Yesterday I finished the third movement of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The trilogy of novels contained in this penultimate volume deals with the war years. Nick Jenkins’ war, however, is not a clash of armies in the field but a war of familial dislocations, obscure provincial postings, and byzantine military bureaucracies. It reminds me, in that respect, of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy. It’s interesting that so much of the best writing about the war was done by this in-between generation, by persons like Waugh and Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge (in his Chronicles of Wasted Time) who were too young for the trenches in ‘14 but too old for most of the real fighting in WWII.
My own favorite passages from the third movement include the chapter in which Jenkins and Colonel Finn take their liaison charges on a tour of liberated Normandy and Belgium, and the long scene near the end of The Military Philosophers when Jenkins attends the victory service at St Paul’s. Jules Renard once observed that it is when facing the prospect of death that men become most bookish. This is perhaps borne out in the case of Jenkins who, faced with the mortal toll and the awful knowledge of what was only scarcely avoided by the survivors, can think of nothing but poetry, bits of Elizabethan Biblical phraseology, and snatches of rhyme from half-forgotten children’s books.
How readily you can relate to Jenkins’ instinctual retreat into words must say something about the sort of reader – and the sort of person – you are. What exactly it says, I don’t know. But I have myself felt the painful need, in horrible moments, for a few favorite books. When worldly circumstances threaten universal barbarism, words have a power to remind us that there is still some consolation in being human, that civilization and culture can still be personal possessions even when collectively renounced. The sense of the term has shifted a little over the years, but I can’t help think that Dr Johnson’s definition of ‘Humanist’ holds up nicely: ‘A philologer; a grammarian.’