“People think that because a novel’s invented it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it’s 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 … A novelist may inescapably create all his characters in his own image, but the reader can believe in them, without necessarily accepting their creator’s judgement on them.”
Well, after a year of reading “Dance to the Music of Time”, I finally finished the last book, “Hearing Secret Harmonies” on Boxing Day morning – and to paraphrase, what a long, crazy trip it’s been! And a hippie style phrase is not wholly inappropriate when considering Nick Jenkins’ final outing – but more of that as we go on!
The opening of a Powell is always disconcerting, but the opening of “Hearing Secret Harmonies” is so unsettling that you might be forgiven for thinking that you were in a different sequence of books altogether! Nick and Isobel are crayfishing in the country – an odd enough beginning to start with – but they are in strange company. A group of young people have stopped by for a visit, including the Jenkins’ niece Fiona, and a very strange young man called Scorpio Murtlock. A self-styled hippie cult leader, Scorp will be a recurring factor in the book. Nick and Isobel are now living in the country, in an area which is threatened by quarrying and which also is near some ancient standing stones known as the Devil’s Fingers. Is this *really* “A Dance to the Music of Time”???
Fortunately, the familiar soon rears its head, in Nick’s reminiscences, and Fiona is of course the daughter of Susan and Roddy Cutts – so we are soon back on track. Unlike the previous volumes, which usually had three or four long chapters, HSH has several short ones, in which a lot of things happen, including:
* Widmerpool is appointed chancellor of a new university after spending much time in the USA
* the Quiggin twins attack him with paint, and then promptly become his acolytes
* our Ken goes a bit weird and becomes a hippie
* Nick visits Matilda Donners, who shows him photos of the Seven Deadly Sins tableaux from the pat
* Nick re-encounters Gwinnett while he is part of the panel for the Donners Memorial Prize – Russell has finally written a biography of X. Trapnel
* at the prize dinner, Widmerpool washes up with the Quiggin Twins, starts to make a speech and then the whole thing is disrupted by the Quiggins letting off a stink bomb
* Scorp Murtlock dips in and out of the story and eventually Widmerpool joins forces with him
* there are numerous pagan rituals going on, some quite dodgy sounding
*Fiona marries Gwinnett and turns up at the reception of another wedding being held at Stourwater
* she is quickly followed by the arrival of Widmerpool, leading a cult run in bizarre clothing, who is then removed by Murtlock
And the final chapter deals with many endings – this *is* a packed book!
So where to start? HSH is quite a difficult book to discuss and I think has had a mixed reception. Certainly, it stands apart from the others in many ways – the subject matter is really quite dark (pagan sex rituals, necrophilia, psychological control) and initially these subjects might seem a little out of keeping with others in the sequence. I can understand that HSH would polarize opinion, as when initially read it seems anachronistic, but reflecting on it a few days later, I feel that there is a consistency with Nick’s earlier experiences. There are hints of perversion (for example, with Donners) all the way through the series, mysticism and the darker underbelly of life. The strange cult in HSH has parallels with the mysticism of Trelawney and Erdleigh, only in a modern setting, and in fact Powell makes several comparisons of Scorp’s cult and Dr. Trelawney’s earlier group. Initially I was unsure about the modern aspects of the novel; I tend to feel the same way when reading latter-day Agatha Christies – contemporary elements are allowed to creep in and they can be discordant. However, reflecting on the book I think I can see what Powell was trying to do by putting his themes and characters in an updated setting. Because although the external trappings may change, human being remain the same whatever the setting, Powell’s sense of the theatrical sees life as a performance or play:
“In any case, it was impossible to disregard the fact that, while a dismantling process steadily curtains members of the cast, items of 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 observed.”
The full-circle element of the books is very clear, with the book ending with images of a bonfire and workmen, much as it opened. If I had to be picky I would say there was perhaps a little *too* much of loose end tying up so that it began to look a little forced, as another demise was dropped into the narrative in passing. Yes, we want to find out what happens to a lot of the characters, but the constant reporting of deaths almost as asides was slightly awkward.
You will notice that I haven’t yet got to the one big subject of this book – what happens to Kenneth Widmerpool. He *has* been the dominant character throughout the series (and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, since he was there at the very outset); and I did wonder how Powell would deal with his character after his decline during the previous book. He was always an odd character, but he’s become more and more weird as the books went on. He was always supremely prone to humiliation (from his school days, through the sugar-on-the-head incident and all the horrors of his marriage to Pamela) so in many ways his behaviour in HSH is not entirely unexpected. Ken has spent his life exerting his willpower to overcome circumstance and get what he wants – which seems ultimately to be power – but with the death of Pamela things turn against him; he embraces the new culture in a rather ridiculous way, makes an idiot of himself and loses a struggle for power with Scorp.
There is much emphasis on nudity in this (and the previous) book and I’m not altogether sure why. Certainly, there have always been hints of masochistic strangeness attaching to Widmerpool; a mother complex and a tendency for voyeurism. There is talk of the indignities which Ken has experienced at the hands of Scorp but fortunately these are not given in detail – as Powell so astutely observes:
“One’s capacity for hearing about ghastly doings lessens with age.”
I did feel at first that Powell might have stretched Ken’s character out of shape a little here, but thinking about it now I can see that the seeds for his rather sad demise had been sown quite early on in the books. I was sad to see him decline and end the way he did, but I suppose in many ways he got his just deserts, bearing in mind how badly he had behaved in the past and how many people he had damaged or destroyed.
The writing in this volume is lyrical and elegiac – giving a real sense of something momentous coming to an end, which in many ways it is, and HSH wraps things up very well!
It has been a real joy reading these books. It took a little while to adjust to Powell’s way of telling a story – the detachment of his narrator was unusual but understandable once I realised that Nick is the ultimate observer; and this was hardest thing to get used to (apart from style of his writing) This doesn’t rob his work of depth or poignancy, though, and following the sequence from beginning to end gave me the wonderful experience of feeling that I had lived through a large part of the 20th century. Although Nick is an observer, his character was allowed to change and his voice as an older character is different from that as a younger man, although still the same person – much as we change our views and attitudes as we age but still retain our individual personality.
Powell can be an astonishingly perceptive writer, but with Pamela Flitton he did seem to have a blind spot. He *is* very much a male writer at the end of the day, although there are plenty of women in the stories; and mostly they are well portrayed and avoid cliché, but I feel he failed with Pamela. We needed to know what motivated her, what had damaged her so, why she was so bitter and twisted; it is not enough to create a monster, we have to know the cause.
But despite this one small caveat, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to spend time with Nick Jenkins this year. I’m sure “Dance” would benefit from a second reading and I have no doubt that I will revisit this wonderful series again in the future!