“It’s rather sad,” she said one day, “to belong, as we do, to a lost generation. I’m sure in history the two wars will count as one war and that we shall be squashed out of it altogether.”Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (1945)
Anthony Powell's twelve-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–1975) opens at an elite public school in 1921, and goes on to recount fifty years in the lives of the narrator Nick Jenkins's postwar generation. Having reached 1937 at the end of the fifth novel, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960), the reader opens The Kindly Ones (1962), expecting to follow Nick, now in his thirties, into the Second World War. Yet the leisurely opening of this sixth installment is not what Powell's hitherto chronological narration has led us to anticipate. It is a beautiful but unsettled summer's morning in Nick's childhood: the housemaid is having a breakdown, the cook is in mortal fear of suffragettes burning the place down, and the Jenkinses have just learned that shiftlessUncleGiles is about to gatecrash their luncheon party. But when Uncle Giles eventually arrives he brings news that helps to explain why Powell has interrupted his sequential narrative with this extended flashback to events of decades earlier: “They've just assassinated an Austrian archduke down in Bosnia.” And then Powell recalls us to the late 1930s: whereas in 1914 “war had come for most people utterly without warning – like being pushed suddenly on a winter's day into a swirling whirlpool of ice-cold water by an acquaintance, unpredictable perhaps but not actively homicidal – war was now materializing in slow motion” (86–87). What motivates Powell's long flashback is an insight central to many retrospective treatments of the Second World War: that knowing this war means knowing it in relation to the last.