Hearing Secret Harmonies is the last of twelve volumes in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence.
I really enjoyed these books. They provided company during a tough year, even came with me into hospital at one point. I felt compelled to write something that did them justice. But after a lot of flailing around I eventually took my cue from Hearing Secret Harmonies itself, a book which would advise against beating yourself up in trying to bring a series of reviews to an impressive conclusion. Endings, at least as far as fiction is concerned, are usually presented in terms of tying up loose threads, solving mysteries, romantic protagonists getting together. But Nick Jenkins, our narrator, suggests that real endings in life are not like that. Real endings are occasionally triumphs, but more often they involve collapse, petering out, disaster, anticlimax. And even triumphs only last for a little while before you have to try again.
At one point, Nick Jenkins recounts a sad story, told to him by one of his friends
It seemed to start so well, and end so badly. Perhaps that’s how well constructed stories ought to terminate.
Since endings in life rarely tie up anything, maybe the best story endings have the same ambivalence. After following Nick from his childhood in the 1910s, through university, a period of youthful parties, an early career as a writer, interrupted by the war and then taken up again with increasing success through the post war years, Hearing Secret Harmonies ends in Nick’s old age. We are in the late 1960s and early 70s, a revolutionary time, which aspires to close a door on the past. And yet things have not really changed. Nick attends an art event where some of the guests wear white ties and black tail coats, while a more rebellious “artistic” constituency goes in for knock-about-the-studio garb, teamed with beards and long hair.
… the rebels themselves seem as much survivors from an early nineteenth-century romantic bohemianism, as swallow-tailed coats and medals recalled the glittering receptions of the same era.
The dancers in the Poussin painting A Dance To The Music Of Time – which inspired the title for this sequence of novels – move in all kinds of wild ways, but they do so going in a circle.
This of course makes the book sound deep and meaningful, which whilst true is nevertheless misleading. As always with Nick, we are in the company of someone who is moderate and easygoing. We wander into art galleries, attend wedding receptions, gossip with old acquaintances. There’s a characteristic irony about A Dance To The Music Of Time as a whole, which sees various mystically inclined characters – eccentric gurus, abstruse astrologers and the like – sounding ridiculous as they say things about the circle of life, only for Nick’s chit-chat to often suggest sentiments of a very similar nature. With Nick you get deep and meaningful in a relaxed, reassuringly superficial kind of way. He can make the point that life goes in circles, without, for example, having any inclination to join in with naked dancing around Stone Age monuments at midnight. Nick is too humble and self effacing to make a definite final point about life or happiness or anything else. There are no definite, final points with Nick. That’s why a sense of continuity is more persuasive coming from him than from say, someone who goes in for rituals around standing stones.
If you want deep and meaningful, it is here. If you want relief from deep and meaningful than that is here too. A good novel shows rather than tells. In the end, I would suggest that Anthony Powell, like all good authors, shows you something with an invitation to take what you need. He does not need to tell you what to take.