The Soldier's Art

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First edition

The Soldier's Art is the eighth novel in Anthony Powell's twelve-volume masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time, and the second in the war trilogy. It was published in 1966, and touches on themes of separation and unanticipated loss.

The language, always exact, sometimes sardonic, also takes on the quality of blank verse in dealing with episodes that echo classical mythology. Memorable new characters like Finn are introduced with spare precision, but kept separate from the original participants in the Dance for several of whom this proves to be the last turn upon the floor.

Considerable fun is had with the juxtaposition of disparate characters, shorn of their peacetime identities and struggling to conform to their notion of military stereotype. Their confrontation with regular soldiers is acutely observed, as is the politicking within divisional HQ. The mess dialogue between two senior staff officers presents a classic - and revealing - sketch of military life that has struck chords with admirers of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy.

Plot summary[edit]

At the start of 1941, Jenkins is stationed at divisional HQ and allocated to lowly F Mess with the obnoxious Captain Biggs. During an exercise Jenkins has dinner with General Liddament who recommends him to Finn. Widmerpool is humiliated by Colonel Hogbourne-Johnson, and plots revenge. Stringham turns up as Mess Waiter for F Mess.

On leave in London Nick has an unsuccessful interview with Finn for a liaison posting with the Free French forces. He has a drink with Chips Lovell who desires a reconciliation with Priscilla, despite her affair with Odo Stevens. Moreland, now living with Audrey Maclintick, dines with Nick. Audrey, Priscilla and Stevens arrive to join the party, but Priscilla leaves in distress.

Later that night Jenkins is told that a bomb falling on the Café de Madrid has killed almost everyone, including Chips. Nick sets off to the Jeavons's to inform Priscilla, only to find the house also bombed, Lady Molly and Priscilla being killed.

On return to divisional HQ, Jenkins finds Stringham has been transferred to the mobile laundry. Stringham and Nick try to cover up for Bithel's drunkenness, but their efforts are foiled and Widmerpool has Bithel dismissed from the army.

Farebrother brings news of the disaster awaiting Widmerpool in consequence of the latter's machinations. Jenkins fails to persuade Stringham to leave the mobile laundry before it is posted to the Far East. Captain Biggs hangs himself in the cricket pavilion ("And him so fond of the game."). Jenkins receives orders to report to the War Office. The final paragraph reveals that Barnby's plane has been shot down.