Thursday, November 20, 2008

book review - Hearing Secret Harmonies

In the end you are left with an old man standing in his garden in the Somerset countryside next to a bonfire. He is surrounded not just by the smell of the fire but by the sounds and smells or autumn. He knows that time is running out and the autumn of his days is soon to be replaced by winter.

The twelfth book in the Dance to the Music of Time series Anthony Powell winds up some of the characters threads but leaves you at the end with Jenkins wondering and pondering on what life is all about.

For many of the characters, no more so than Widmerpool, life seems to be about a conquest for power. Getting wealth is a by product of the real Holy Grail to be a person of influence and someone with the ability to decide the destinies of others. Jenkins always wonders if Widmerpool is haunted by his role in sending Stringham to his death but never finds any remorse.

Equally motivated by power are those in the publishing world that find as they get older they become part of the establishment to be lampooned and undermined. No more cruelly than J C Quiggin’s twins who infused with the spirit of the 1960s embarrass him on numerous occasions. People seem to become the role models that they initially fought so hard to replace.

But the central character of Jenkins, who has by now had a long and happy marriage and a consistent career in the literary world is not only still able to stand to one side of the action but turn out by surviving and valuing happiness to personify the alternative path that many could have trod.

One character who manages to surprise till the end is Widmerpool who moves seamlessly from University Chancellor to head of a hippy commune renouncing his former motivation but at the same time striving to carve out an alternative source of influence.

He manages to come into conflict with a younger much more driven man who has come from a world far removed from the Etonian privilege enjoyed by Widmerpool. Murtlock manages to take over Widmerpool’s sect and in the end the struggle between them for leadership is the cause of the older man’s death as he tries to prove he can still keep up.

But one of the main themes here is about reflections with Jenkins able to accept more than most that he is now at the end of a generation and everything is about looking back not forward. He is occasionally dragged back through what his old friend Moreland called sentimentality jogging memories by pictures or places but as he watches acquaintances self-destruct or lose a life’s work he manages to steer a course to his safe home in the countryside.

For the first time really you feel that this where there are real moments of truth with Powell’s home life in Frome being described in the passages about the countryside. There is also a feeling that out where the worst thing to fear are devils in old stone circles age has also taken Jenkins away from London.

The bright lights and parties that first attracted him to the capital and then the work that kept him there have gone. Released from the centre of power he is also released from the fever that grips those looking for power.

There have been numerous moments in the 12 book series when the reader wants to urge Jenkins forward but in the end his approach, with its wisdom and detachment, succeeds.

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