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Book Title: Hearing Secret Harmonies|
The author of the book: Anthony Powell
ISBN 13: 9780006540564
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 16.75 MB
Date of issue: December 9th 1983
Read full description of the books Hearing Secret Harmonies:Such a long journey! We first met Nick Jenkins in school, as a teenager with a keen interest in the affairs of others and a rather reclusive, shy temperament. Now he is in his late sixties, and hopefully he has some wisdom to impart from all the events he witnessed, from all the people he has met and from all the books he has read or written.
Two compensations for growing old are worth putting on record as the condition asserts itself. The first is a vantage point gained for acquiring embellishments to narratives that have been unfolding for years beside one's own, trimmings that can even appear to supply the conclusion of a given story, though finality is never certain, a dimension always possible to add. The other mild advantage endorses a keener perception for the authenticities of mythology, not only of the traditional sort, but - when such are any good - the latterday mythologies of poetry and the novel.
The whole journey is allegorically portrayed as a Dance, the actors coming in and out of focus to the tune of a melody only they can hear. Careful observation might reveal recurring patterns and familiar faces, but the important thing is that the Dance is eternal. New players come in as old friends depart. Fancy new steps are claimed by a younger generation who unwittingly are repeating the same moves that were popular in their grandfather's times.
Case in point: The first chapter introduces a new character that will be central to the events unfolding in this last volume. His assumed name is 'Scorpio' Murtlock and he is the self appointed guru of a new sect that seeks communion with the higher spheres of existence, a harmonious life and a revival of pagan rites and beliefs. Since one of his adepts is Fiona Cutts, a relative of Nick's wife Isobel, Murtlock and his gang come to visit Jenkins at his country retreat, there to reenact some humorous scenes and dialogues from his childhood encounter with another guru, a Dr. Trelawney.
'How are we going to bring off an act of Harmony on a Saturday afternoon?'
'Through the Elements.'
'Fire, Air, Earth, Water.'
In practical terms, the project devolves into a leisurely crayfish trapping. But, since Nick is in a contemplative mood, the whole opening scene is infused with portents and whimsical fancy, reiterating the closing verse of the penultimate episode, a quote from Thomas Vaughan about the "liberated soul ascending, looking at the sunset towards the west wind, and hearing secret harmonies."
Jenkins is watching a flight of ducks forming their customary arrow across the sunset clouds and draws connections between Roman auguries, military tactics and the coming winter of his soul, the end of all seasons: "What message do the birds foretell?"
If you haven't noticed until now, our narrator is a bit of a snob, and finally, he gets to acknowledge this less savoury aspect of his personality, throwing obscure words ( 'vaticinatory' ???) and literary allusions at the young hippies when he gets vexed by their smug appropriation of mystical powers:
One had to fight back. Murtlock made no comment. I hoped the quotation had floored him.
Side note : the reader is advised to be patient. The younger generation has its own way of getting back at the pompous elders (view spoiler)[ throwing paint at Widmerpool and stinkbombs at official dinners (hide spoiler)]
A second chapter expands on the role of mythologies and allegories in decoding the motivations and the personalities of the people involved in the Dance. Since over twelve volumes the 'soloist' so to speak turned out to be the person that first enters the scene in "A Question of Upbringing" (remember that grotesque, angular figure running alone in the mist?), Jenkins embarks on a study of "Orlando Furioso" and the way this Romantic hero can be assimilated with the controversial Widmerpool.
Riding a hippogryph, Astolpho undertook a journey to the Moon. There, in one of its valleys, he was shown all things lost on Earth: lost kingdoms: lost riches: lost reputations: lost vows: lost hours: lost love. Only lost foolishness was missing from this vast stratospheric Lost Property Office, where by far the largest accretion was lost sense.
I would not like to spoil the elegant and often funny arguments of Jenkins, but I cannot help admiring the way the author links Orlando losing his wits after being betrayed by his lover to Widmerpool's mind unraveling in the aftermath of Pamela's suicide. The analogy goes much deeper, touching on the central theme of the whole cycle, the battle between the World of Will and the World of Art, with the final stage set to mark the defeat of the man who painted himself as leading a Heroic Life.
Revisiting the past is apparently the favorite pastime of Jenkins in his later years, a melancholic pursuit that is only compensated by his still sharp wit and his still keen interest in the foibles of his contemporaries. The 'action', such as it is in this plotless series, takes place over a series of dinner functions - most of them concerned with the awarding of a literary prize for biographies. Widmerpool can be relied upon to make either a spectacular entry or a hilarious exit. One of the recurring characters (Matilda Donners), poring over old photographs illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins, observes about Kenneth:
He ought to have played the eighth Sin - Humbug.
The Donners Memorial Prize serves a double role here. Firstly, that of revisiting the past, of meeting old friends, of adding 'embellishments' to old stories and throwing new light on those events of the past that we thought we understood at the time. Secondly, it offers a platform for Jenkins and his literary friends to discuss art and the artist in the context of a rapidly changing society. For example, Emily Brightman comments on the rise of the 'yellow press' and the encouragement of scandalous speculations about the private life of public personalities (with emphasis on alleged homosexuality of established authors):
In its vulgar way, a painstaking piece of work, although one must always remember - something often forgotten today - that because things are generally known, they are not necessarily the better for being written down, or publicly announced. Some are, some aren't. As in everything else, good sense, taste, art, all have their place. Saying you prefer to disregard art, taste, good sense, does not mean that those elements do not exist - it merely means you lack them yourself.
Since the literary prize is awarded for biographies, Jenkins intervenes with a passage attributed to his friend Trapnell, a longish quote that I include here because I believe it has bearing on the whole Dance and on the relationship between fact and fiction in its inception:
People think because a novel's invented, it isn't true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel's invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can't include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down. His decision is binding. The biographer, even at his highest and best, can be only tentative, empirical. The autobiographer, for his part, is imprisoned in his own egotism. He must always be suspect. In contrast with the other two, the novelist is a god, creating his man, making him breathe and walk. The man, created in his own image, provides information about the god. In a sense you know more about Balzac and Dickens from their novels, than Rousseau and Casanova from their Confessions.
Leaving the literary criticism behind, let us get back the the Dancers and witness the final tour around the ballroom. I find it fascinating how Powell gives the impression that he coreographed everything right from the start, that everything happens for a reason. Two chance encounters make direct reference to events from the very first episode in the cycle - to the school days and the first visit to the Templer mansion. It is as if Powell believes in karma, no longer how long it takes for payback: We meet Sunny Farebrother in the underground, coming back from a funeral, only instead of being subdued, he smirks about how he foiled a practical joke attempted by the deceased, five decades ago. Sir Bertram Ackworth, a young boy probably everybody forgot about, gets his satisfaction from Widmerpool for being sent out of school in disgrace, also five decades ago.
In the same sphere of reassesments of past events and introducing new steps in the Dance, my favorite part of the last episode is the dynamic relationship between four people in love (of a sort) : Scorpio Murtlock is mostly in love with himself, interested in power games, but he accepts the adoration of Fiona Cutts and he wants to attract within his circle American biographer Russell Gwinnet. What he gets instead is an entanglement with Widmerpool - like two stags clashing horns over who is the true Master of Will. Fiona herself rebels at being treates as an object and tries to escape the influence of Scorpio with the help of poet and critic Delavacquerie, who is in turn involved in promoting Gwinnett's biography of Trapnel ... and so the Dance goes on: some will get married, some will be brought down, some will fade into oblivion. What the music is and where the Dance will lead us is never spelled out clearly, and probably this is one reason why the whole prospect is so fascinating and worth studying, even when we all know where the final curtain is:
People love where Beauty is, where Money is, where Power is - why not where Death is? An American poet said Death is the Mother of Beauty.
Death is one of the Dancers now, partnering both with the Will and with the Artist. Of the two path in life - the search for Power and the search for Enlightenment, illustrated through the years by the parallel paths of Widmerpool and Jenkins, only one leads to serenity and wisdom. The other leads to ruin and dissolution. But, like everything else in life, the borders between the two are blurred and the answers are often obscure, to be guessed by reading between the lines instead of finding them carved on stone tablets. Logic, determination and pragmatism can only take you this far and no further to the Elysean fields. Emotion, passion, acceptance are more faithful partners in the Dance:
Thinking - as General Conyers used to insist - damages feeling. No doubt he had got the idea from a book. That did not make it less valid. Something can get lost, especially in the arts, by thinking too much, which sometimes confuses the instinct for what ought to go down on paper.
Nostalgia is the major chord in the music of Time, as Jenkins visits a gallery of mythological paintings by his old friend, Mr Deacon, there to say a final farewell to a woman that was most probably the love of his youthful years, a departure performed with his usual undemonstrative, introverted manner when it comes to intimate details of his life:
Jean once more held her hand. Fashion, decreeing one kissed almost everyone these days, might not unreasonably have brought that about had she kept herself less erect. It was thus avoided without prejudice to good manners.
'So nice to have met.'
'Yes, so nice.'
This is an emotional farewell for me also, after spending the whole of 2016 under the spell of Anthony Powell's prose and allegories. 'We go through life lacking understanding of many things' is not the most cheerful final lesson to take with me as I say goodbye, but this is no reason to despair, even as we light a bonfire in which we throw all our 'might have beens' and 'do you remember whens' . Art, history, myth offer solace with the words of past masters, such as Richard Burton in his "Anatomy of Melancholy" - a reminder that the show must go on and that, despite its fleeting nature, life remains endless fascinating in its diversity and constant rebirth. Melancholy is tempered by joy to have been a part of the Dance.
Read information about the authorAnthony Dymoke Powel CH, CBE was an English novelist best known for his twelve-volume work A Dance to the Music of Time, published between 1951 and 1975.
Powell's major work has remained in print continuously and has been the subject of TV and radio dramatisations. In 2008, The Times newspaper named Powell among their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
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