Friday, May 27, 2016

Which is which …

The first book I was ever assigned to review for The Inquirer was Hearing Secret Harmonies, the concluding volume of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. I had not, however, read any of the previous volumes, so I set about reading all of them before getting down to the volume up for review. I was very impressed. I still remember the time as one of my happiest reading experiences, and I still think the series is a very great achievement. I read the Sword of Honor trilogy much later, and I think it is a masterpiece. There is a melancholy insight into the age that, it seems to me, has proved prophetic.


  1. Paul Johnson has read both:

    “It is a mistake, in my view, to hold a popularity contest between A Dance to the Music of Time and Sword of Honour. They are wonderfully complementary. We are lucky to have both. Waugh did not cover so long a spectrum. But we should see Brideshead Revisited as his verdict on the pre-war period, which in Uncle Tony's account requires six novels. And Put Out More Flags is a knockabout farce, a comic curtain-raiser to the actual war beginning with Men at Arms,continuing with Officers and Gentlemen, and ending with Unconditional Surrender. All these titles are savagely ironic, the last signalling Waugh's despairing acceptance that there is nothing he, and any other honourable souls left, can do about the appalling state of the world which has emerged from what began as a just war. 

    “What his tale lacks, and Uncle Tony's possesses in full measure, is a follow-up on the peacetime chaos. Waugh could have written a superb novel about the idiocies of the Sixties, surely the most foolish decade in English history, which makes the Thirties, that "low, dishonest decade" as Auden called it, seem noble by comparison. But he did not live long enough. All he could manage was his superb personal bout of madness The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which serves as an appendix to his wartime trilogy (as Brideshead serves as an introduction), contrasting his own inner devils with the monstrous spirits who had taken over the world.

    “However, by limiting his trilogy to the actual war, he contrives to achieve an intensity of vision, and feeling, quite lacking in Uncle Tony's ambling tale.”

    “Sword of Honour is the ideal war novel. But the Manning trilogies, and A Dance to the Music of Time, are both, each in its own special way, masterpieces of literature. We are fortunate to have three such different fictional but eye-witness accounts of that fearsome war, which arched over my own childhood and youth in a dark rainbow of fascination. There will be no more. Any future treatments will be historical novels.”

    From Novelists at Arms | Standpoint.

    See also his In Sword of Honour truth is stranger | Spectator

  2. It is a mistake.
    I'm glad Johnson brings in the Manning trilogies. I've only read the Balkan one, which I loved. My mother has just reread it and the Levant Trilogy and really enjoyed them, partly because they evoke so well the time as she experienced it.
    I am reading Powell because my father loved the books and recognised himself and his milieu in them. I would never say they are bad. I simply made the mistake of embarking them alongside Waugh's - I've always been told not to read several books at once and finally I understand why. I can't help noticing that Waugh is wiser than Powell and his work echoes around your mind more. One problem is the degree to which Powell mutes his narrator. At one point he has the narrator say, 'I was making arrangements for the schooling of a son' - the indefinite article strikes a false note to me.