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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The craziness of A Dance to the Music of Time: There Are No Strangers Here

It's hard to figure out how to read or interpret the central conflict in Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. In this volume, Powell introduces us to a new character in the first chapter: a young man named Scorpio Murtlock, who's the leader of a mystic-hippie cult - they live in a small trailer and travel about the English countryside, engaging in various worship rituals at obscure Druid sites (miniature Stonehenges - there are many in England). Then we connect with the central character who has for the most part dominated all 12 volumes of this series, the hapless, hopeless, loathsome Keneth Widmerpool. Narrator Nick Jenkins tells us that KW is doffing his aristocratic and pretentious airs and seems somehow to want to be a leader of youth (he's now in his 60s and, Nick reports, looks even older); he asks Nick to intro him to Mortlock. And then we learn - through 2nd-hand narration (of which there's too much in this volume, in my opinion) that Widmerpool is in direct conflict with Mortlock to emerge as the leader of this small cult. Well, hm. First of all, it's incredibly hard to imagine Widmerpool dancing naked in the moonlight and engaging in group sex in the shadows of the Druid stones sculptures, but that's what we're asked to accept. If we do accept that, how can we imagine a group of mystic-hippies accepting the wizened and doltish Widmerpool as their leader? It might help to think of how Powell saw the youth culture and political activism and back-to-earth and spiritual movements of his time: in 1974 or so, when he was writing this, these movements were au courant and may have represented, to Powell, the future of England or a version of same - whereas today, 40 years onward, they seem quaint and archaic and kind of foolish (if sweet, too, up to a point). It's not clear the extent to which Powell is critical and satirical. All that's clear, half-way through at least, is that Widmerpool, as usual, will be humiliated and deservedly so. Powell continues to make me laugh with the craziness with which the characters' lives intersect. By this point, as Nick is walking across a meadow in rural England and sees a lone figure approaching from the distance, we know - we just know! - that the figure will turn out to be some long-lost friend or acquaintance or relative from an earlier volume. He never meets strangers. Also, I continue to be amazed at how little we know about Nick, after 12 volumes, and even less, much less, about his wife, Isobel, who is present in a fair # of scenes but who seems to have no personality, or life, whatsoever.

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