancy if they were sexually active but attitudes had yet to catch up with this seismic shift), makes for uncomfortable reading now. It is difficult to accept the definition of a female character in those terms now.
Indeed, Pamela Clifton is described often in terms of her effect on the men she encounters. She is held to be bent on being a heartbreaker and preys on older would be sexual partners rather than younger because the latter are more elastic and bounce back from any small trauma they feel at being loved, led a dance and then unceremoniously dumped rather better than older men who feel the loss of this tantalising younger woman more deeply and suffer more, possibly also in terms of the repercussions for their marriages, affecting wives and children too, therefore, when so treated. Such a misogynist perspective makes for an uncomfortable read, however accurately it portrays contemporary attitudes.
When she does actually appear in person, Flitton is a prickly character. She clearly has insights into events that are not available to narrator Nick Jenkins, presumably from “pillow talk” from indiscreet lovers, and revels in her ability to use this information to great effect on those she comes into contact with. However, unlike Widmerpool, with whom she enters into a relationship almost by chance, though nothing about her can definitely be attributed to chance, her power exercised over those around her is not explicitly stated to be an expression of her “will to power” in line with Powell’s over-arching theme.
Powell, in fact, uses an episode in the book to give an unnamed but very obvious walk on part to Field Marshall Montgomery and cites him as the personification of this “will to power”. This ninth volume thereby fits within the overall scheme of the series but does mark, in a number of ways, a quite distinct departure from the approach Powell has taken in earlier volumes.