Saturday, December 29, 2018

“Tearing Away Like Smoke and Oakum”—The Napoleonic Novels of Patrick O’Brian


            In the British Navy’s Mediterranean station of Port Mahon in 1800, Royal Navy Lieutenant Jack Aubrey meets an Irish/Catalan doctor, Stephen Maturin, at a chamber music performance. Patrick O’Brian’s remarkable score of historical adventure books recounts the friendship, professional life together, love lives and family lives of Aubrey and Maturin from their meeting until a year or two after Waterloo, when Jack is promoted to Rear Admiral.
            At their meeting, Jack’s annoying habit of audibly keeping time to the music annoys Stephen. The two have words almost ending in a duel, but when Jack is given command of a ship he is so joyful that he not only apologizes to Stephen, but hires him on as ship’s surgeon. Thus is established the two men’s shipboard relation, where they often make music in Jack’s large stern cabin, he on violin and Stephen on cello, sailing toward a battle station or some adventure in the Far East or the Pacific. At the beginning, the two very different men are united only by a love of music and a hatred of Napoleon, though they gradually form a deep friendship based on many shared loves and experiences in peace and war.
            Jack is a superb sailor who has spent more time at sea than ashore since he was a small boy. His first command is a brig, called in the British navy a sloop, the Sophie. The first thing he does with his new command—and every subsequent ship he commands—is to train his crew until they are able to fire two accurate broadsides within five minutes. He is also very lucky. With the combination of seamanship, luck, and superbly-trained gunners, he takes a series of prizes, eventually engaging with a Spanish zebec frigate, a huge 74-gun ship—the Sophie carries only fourteen guns that fire four-pound balls, while a third of the Spaniard’s are twelve-pounders. Jack takes the Spanish ship O’Brian calls the Cacafuego (“shit fire”). But finally he loses the Sophie to a French frigate.
            Jack’s professional fortunes are irregular. When he has prize money, he is likely to lose it to con-men, being as innocent in shore matters as he is capable and fearless at sea. He progresses through a series of vessels, but spends much of the ensuing books commanding a 28-gun frigate called Surprise, busy engaging the enemy whenever he can. By the third book, however, he is also well aware that Stephen is more than a ship’s surgeon with a reputation for miraculous cures, having saved a seemingly drowned man and another with a depressed cranial fracture. In fact, Stephen is a spy, and some of Aubrey’s and Maturin’s voyages are to pursue the secret ends of the British government, and more than once Jack lands Stephen on enemy territory and picks him up later at a rendezvous point. Once also, when Stephen fails to make the rendezvous and Jack learns that he has been captured and is being tortured, the captain leads a raid to rescue his friend.
            Meanwhile each of these complementary characters enlivens the series with his own quirks and, especially, his own humor. Maturin’s lubberliness is one source of humor. At the beginning, his lack of sea canniness also serves the narrative purpose of allowing graceful explanations of arcane terms and shipboard procedures, although all readers must have noticed O”Brian’s indifference to their ignorance in this regard. After many days of relentless pursuit of their ship by a Dutch 74, Maturin finally asks Aubrey how long the chase will last. “A stern chase is a long chase,” says Jack, and Stephen then innocently asks, “And would you consider this a really stern one?” Maturin never quite gets the jargon or even such vital naval matters such as how the moon’s phases affect the ability to travel by water.
            Though he has no trouble with naval terminology or plain bluff talk, Aubrey gets common sayings confused. His very recognizable ship, the Surprise, says Jack, stands out “like a bear with a sore thumb.” When he wants to say something is “neither fish nor fowl.” it comes out “neither Scylla nor Charybdis.” He says of a man getting immediately to the point in conversation, “No humming or whoreing, no barking about the wrong bush.”
              Aubrey not only gets common sayings wrong, but he is likely to pugnaciously defend them in their wrongness. Stephen sometimes tries to help, but he quickly learns that Jack is an unreconstructible malaprop. In the eighth book of the series, The Ionian Mission, Jack remarks that you can “judge the pudding by its fruit.”
           ‘You mean, [says Stephen] prove the tree by its eating.’          
           ‘No, no, Stephen, you are quite out: eating a tree would prove nothing.”
            Stephen is a quick study; after one or two such episodes, he either lets Jack flounder or offers help that is at best mischievous and at worst downright malicious.  Here is one example:
            ‘Why, Stephen, some people are in a hurry: men-of-war, for instance. It is no good carrying your pig to market and finding . . .’ He paused,                                                        
            ‘It will not drink?’
             ‘No, it ain’t that neither.’
             ‘That there are no pokes to be had?’
             ‘Oh well, be damned to literary airs and graces. . . .’
            There is also much wordplay in the books, even by Stephen, who sometimes grumbles that “he that would make a pun would pick a pocket.”
            The books follow the chronology of the Napoleonic Wars, though sometimes taking liberties with pacing—as in Anthony Powell’s books, time is an arrow in O’Brian. One of the characters in The Nutmeg of Consolation makes a remark that might do for these novels: “I remember Bouville’s definition of a novel as a work in which life flows in abundance, swirling without a pause.
            Here are the Aubrey/Maturin books:
Post Captain (1972)
HMS Surprise (1973)
Clarissa Oakes (1992) (published as The Truelove in the USA)
The Commodore (1994)
            Both Aubrey and Maturin have lives ashore. They briefly are seeing the same woman, the beautiful, willful widow Diana Villiers. Diana lives her life in defiance of almost every convention, which causes a good deal of heartache for Stephen—because it quickly becomes obvious to Diana and Stephen that they are two of a kind, while Jack soon settles down with the very pretty and very domestic Sophia Williams. By the fourth book Jack and Sophia are settled into a small cottage with twin daughters, soon to be joined by a son, who, at the end of the series, is ready to go to sea himself.
            Sophia is a much simpler and narrower character than Diana Villiers, though occasionally she shows a more worldly and broad-minded side: she welcomes into her family Jack’s black bastard son, Samuel Panda. Samuel is a Roman Catholic clergyman and his mother was an African woman, Jack’s stowaway mistress whose discovery got him turned before the mast when he was a young midshipman. He profits from his time in the fo’c’sle and ever after is able to see his ship from the crew’s viewpoint.
            Less fortunate, though far more interesting, are the fortunes of Diana Villiers and Stephen Maturin, who pursues Diana across several continents where she has gone with lovers or just protectors. Stephen kills one of the former in a duel. After much drama they marry at the end of the seventh book. The drama does not end there, but they are frequently on good terms and produce a daughter. Diana dies in the next to the last novel, failing to negotiate a sharp turn before a bridge while driving a coach and four at reckless speed. Thus she dies as she lived, with little concern for niceties of social convention or safety. The only good result of this tragedy is that she kills Aubrey’s Gorgon of a mother-in-law in the crash. No hay mal que por bien no venga.
            Jack climbs through the ratings toward the professional pinnacle, marked by the title of the last book, Blue at the Mizzen, indicating the Admiral’s flag flown from the mizzenmast of the ship he chooses to sail in from among those in his squadron. But there are many obstacles along the way. He is often in danger of arrest because he has foolishly lost his considerable prize money at some ill-advised scheme of enrichment. At one point Jack is cashiered because of a trumped-up charge concocted by spies and political enemies. Stephen, who has inherited money, buys the Surprise, which has been sold out of the service because of her age. Jack sails her as a letter of marque during the brief period he is in disgrace.
            In addition to his uncanny command of both naval terminology and the precisely-dated idiom of such writers as Austen, O’Brian more than once shows his familiarity with the way Homer tells a story. In The Ionian Mission, Jack turns the tide of battle (the crew of the Surprise has boarded a Turkish transport) by his enraged fighting over the body of Pullings, his lieutenant and long-time friend. Though Pullings turns out to be only stunned, the episode recalls the fight over the body of Sarpedon and Glaukos’s rallying of his comrades to defend it in Book 16 of The Iliad. And again, as Commodore Jack Aubrey’s squadron sails into Gibraltar at the beginning of The Hundred Days, O’Brian tries another Homeric ploy as he puts two aged, half-pay lieutenants on the heights commenting on recent events that will affect the lives of the co-protagonists, recalling the old men talking on the walls of Troy in Book 3 of The Iliad.
            O’Brian’s series is both river novel--roman fleuve--and sea novel. He brings formidable depth of learning as well as great storytelling skills to an account of one of the high points in the history of the British Navy, and a thrilling historical period of two decades when the fate of Europe hung in the balance.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Dancing While Pursued by Furies: Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time


            If you have time I will tell you about reading A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), by Anthony Powell, which you must pronounce “pole” if you happen to be around anyone who might know about such things as strange English proper name pronunciation. Though this series of twelve novels has made it onto “The Best 100 Novels” lists, I argue that the books’ style isn’t really up to the category, and they resemble popular literature of an earlier era, issued serially.
Anthony Powell’s title comes from a Nicolas Poussin painting in which Time plays the pipes while various allegorical figures, representing the Seasons or the Ages of Man, dance. The narrator in A Dance is named Nicholas Jenkins, and he has experiences paralleling those of Powell himself (1905-2000) at Oxford, in the Second World War, and later in London literary and social circles. Powell’s friends and acquaintances tend to show up in the story, more or less transformed but often recognizable.
            Because Powell began writing in 1951 about his experiences just after World War I, there is an almost thirty-year time lag between the narrative’s chronology and the time of publication, a lag that lessens as successive books are published. At the end of the series, Powell has nearly caught up with real time in the seventies.
            A Question of Upbringing is the first of the twelve books. The narrator, Nick Jenkins, begins with his public school friends: Stringham, the witty commentator and practical joker who has their house master arrested on suspicion of being the infamous robber “Bradshaw alias Thorndyke,” Peter Templer, the adventuresome and worldly one, and Widmerpool, who is always outside the circle, not particularly good at sports but “keen,” a hard, unimaginative worker, who surprises Jenkins later by his ability to impress those who share Widmerpool’s interest in “getting on.” Before he goes off to the university, Nick goes to France and ends up in a pension with Widmerpool, who, unexpectedly, succeeds in arbitrating a quarrel between two of the guests.
            I had read thus far when I remembered a remark my old friend and first office-mate, Bob Bourdette, made about British writers such as Powell and Evelyn Waugh. “They seem to be convinced that every little niggling detail of their lives should be interesting to others,” he said. “And in their writing they manage to make it so.” I’d always thought Bob was half right about this. But now I was beginning to be captured by this book, and I think captured is the right word.
            The reason I didn’t go quite so willingly into the depths of those dozen books is Powell’s style. Even James Hall, who recognized how important an author Powell was going to be when only half of A Dance had been published (The Tragic Comedians: Seven Modern British Novelists, 1963), admits, “When I first read Powell, I thought a successful novel could not be written in sentences like these.” Those sentences can be circumlocutory and vague. Powell will say that a certain scene was very revealing, and as he approaches it he takes pains to reveal nothing in advance, to obfuscate, even, what the ultimate meaning might be. The scene itself snaps into focus the more readily once the infelicities of style are dropped. One almost suspects he was writing badly on purpose.
            The books are also oddly “square.” The critic of Gibbon (George III, or the Duke of Cumberland or someone else; no one is really sure) who made that comment, “another damn’d thick, square book, eh, Mr. Gibbon?” presumably meant by square that the book was so fat that its thickness was nearly the same as its height. My trade paperback edition of A Dance to the Music of Time is certainly square in that sense: Lying down together, its four parts (publishers group the novels for their convenience into four movements or seasons of three books each) are almost exactly six inches thick, the same as the height of the volumes. But Powell’s book is “square” in other senses. Certainly not about sex, as the book deals fairly offhandedly with fornication, homosexuality, voyeurism, impotence, necrophilia, and sexual dances around a stone-age monument  in England’s autumn weather… brr! (“It was not quite the scene portrayed by Poussin,” Nick comments archly,” even if elements of the Seasons’ dance were suggested in a perverted form.”) But there is a square—in the sense of uncool—and dated quality about the writing in its handling, to take a couple of examples, of time and character.
            Time is an arrow in Powell. Only a couple of minor flashbacks occur in the novel, at the beginnings of the fifth and sixth books, and then we move rapidly back to the now not-so-young Nick, who is about to marry shortly before the war. As James Hall says, “Time moves onward as persistently in Nick’s story as in Arnold Bennett.”
            A Dance is a book about character, and its main driver is the reappearance of particular men and women in Nick’s circle—the way one’s acquaintances recede out of sight and reappear being the dance of the title. Like many great writers—Tolstoy and Shakespeare particularly—Powell is fascinated by certain kinds of characters, and he invents a narrator who is unlike the kinds he and Nick Jenkins find most compelling. Nick finds egoists fascinating, for example, while he himself is so self-effacing that he records many long conversations among groups of people where he scarcely makes a single comment. Nick finds especially entrancing those people who are convinced they can impose their will upon the world, and Widmerpool, the only other character who is a presence throughout every book of the novel, is the best example of such an attitude. Meanwhile Nick himself drifts through life, someone to whom things happen rather than one who bends people or events to his will.
            Powell is aware that the novel of character is considered old-fashioned, and even that, as he has the novelist X. Trapnel say, “the very concept of a character in a novel—in real life too—is under attack.” Though that suspicion of character depiction as the main job of the novelist has only increased since he published those words in 1975, Powell, whose work is nothing if it’s not about character, has remained in print. He is, if not the last Victorian novelist, at least the last Edwardian in that respect.
            I discovered that I like exploration of character—perhaps I’m the last Edwardian reader in that respect. At any rate I was being propelled through a certain number of infelicities of style by the conviction that these people were interesting, and I was going to find out more about them as I went.
            Jenkins and Stringham go to a university, unnamed but clearly Oxford. Nick is the only one to take a degree, while Templer and Widmerpool immediately and Stringham later all go into “the City” and commerce. In the second and third books, Nick and most of his acquaintances are in London beginning their careers and many of them are marrying. Nick learns that Peter Templer’s sister Jean has made an unhappy marriage. While waiting for a fellow writer at the Ritz, Nick meets Templer and his wife Mona. Jean, his sister, is with them, and they invite Jenkins to dine with them. The dinner is a “rite” after which the four of them take up “new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned.” The clause illustrates Powell’s circumlocutory style: why not simply “the dance of life”? Jenkins goes home with the Templers and that night becomes Jean’s lover, she having left her husband.
            At one point in their affair, Jean and Jenkins go to a club, Foppa’s, where they play Russian billiards, a game where after a few minutes “a hidden gate drops” and the pocketed balls cease being returned while the remaining ones double in value; Nick uses the dropping of the gate as a metaphor for a turning point at the end of one’s first youth, after which life becomes more serious.
            Meanwhile Kenneth Widmerpool keeps showing up in places where one doesn’t expect him. In the first book he appears at the French pension where Nick is spending the summer learning French—Widmerpool says “My mother was always determined that I should perfect my French among the châteaux of the Loire.” He shows up at parties among society people whose ways he insists to Nick that he scorns. Then suddenly he turns up as an executive, apparently trusted, of one of England’s largest companies. “Certain acquaintances remain firmly fixed within this or that person’s particular orbit,” says Nick, “opposing the idea that one can choose one’s friends.” But Widmerpool amuses and educates Nick. At one of their meetings, Nick brings up some part of Widmerpool’s history, thinking he’ll be pleased that Nick remembered it. But Nick learns that his “illusion that egoists will be pleased, or flattered, by interest taken in their habits” underestimates their egoism: people like Widmerpool are unable to imagine “that the minds of others could possibly be occupied by any subject far distant from the egoist’s own affairs.”
            Nick’s infatuation with Jean ends partly because Nick realizes how inexplicable her taste in men is. “There is always a real and an imaginary person you are in love with; sometimes you love one best, sometimes the other,” writes Powell, in a variation on Proust, who says the lover never sees the real person; the beloved is wholly imaginary. She tells him she had an affair with Jimmy Stripling, a man Nick has decided is a mindless boob. He has to put this together with the fact that she married Bob Duport, who is also a boob. Eventually, long after this affair, Nick learns from Duport that Jean had a long string of lovers, some probably while she was seeing Nick, and that far from Duport or Stripling’s being the odd man, it was Nick himself who was a departure from Jean’s usual taste. Despite the echo of Proust, Powell is very far from Proust’s point that happiness in love is always unattainable because the beloved does not exist except in the lover’s imagination. Instead, Nick learns from this affair and ends up in a happy and long-lasting marriage.
            With the continued reappearance of Widmerpool, eventually the reader begins to see with Nick that everything about the man that shows up later was apparent to the discerning eye in the boy at school—who got too close physically, who lectured in tedious detail any boy who would listen, who was always wearing inappropriate or ill-fitting clothes, who bore humiliation at the hands of those he wanted to associate with or emulate, who was willing to betray a schoolmate who shocked his sensibilities, who never stopped driving himself in a mostly futile effort to succeed, and who never seemed to consider there might be a virtue in being merely ordinary. As Nick muses at one point, “So often one thinks that individuals and situations cannot be so extraordinary as they seem from outside: only to find that the truth is a thousand times odder,” But he concludes that in the whole social world there is no “ordinary.” “All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.” As another governing image for Powell, this picture of the pursuing Furies is a kind of counter to the more stately one of Poussin’s dance.
            Here are the parts of A Dance to the Music of Time:
A Question of Upbringing (1951)
A Buyer’s Market (1952)
The Acceptance World (1955)
At Lady Molly’s (1957)
Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960)
The Kindly Ones (1962)
The Valley of Bones (1964)
The Soldier’s Art (1966)
The Military Philosophers (1968)
Books Do Furnish a Room (1971)
Temporary Kings (1973)
Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975)
            There are hundreds of characters in the novel, and probably a full hundred keep showing up again and again. But they are introduced gradually, and I never had the urge, as I did with War and Peace, to turn back frequently to a list of characters at the beginning of the book—that’s why it’s usually there, I suppose, in a Tolstoy edition, but not in Powell..
            The second trio of books chronicles the decade of Nick’s life leading up to the war. In the middle of a tangle of Good Old Boys, co-workers, and college friends connected in one way or another with the Tolland family, Nick meets Isobel Tolland and immediately decides he must marry her. Meanwhile around him couples form and dissolve. Widmerpool, who is apparently a virgin, becomes engaged to an older woman and is humiliated when his attempt to make love to her is a failure. Widmerpool’s humiliations in love began innocently enough when one of his crushes poured a shaker of sugar over him at a party. Eventually though, they begin to form a pattern of genuine masochism.
            Templer’s wife leaves him, lives for a while with a left-wing writer, and then goes off on a trip to China with Nick’s future brother-in-law, Lord Warminster. Nick’s friend the composer Hugh Moreland loses his wife to Sir Magnus Donners, the metal magnate who lives in a tarted-up medieval castle in the country. Those last couple of sentences sound like we’re in an early Evelyn Waugh novel, but though Waugh and Powell were friends from their days at Oxford, with similar talents for social satire, Powell’s satire strikes me as more humane—which means it is also less comic. Powell’s novel has a center lacking in the Waugh books. Nick marries Isobel and begins a family; he observes the giddy whirl around him from a quiet and firm vantage point. He writes for magazines run by Communists and fellow travelers while exuding a moderate conservatism; he befriends radicals and later even beatnik anarchists and cultists but works his way steadily into a bourgeois literary respectability.
            The one significant flashback in the novel occurs in the sixth book, titled with the euphemistic name for the Furies, The Kindly Ones, where Powell goes back to the beginning of the First World War to make a parallel with the beginning of the second. This allows him to introduce Nick’s father, who is a character of some complexity. Nick’s father chose the military though he hated authority, and, despite his hatred of authority, was always uncomfortable if anyone else criticized it. This ambivalence works well as an introduction to Nick’s war experience, where he encounters people in authority who are so worthless that they summon up Powell’s most withering satire, but he also finds people who are quietly, competently, and bravely doing what must be done.
            Nick’s war is the subject of the next three books, beginning with The Valley of Bones. Nick spends some time as a regimental officer training in the north of England, with an incompetent commanding officer who is eventually relieved of his command. Then Nick is posted to divisional headquarters and ends up under the thumb of Widmerpool, now a Major. Widmerpool is not so much incompetent as he is wrong-headed and blinded by ambition. Before the end of the war, he is a colonel advising cabinet ministers, and he has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of both Stringham and Templer, his and Nick’s old schoolmates. Meanwhile Nick moves to the Allied Liaison Corps, working with Polish and Belgian officers. Like Powell himself, Nick never sees combat during the war.
            Nick repeats several times in conversation a saying current at the time: “It’s a tailor’s war.” In a way, the saying encapsulates features of his war, as opposed to that of Stringham and Templer, who die in it, or the very few fighting men in the book such as General Liddament, who does get a fighting command, or Nick’s old fellow platoon officer in the Welsh Regiment, Idwal Kedward, who takes over as the company commander just before Nick leaves and doesn’t even recognize Nick when they meet again in France. For the officer corps in England there is much changing of outfits—in both senses—while aside from North Africa and before the invasion of Normandy, it is not a war of government-issue combat uniforms. 
            After the invasion, Jenkins is promoted to major and now works with Belgians, whom he takes on a tour to France and Belgium. On the trip he suddenly realizes, after a night spent at Cabourg, that he has been staying in Proust’s Balbec. Here Powell makes explicit what we are aware of almost from the beginning of A Dance: the book is an homage to Proust. But Powell is more cheerful than Proust, and even more social. Widmerpool represents the Proustian conception of character, solipsistic, changing little, making the same mistakes—especially in love—over and over again. The narrator, on the other hand, changes and finds lasting love.
            Moreover, Powell’s attitude about the past is very different from Proust’s. As James Hall comments of Powell, “the changes time brings, rather than the possibility of reliving lost experiences, interest him.” A Dance is not about memory or how memory constitutes personality, as In Search of Lost Time is. For Powell personal history, confirmed by others in the dance with us, constitutes personality. And Hall adds, “Moreover, Nick has no nostalgia for a fading aristocracy.” Though the levelers of the far left are made sport of in the novel, neither Powell nor his narrator shows any snobbery about rank. If we had any doubt about this—because Nick marries into a family with some titles—our doubts would be stilled by the comic movement of Widmerpool toward his peerage, and the incompetence of so many of Nick’s superior officers in the war books.
            In the tenth book, at the end of the war, Nick Jenkins goes back to his still unnamed university to work on a book about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. In this and the last two books, a work of literary or visual art is a touchstone for Nick, helping him interpret people and behavior. But the tenth book is, among other things, a study in melancholy or depression, especially in the affair at the center of the story, between Widmerpool’s wife Pamela and the novelist X. Trapnel. A malaise or melancholy also seems to pervade postwar London. It is also a book about books: publishing them, reviewing them, writing them, finishing or never finishing them. In the next book, the artistic touchstone is Tiepolo’s ceiling fresco Candaules and Gyges, a story from Herodotus, in which King Candaules has his friend Gyges eavesdrop on his lovemaking with the queen—the result is that Candaules is supplanted and killed by Gyges. While one of Nick’s academic friends is explaining the fresco, Pamela Widmerpool reveals that her husband has Candaules’ problem—and likes to play the Gyges role as well. In the final book, the touchstone work is Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.
            Earlier in A Dance, Nick’s friends the painters Edgar Deacon and Ralph Barnby, writers such as the poet Mark Members, and the composer Hugh Moreland are influential in forming Nick’s view of the world. Nick often quotes Barnby and Moreland on life and love. These artists are as important to Nick as the painter Elstir or the writer Bergotte are to the young Marcel, though their influence is more like Swann’s on Marcel in that they teach him not just about art but about character types and behavior, men and women.
            Nick’s diffidence in the earlier books turns into quite a different thing in the later ones, especially in the penultimate book. His usual silence in company seems more a matter of strategy, and his few comments more pointed and frequently not understood by his less aware friends. Often in a group he seems the one most at ease, as well as the best-informed, and frequently he lets drop telling observations about character. Of an American he is having trouble getting to know he says “No doubt he was merely one of those persons, not so very uncommon, with whom every subsequent meeting after the first entails a fresh start from the beginning.” And a publisher friend whose amateurish paintings and whose confusion of aesthetics and politics come in for a good deal of satire, Nick compares to his own cantankerous father: “People put up surprisingly well with irascibility, some even finding in it a spice to life otherwise humdrum. There is little evidence that the irascible, as a class, are friendless….”
            In the last books Widmerpool’s behavior becomes increasingly irrational and self-destructive. He marries Stringham’s niece, Pamela Flitton, a sadistic nymphomaniac who tortures him with her infidelities and eventually commits suicide in the bed of her last lover. Widmerpool becomes first a half-hearted anarchist, then a cultist who dies in a struggle for power with the cult leader Scorpio Murtlock.   
            Despite Widmerpool’s implicit philosophy of controlling life by his own will, he is in fact the most puppet-like person of Nick’s vast acquaintance: he has to serve whatever force or authority that seems to him to be the current vehicle for “getting on,” whether it’s sports at school or the Donners Brebner megacompany or what he takes to be the war effort, but it is in fact mere rank-climbing. Later it’s politics. Finally, he becomes the puppet of the 1970s counterculture and the occult, the whipping boy of the beatnik Svengali, Scorpio Murtlock.     
            Self-effacing mildness always characterizes Nick. And although characters don’t change, in Nick’s case they are capable of getting wiser. Not that knowing a lot of people necessarily makes one wiser, but in Nick’s and this novel’s case it does. You can’t learn from people or from experience if you’re an egoist, as the examples of Widmerpool, Bob Duport, and others in the story show. But experience of a range of characters as well as repeated close observation of a few will indeed, Powell insists, educate the teachable.
            E. M. Forster said “One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it.” If I’m inclined to praise at all this particular long book, it’s not just because I’ve got through it. It’s because Powell has convinced me that I can learn something from dancing with his characters.