Hearing Secret Harmonies

by Anthony Powell
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Hearing Secret Harmonies

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2236

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.

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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 save in a form we cannot define: something beyond that “wintry silence.” The contrast is clear: man’s temporary beauty and burden both are his restless and seemingly futile needs to manipulate, reconstruct, define. Serenity for him lies only in acceptance of the end of this strange, exciting struggle of being alive. Through Nick Jenkins, Powell suggests calmly that, though this seems a sad resolution, it is a resolution, and that we must be prepared for unsought, uncontrollable changes in our priorities, in our perspectives. Man’s definition of the grand, the worthy, may stand revealed eventually as unspeakably puny in contrast with the real, larger values the natural world patiently and inexorably offers. Our ability to hear the secret harmonies must await our development of senses of hearing now unimaginable to us.

This volume’s episodes of sounds and direction-seeking in the lives of those around Nick Jenkins open with the introduction of young Scorpio Murtlock and his itinerant religious commune as they camp overnight on Nick’s land. Nick’s confrontation with the brooding, intense Scorpio is disquieting. He senses serious, perhaps destructive, power in the boy. Charisma threatens reason. At first tempted to discount the long-haired, blue-robed, sandaled figure as faddish and foolish in appearance, Nick is shaken when he realizes that Murtlock, bizarre as he seems, is actually filling the needs of the disjointed, disaffected youngsters in his caravan. Among the strange flock of seekers are children of some of Nick’s peers, including Fiona, his wife’s niece. Nick notices that Murtlock already seems to mean more to Fiona than her parents ever have. This realization causes Nick to consider how near to the end is his own participation in or influence upon, the dance of time.

Later Nick sees on television a face from the past: Kenneth Widmerpool, a university chancellor, looms in the news, bespattered with paint by the vacuously radical Quiggin twins, girls who later sabotage Widmerpool in public with a stink bomb. Widmerpool judges their acts to be correct assessments of the traditional world and his previous parts in it. Subsequently, he adapts his lifestyle yet again to the currents of events, leaving his chancellorship, renouncing his title, and finally joining Murtlock’s commune to engage with them in chants and dances of sexual and ritualistic nature. Forty years older than they, he joins them to seek “Harmony.” One of the ironies bound to prevent any such harmony for Widmerpool is the presence in the commune of poor, drunken old Bithel, whom Widmerpool had years earlier cruelly drummed out of the corps in The Soldier’s Art.

Along the way through this book’s plots and subplots, there are alarming and amusing conjunctions of personalities. One instance occurs when the American professor, Russell Gwinnett, returns to London to accept a literary prize for his biography of X. Trapnell, his onetime fellow-lover of Widmerpool’s wife, Pamela. The banquet at which he receives the award is attended by Widmerpool—accompanied by the stink-bombing Quiggin twins. Eventually, chaos and confusion reign; Widmerpool alone seems untouched, unconscious of the smack of events. His is literally a different music, heard, if at all, by him alone.

Among these astonishing conjunctions and partings so typical of Powell’s novels, and so typical, he seems to suggest, of life, is Fiona’s eventual defection from Murtlock’s group to marry Russell Gwinnett. Another, and in many ways a crushing, event is the death of Widmerpool. It is significant that “Ken,” through his competition with Murtlock for ascendancy in the commune, insists upon setting his pace faster than that of the others in one of the group’s spiritual exercises of seeking harmony by running together through the woods naked in the early morning. Even here—old, skinny, arrogantly blind to his confusion, unable to belong, to relax, or to understand—right to the end, Widmerpool disharmoniously dies of a heart attack, alone, naked, sprawled on a forest path. Thus, even in death he is more than a little ridiculous and gauche. As a character who perhaps represents our worst aspects, his pain and defeat frightens, touches.

As in the previous volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, characters come and go in the ballroom crowd, changing partners, sitting a number out, losing the beat, getting carried away by melodies. As often as not their lives intertwine through events over which they exercise no control. They dance mostly to a music at best only partially their own, and the tempo is capricious. For instance, Flavia Wisebite waltzes through a scene again, excoriating her now-aging lover Dicky Umfraville because he is too old to dance and because she sees in his face that she has changed so much he does not recognize her. Young Barnaby Henderson, heir to a profitable art dealership, sheds his suit for a robe, jitterbugs himself into being in love with Murtlock, and ultimately is rescued from religion by his husky former lover, Chuck. Mr. Gauntlett does his stately, stiff-legged jig across a few pages, either comically unconscious of—or serenely impervious to—the extreme disparity between his age and tweedy style and concerns, and those of young Murtlock and his berobed followers. The juxtapositions and formations are sometimes funny, always surprising, constantly reminding of the inevitability of Time’s running-down tune.

What prevents this vision of the dance of life and time from being unbalanced or overly dark is Nick Jenkins’ personality and point of view. Well-educated, sensitive, and tempered by adversity and quirks of fate into being patient and reserving judgment, Nick husbands his sanity, in a wacky world going yet wackier, it seems to him, in the 1960’s, by remaining on the scene, as curious, yet as uninvolved, as possible. He works much like a U.N. observer, patrolling borders of false peace between hostile forces of time, movement, and persons. What saves him always from futile anger or despair is his keen appreciation of the gigantic joke—or perhaps the transcendent meaning—of it all. He accepts what we have been given as life, and is resigned to whatever is included in the experience of being alive. And it is this absence of nothingness that is something to celebrate, subduedly, perhaps, in his British way, by toasting quietly—not overdoing even the cosmic themes—with a glass of sherry to warm the wits. His is a not-so-golden mean of restraint: never be too happy, never be too sad. Watch steadily and enjoy the kaleidoscopic show. When even the most appalling things happen to him or to those whom he knows, Nick reflectively, consciously smiles, shaking his head and feeling something like “Isn’t that curious?” or “Isn’t it sad?” or “Isn’t this all a great adventure of pains and pleasures?” or finally, “Isn’t it supremely musical, supremely funny, supremely real?”

So, Powell’s novel, like the entire series of A Dance to the Music of Time, is a fine, serious work—so surely serious that it can be comic. This trait of combating with tough, tender laughter the awesome enormity of experience makes Nick, finally, a dear character, a valued friend to readers. He makes us find comfort and meaning within ourselves. He does not—cannot—give it; he inspires it, elicits our own toughness and tenderness. And we relish his unabashed, delicate probings into events, his occasional subtle meddling with them. He reminds us of ourselves—or of how we might be—as he intelligently enjoys life as much as he can. We identify with his mixture of attitudes toward the world, for we, too, are simultaneously lovers and haters of this life. Nick’s aptness as a character lies in his ability, finally, not to judge at all, but simply to narrate or report what he cogently and wittily observes. Thus, the humor, or the pathos, arises from us and from our perceptions—and we are a part of the great dance. Hearing Secret Harmonies is a fine and fitting capstone to A Dance to the Music of Time, a brilliant and major work by a writer whose vision and craft will be a touchstone for many future writers.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 27

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.

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