The end of the line
Hearing Secret Harmonies Anthony Powell (Heinemann £3.10)
The run that began in December 1921 when Kenneth Widmerpool — clad in "a sweater once white and cap at least a size too small" — hobbled stiffly into view through the Thames valley mists, is over. In the early hours of the morning some fifty years later (Lord) Ken Widmerpool fell dead at the end of a "twisty way through the woods-, his quietus invisible in the shrouding of fresh, no less penetrable, mists. In the interim much has altered: even the thick voice has been roughened and its accentuation modified. Yet much remains the same, as we should have known from that early exchange at the Walpole-Wilsons: "Good gracious, Jenkins, I had no idea that you were a dancing man." "I had formed the same wrong impression about yourself."
The twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time are now completed by the publication of Hearing Secret Harmonies, and no judgment of this final instalment can be wholly independent of the work as a whole. Is it 'like Proust'? — the debt, after all, is acknowledged in the work itself. But the tribute is teasing. Proust is concerned with the inevitability of change. Powell, whilst ostensibly chronicling the revolution that brings The Boyhood of Cyrus (by E. Bosworth Deacon), skied in a dark corner of the Walpole-Wilson's hall, to fashionable prominence in a gallery near Berkeley Square, or Fiona Cutts (daughter of Roddy and Lady Susan) to an affair with a married electrician and life in a caravan, in fact demonstrates a principle of recurrence in human affairs adumbrated by thinkers as various as Heraclitus, Vico, Nietzsche and Mrs Erdleigh, not to mention sages in other cultural traditions. It is a principle that transcends the merely individual: Mrs Erdleigh, whose presence is predictable, since she appears in every third volume, has died, but her spirit looms larger than ever, with Scorpio Murtlock, who regards himself as a reincarnation of Dr Trelawney, threatening to turn the work from a literary mansion into a congeries of zodiacal houses.
Mr Powell has never been more surprising. His capacity to capture a period through its incidental aspects, without ever sliding from comedy into caricature, has always been a vital element in his work. But here he has stock figures and stock situations, drop-outs and demonstrations, that might well seem all too obvious (and hence uncharacteristic) indications of the temper of the last decade, during which the action of his novel takes place. The narrative tension of Books Do Furnish a Room, the more spacious manner of Temporary Kings, are now set aside in favour of an approach which is at points as ambagious as that of Ariosto — an author in whose work Jenkins discovered illuminations casting bright if fitful lights on hitherto shaded aspects of Widmerpool.
Can such a technique and such material provide an adequate close? Hearing Secret Harmonies is not, on first acquaintance, so successful an independent work as its immedi
ate predecessors. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect it to be; its position demands that it be given the benefit of the proper perspective. Though there are new characters — Scorpio Murtlock, the poet and man of business Gibson Delavacquerie, the superb and sinister Canon Fenneau (but not really new, since he was first encountered at one of Sillery's tea parties in 1924) — beyond these there are always older acquaintances, many now dead, now turned at a different angle to the reader and revealing both the unexpected and the entirely anticipatable. We cannot see all parts of the dance at once, but it has always been Mr Powell's gift to take us back through it so that we read the patterns in a different way; the artist can play at being Time with time. So Nick Jenkins reflects on Poussin's Time and Ariosto's Time, the painter's time and the writer's time; and we can also reflect that Mr Powell inclines to the painter's position. As Nick observes of Poussin's lyre-playing figure: "The smile might be thought a trifle sinister, nevertheless the mood is genial, composed."
It was Mrs Erdleigh who had quoted Thomas Vaughan on the soul's ascent "looking at the sunset towards the west wind and hearing secret harmonies." Now Widmerpool hears such harmonies, and is driven to his death by the tarantella that they play; Jimmy Stripling has also hearkened, to the point where he abandons his enthusiasm for cars and is reduced to what Sunny Farebrother describes as "an old tin can", finally being cremated at Kensal Green, his elegy a Trelawneyite dirge. But Nick has also heard the harmonies, though it can reasonably be supposed that for him this is nothing new. Rural scenes frame the novel, and by doing they give it a direction counter to that of English life in the last half century. The scrupulous urban and suburban landscapes of the earlier novels, where a cottage at Thrubworth appears as an extension of the metropolis, have largely disappeared. The countryside is given as much emotional resonance as any image or decription of inanimate objects is ever allowed to possess in the sequence. Nick is conscious as friends (even Matilda Donners) die, that time is not unlimited for him. Widmerpool perishes but Nick survives, his last paragraph echoing, in a way that is almost intolerably moving, that sequence of images with which A Question of Upbringing began. He, too, has heard and seen a harmony, secret, to be striven for, but attainable.
Hearing Secret Harmonies depends on the sequence as a whole. By itself it is, as we would expect, vastly comic, but it is not (and here it may run against expectations) fully satisfying. There is no particular reason why it should be. As a conclusion to the series it begins to work in an entirely different way. The contemporary references that now seem a little too easy may well weather to something quite acceptable: they will come to be seen more in their functional aspect (for they are vital to the plotting) and less in their social dimension. The looser elements of construction will appear quite natural in terms of the articulation of the whole sequence, and the additional illuminations will emerge in their full significance, with Dicky Umfraville at eighty a part of the character we knew at Foppa's. Above all Hearing Secret Harmonies will matter because of its clarification (which is never a simplification) of what the whole sequence is about. If it remains, in one aspect, a social comedy, then its greatness is in the fact that in the end it is as much about comedy as it is about society.