Hearing Secret Harmonies, by Anthony Powell
Hearing Secret Harmonies is the twelfth, and final, volume of Anthony Powell’s 3,000 page epic sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s taken me over a year and a half to read through them (with breaks for other books, obviously), and on finishing it last night I found myself looking at the opening pages of the first novel again – tempted to restart and hugely impressed at how it all came together in a thematic whole.
Thankfully, the journey is worthwhile. I’ll be buying more Powell, and while I may give it a few years before rereading this series I hope I do reread it. I’ll put up a separate post in a few days summarising my thoughts on the entire sequence, this post however is largely just about Hearing Secret Harmonies itself.
The problem I always have writing about the Powell’s is that I’m conscious anyone reading this may not have read the books yet, and I don’t want to spoil them. That means the further in I get, the harder it gets to say anything at all, for fear of revealing characters’ story arcs or unexpected developments.
So, this is going to be in some senses a very partial writeup. I don’t want to reveal more than the back of the book would, so I won’t be talking too much about character outcomes or anything of that nature, nor can I discuss in any detail the power of the final five pages – though I will say that the sequence as a whole has a remarkable thematic consistency which means that the work as a whole is greater than the sum of its (generally excellent) parts.
As Harmonies opens, Nick and Isobel are living in the country. It is the 1960s, Nick is largely retired and he and Isobel are letting their niece Fiona and some of her companions stay in a caravan on their land. Those companions include the redoubtable Scorpio Murtlock, a young cult leader who keeps strict control over Fiona and his other followers and who speaks of harmony in a way reminiscent of the now long dead Dr Trelawney (whose spirit, albeit unmanifested, hovers over much of this volume).
Nick, as ever, is tolerant of the foibles of others. It takes more than what are to him near-children in blue robes with curious religious practices to surprise him. Scorpio, however, catches his interest and it is clear that he is another example of a man who lives by the will, a man who imposes his personal myth (a phrase used more than once here) on others and shapes reality around him by sheer intent.
Other new characters are introduced, Barnabas who is a member of Scorpio’s cult, Fiona herself now she is an adult, and as ever many characters recur – Quiggin and Ada Leintwardine, Gwinnet, Dr Emily Brightman, even Bithel, but it is noticeable that by now most of the characters from the earlier books are gone, dead.
The dead, however, are not always quiet. Although the book contains no literal ghosts, the arrival of new generations means that some of the deceased are reevaluated, given new posthumous life. The novelist St. John Clarke and artist Deacon are critically reappraised, Dr Trelawney’s occult philosophy gains a currency it never seemed to achieve in his life. Characters leave the stage, but sometimes some part of them lingers on regardless.
In any case it was impossible to disregard the fact that, while a dismantling process steadily curtails members of the cast, items of the scenery, airs played by the orchestra, in the performance that has included one’s own walk-on part for more than a few decades, simultaneous derequisitionings are also to be observed. Mummers return, who might have been supposed to have made their final exit, even if – like Dr Trelawney and Mrs Erdleigh – somewhat in the rôle of Hamlet’s father. The touching up of time-expired sets, reshaping of derelict props, updating of old refrains, are none of them uncommon.
That quote illustrates the key themes of the series, apparently described by Powell’s friend Hilary Spurling as being old age, madness and death, but for me also including the bizarre mix of the random and the strangely fitting that so much of life consists of. It also illustrates a weakness of this final volume, the language isn’t always as tight as earlier novels in the sequence (“simultaneous derequisitionings are also to be observed” is not for me a great line). That said, while generally I have a great regard for Powell’s prose, it’s ultimately the humanity and life of his creation that one reads for – the style is a bonus, not the point.
Classical motifs continue to permeate Hearing Secret Harmonies, as they have in other volumes. Here Orlando Furioso and his quest with Astolpho to the moon (where they find all the lost things of Earth) is key. Orlando was a hero who lost his wits, at least for a while, unable to reconcile his personal myth with his reality. Widmerpool too now struggles with that conflict, he has become a university chancellor but appears increasingly confused and adrift as he enters his final years.
Widmerpool is still, of course, at the heart of the story. There’s a good argument to be made that Widmerpool is Dance’s real protagonist, Nick certainly isn’t – he’s simply an observer. Widmerpool, first met as a schoolboy running through the mist, has by sheer determination risen to become an MP and eventually to join the House of Lords, but like Nick his days of temporary kingship are now behind him and his crown has passed to younger men.
Most of Nick’s generation have accepted the passing of their moment of glory (such as it was) with reasonably good grace, now spending their days instead worrying about children or sitting on the occasional literary committee. Widmerpool, as ever, is different and as obsolescence faces him he surrounds himself with students from his university and increasingly takes the side of the radical youth movements the ’60s are giving birth to. They tolerate him, but he cannot be one of them, he is quite simply too old. He is at best useful, and Widmerpool’s confused attempts to remain relevant, to continue to hold power now his day is past, are pathetic – something never previously true of Widmerpool who has often been repugnant but rarely pitiable.
Old age, madness and death. Not quite the stuff bestsellers are made of. There’s humour too though, dry comments like the one I titled this post with, or an observation that the firmest foundation of the “publishing profession” (now we call it the publishing industry of course) is that you can’t libel the dead, but it’s fair to say this isn’t the cheeriest volume. Nick’s world is dying around him, at one point he attends a gallery opening and is met with frank disbelief when he speaks of having known the artist, that world now so distant to the gallery owner that to him it’s an epoch as distant as the middle ages. Nick’s own life is passing into history before his eyes.
Powell offers too some parting thoughts on the form of the novel itself, via remembered comments of Trapnel’s. Trapnel held that the novel is superior to biography as a vehicle for truth, that it’s more serious. “What is effective is art, not what is “true”". Perhaps that’s a counter to another criticism I might make of the whole series, the extraordinary levels of coincidence that run through it. Characters bump into each other through levels of chance which are vanishingly unlikely, lives intertwine serendipitously in a way real lives rarely manage. But then, this is art, it isn’t “true” – it’s more serious than that.
Harmonies is ultimately a bleak book, most of Dance’s characters after all are dead before it opens, a few more die during this volume and of those who remain at the end it’s plain that their days are increasingly numbered. So it goes for all of us of course, and while it’s true that the themes include madness, old age and death that’s definitely not the whole story (to be fair, I’ve not yet read Spurling’s book on Dance, her views are likely more complex than four words can fairly summarise). For me, another theme is that life continues, we’re part of it but only briefly, and our own part is likely not that different to the parts others had before us. Dance constantly references the classics, and the truth is were they to somehow see it, transported back in time, the Greeks and Romans would recognise its themes and characters without difficulty.
Humanity never really changes. Every day, we hear news of important events, earthquakes, wars, murders and massacres. We hear too more personal news, of weddings, lawsuits, arguments between friends. Some prosper, some deservedly and some not, while others fail to achieve their promise. Works of art are created, others are lost, some are forgotten, some (like St. John Clarke’s novels) recovered from among the lost things. There’s a vast hubbub even to the quietest life, a sheer volume of incident that makes our own time seem special, the attraction of apocalypses I think is that they make our own days all the more important – if the world continues after us after all how important were we?
For me, all this is core to Dance. We are all of us at a dance to the music of time, the dancers and the music may change but the dance ultimately doesn’t. Nick, Widmerpool, Quiggin, Gwinnet et al come to their winters just as we shall (if we make it that far), but others have already taken their places. Whether that’s cheering, or profoundly depressing, I’m not sure. But either way, it is.
It seemed to start so well, and end so badly. Perhaps that’s how well constructed stories ought to terminate.
Perhaps. Dance doesn’t end badly, it’s a fitting end to an extraordinary sequence, for me the whole thing is a huge achievement in English literature. But for all its comic brilliance, it’s perhaps more a tragedy than a comedy. And for all the men of the will dominate it, I don’t think it makes being one of them a particularly attractive prospect. The Greeks would recognise that, too.