Monday, September 17, 2012

Hearing autumnal harmonies

The streets having, as Zelda Fitzgerald put it, "once more assumed their academic context," I find the recurrent patterns of life, seemingly dormant amid the possibilities of summer, beginning to stand in sharper relief once more, as they do annually when September brings thoughts of school, never, it seems to be banished despite the accumulation of post-graduate years. Which means it's time once again to pick up where last I left off with my perpetual re-reading of A Dance to the Music of Time.

This turn through the Dance, which I believe is my fifth, has brought me to the final volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies. It's regarded by many readers as the least of the series, the moment when Powell's age and success insulated him just enough from changes in the culture (and especially the growth of the counterculture) as to render his observational, ironic manner ineffective. Christopher Hitchens called the final volume an "extreme disappointment," writing,
Here, the shortcomings of the preceding novels appear condensed and intensified. Confronted by what he would doubtless call “the Sixties,” Powell sounds less and less like a stoical and skeptical observer and instead takes on the lineaments of a vaporing old bore. The book supposedly concerns the cult of youth and the traps that this cult will set for the trend-crazed older person who needs or desires to appear contemporary. But it is no longer informed by experience and curiosity, well-recollected and hard-won and wrought over in reflection. Rather, it resembles the plaintive tone of a beached colonial retiree, convinced that all around him is going to the dogs.
Though I wouldn't claim that Hearing Secret Harmonies is the Dance at its best, I've written before of my disagreement with the assessment of it as a failure. Despite a few mis-steps here and there, I think it achieves what Powell aimed for it to achieve: bringing the series to a close without offering closure, asserting the primacy of pattern and repetition and reminding us that the different starting and ending points of all our separate sprints through life mean that the finality offered as a matter of course by most novels is at best a chimera, at worst a lie.

Today, as I started into the book again, I was struck by how much of Powell's style, technique, and concerns make themselves known within just the first few pages. The opening passage gives us his precise, even fussy descriptions and convoluted, even antiquated syntax, festooned with clauses to the point that nearly every assertion feels like a reticent aside:
Ducks, flying in from the south, ignored four or five ponderous explosions over at the quarry. The limestone cliff, dominant oblong foreground structure, lateral storeyed platforms, all coral-pink in the evening sunlight, projected towards the higher ground on misty mornings a fading mirage of Babylonian terraces suspended in haze above the mere; the palace, with its hanging gardens, distantly outlined behind a group of rather woodenly posed young Medes (possibly young Persians) in Mr Deacon's Boyhood of Cyrus, the picture's recession equally nebulous in the shadows of the Walpole-Wilson's hall.
If we were coming new to the books, that passage would suffice to establish narrator Nick Jenkins, and by extension Powell, as a close observer, someone who takes the necessary time to look--and then, having looked, to describe with care what he's seen. It's Jenkins's characteristic role throughout the series: he is more than anything else a watcher, our window to the panoply of lives, hopes, ambitions, and adventures of his generation. His primary mode is meditative, and returning to his narration is a reminder of how dismayingly rare that quality is in fiction.

A few paragraphs on, we get to see how that interest in description and observation can be turned to humor, in an account of a crayfishing expedition:
The single crayfish emerging from under the stones was at once followed by two more. Luck had come at last. The three crayfish, swart miniature lobsters of macabrely knowing demeanour, hung about doubtfully in a basin of mud below the surface. The decision was taken by the crayfish second to enter. He led the way with fussy self-importance, the other two bustling along behind.
Again, it's the precision--bordering on finickiness--that makes the passage work. "Swart"(an archaic version of "swarthy" with an extra valence of malignance), "fussy self-importance," the characterization of the most intrepid crayfish as the second in a duel, setting out to examine the ground for the contest--all this may be pointless, but it's funny, and, moreover, it gives us a sense of the kind of eye we're looking through. A man who troubles to describe crayfish so carefully will not fall down on the job when his fellow humans enter the picture.

The opening paragraph quoted above also introduces another key aspect of Jenkins's approach to life, one that's closely tied to his meditative stance: his constant use of culture to help him understand the lives and events around him. His mention of Mr Deacon's painting is particularly rich because it refers to the imaginary artistic world of the novel itself, but in the opening chapter he also finds room for an apposite Shakespeare quote and draws on knowledge of local archaeology and legend. None of the references seem a stretch; rather, their emergence feels like the organic workings of a mind that is forever remembering, judging, comparing, considering. At the opening of chapter two, Powell writes of the small consolations of getting old:
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.
In the face of the typical fourteen-year-old's dismissal of culture as irrelevant ("Why do we have to learn all this old crap?"), I would put forth the workings of Jenkins's mind: because the more we know of what came before, the greater our ability to understand what we see before us now, to detect similarities and patterns, and--perhaps most important--to understand that, while Ezekial's "nada y nada y nada" may have been a tad too gloomy, there certainly isn't a lot new under the sun, and that, rather than something wholly new and different (and, as is usually implied, better), we are but another link in a long chain. One of the great glories of Dance is that it contains such multitudes that it creates the very conditions that Nick so enjoys: its fans find themselves using its memorable characters to help them understand the people they meet in everyday life.

Knowing of Jenkins's tendency to view events through the lens of art also helps us catch a good moment in these first pages with his wife, Isobel. As she explains to her niece and others how to catch crayfish, she says,
The trap must be hauled up gently, or they walk off again. The frustration of the Old Man and the Sea is nothing to it.
Jenkins is remarkably close-mouthed about his marriage--he says at one point, "What can one say about one's marriage?" and mostly sticks to that position. But the glimpses we do get of Isobel's mind--for example, when Nick is able to sneak a weekend pass during the war and she fills his ear, gleefully, with exactly the sort of gossip that he has most been hungering for--enable us to understand the basis of their connection. Her line here is little more than a joke, but it's a good one, one that reveals a fundamental, satisfying affinity.

This, all this, the distinctiveness of Nick Jenkins's voice and worldview, is why returning to the Dance feels like an imperative every fall: there's nothing else quite like it, and it feels like going home. When the consolations of the summer--the sun, the long days, the baseball games on the radio into the night--are being taken away one by one, the familiar is your friend, always there to be leaned on.

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