The Dry Bones
The Soldier's Art
The Military Philosophers

I would like to attempt to outline something from the fifth book in this series, The Soldier's Art, to give a sense of Anthony Powell's tremendous attention to structure, and how it allows him to do certain things that might otherwise seem melodramatic in perfectly understated ways. In the book, Powell arranges for the members of an estranged marriage to both be killed in separate incidents on the same night, when it looked like a reconciliation between them might begin to be possible.

The key structural decision is to compartmentalize them within the narrator's (Nick's) evening. The husband, Chips Lovell, pesters Nick to have a drink to talk about unrelated matters, but only just before Nick is to have dinner with a friend who once carried on with Chips' wife. Thus Chips has to go, and early, and mentions in passing a party he was going to attend in the faint hope his wife might also attend, and they could reconcile. The dinner with the friend begins, is interrupted by his current mistress, and is then intruded upon by the wife, Priscilla, and the man she is currently carrying on with, who also happens to be known to Nick. She makes a great show of being unperturbed by the situation until Chips and his faint hope of reconciling are mentioned, at which point Priscilla announces a desire to go home, alone. Later that evening, at a pub, Nick receives word that the club Chips was at had been hit by a bomb from the Blitz, and Chips was killed. The phones are out, so Nick resolves to go and break the news to Priscilla directly, where he finds that house to have been destroyed later that same evening, and Priscilla and her mother killed.

It works as drama and not melodrama because the deaths are, in the compass of World War II, random and explicable. And it works because the details are simple and affecting. Nor is it merely the confluence of detail, but the scope time time involved: Chips Lovell, Lady Molly, and the rest were introduced in At Lady Molly's, published nine years before The Soldier's Art. Their deaths are not  melodrama because their deaths are not put in for shock--they're not even the central events of the novel; the characters are all given narrative lives independent of their ends. There is no great gush of emotion, either: the two most affecting moments are Nick having to tell the friend that Chips is dead, and the reminiscence of Chips first taking him to the place where he'd meet his wife. No great indulgence in emotion, no pointing out they could never reconcile, just a pair of stories that have stopped. It has the elegance of understatement, a quality sorely lacking in fiction these days.

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