Hearing Secret Harmonies

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Begun in 1951 with the novel A Question of Upbringing and proceeding gracefully through this twelfth volume, Anthony Powell’s remarkably entertaining and instructive series called A Dance to the Music of Time draws here to an autumnal but resounding finale. In Hearing Secret Harmonies, Powell’s admirers will be delighted to observe, once again, through Nick Jenkins’ calculating eye, the wonderfully, crazily real cast of continuing characters such as Widmerpool, Bithel, Mr. Gauntlett, Flavia Wisebite, Edgar Deacon (through his paintings), Jean Duport, the Quiggin twins, and Gibson Delavacquerie. They will be further delighted by the appearance of such new, intriguing, and equally unsettling characters as Scorpio Murtlock and Canon Fenneau. Mingled with their delight, Powell’s admirers may experience dismay at the closing of the curtain on this superlatively fascinating stage of actors. For it is Powell’s gift to have made his people our people; they are our friends, lovers, enemies, acquaintances. And we shall miss their new adventures, their sometimes somber and even grotesque, sometimes honorable and dignified, oftentimes funny and brave stances against the vagaries of the world.

Of major comfort to fans of Powell’s art, and of the world of Nick Jenkins, is that the entire A Dance to the Music of Time is, concurrently with this volume, available in four volumes of one movement each. The Dance is now, for Powell, complete. One can now reread and marvel more than before at the ironic and beautiful machinations of fate over man—and all his works—through this scrupulously considered “sample group” of British subjects. Now, uninterruptedly, one can enjoy Powell’s precise delineations of character, his wry humor, his grasp of large themes, his mastery of “appallingly entertaining incivilities.” No writer is more gifted in showing us people in the same clear light, the same tone of voice, and in presenting the proper and the preposterous in such a way that we laugh and cry at both. Powell has made his characters real, truly memorable people. And, as proof of this—should a reader once begin to suspect Powell of any exaggeration—he has only to turn from the novel to the pages of any newspaper.

But the difference between what lies reported in newsprint and what Powell narrates is Powell’s exquisite vision and artistic selection of methods by which to reveal his tales. His prose style is uncanny in its crisp, clear musicality. He is a master of deletion, of leaving out all save the absolutely necessary; and he sometimes keeps readers in excited suspense by providing even those essentials in unexpected ways at unpredictable intervals. As a storyteller, he is sure of sequence and consistently surprises through his methods of emphasizing and heightening. An impressively learned man, his pages are peppered with unaffected erudition, worldly and bookish wisdom, and one is constantly amazed at the precision of his dictional choices as he inserts the exact nuance of color or mood into a scene or characterization through using a word or phrase rich in derivation, definition, and sound. Many passages invite—through their beauty of craftsmanship, their chiseled angularity—rereading, so that their full richness and resonance are revealed.

In Hearing Secret Harmonies, the dance has gone on in its convoluted formations of grace and jangle; the noise men make is at best only sometimes music; the dance and the music both have wound down, are suspended and end in quiet here, if not in calm. From noise, through strange musics of man’s making, to silence beyond man’s understanding, is the classical progression of Powell’s structure in this work. Throughout the novel, Powell consistently illustrates the perverse “sounds” and “directions” caused by the going-against-the-grain of men’s actions within the dignified and ordered sounds and directions of nature. These motifs are gracefully, never obtrusively, suggested. They mingle like woodwinds with the strings of a symphony, both revealing and supporting.

Powell has a deceptively simple approach to using recurrent motifs in order to lend a classically musical unity to his work. In this novel, the motifs are images of sound and of creatures seeking, or seeking to create, worthwhile directions for themselves. For instance, the initial images are of a series of ponderous, smoky explosions at a quarry near Nick’s country home. Nick watches and listens as the quarriers, unconscious of a V-shaped flight of ducks overhead, are detonating a limestone cliff. The sounds of man are unnatural, cacophonous. Nick longs to hear the euphony of nature. The ducks, doing what nature will have them do, follow their leader to food and rest, fall naturally from the sky, and ignore men and their life-and-beauty-threatening explosions. The novel ends with the raucous hooting of the shift-whistle at the quarry as snow falls naturally straight from the sky, unhurried, ignoring men, their glowing buckets of coals, their explosions. The explosions, the thudding of activity, stop.

The last sentence in the novel, Nick’s last melancholy observation, “Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence,” is both classically stoic in its suggestion of Nick’s acceptance of the inevitable end of things and sad in its suggestion that the secret harmonies are not to be heard at all...

(The entire section is 2236 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXV, November 13, 1976, p. 331.

Atlantic. CCXXXVII, April, 1976, p. 108.

Commonweal. CIII, May 7, 1976, p. 310.

National Observer. XV, February 21, 1976, p. 25.

New Yorker. LII, May 10, 1976, p. 140.

Saturday Review. III, April 17, 1976, p. 30.