Hearing Secret Harmonies

In this final volume of Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time, the author argues, through the mouthpiece of his character X. Trapnel that “People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is 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. The novelist himself lays it down. His decision is binding…the novelist is a god, creating his man, making him breathe and walk. The man, created in his own image, provides information about the god. In a sense you know more about Balzac and Dickens from their novels, than Rouseau or Casanova from their Confessions.”

Some have taken Powell very literally when he wrote this and have seen the sequence of novels as being a thinly disguised autobiography. The career of the character Nick Jenkins does indeed closely imitate Powell’s own life and there has been much academic debate on precisely who in Powell’s circle has found their way onto the page. Widmerpool, as Powell himself confirmed, thereby adding to the credibility of these identifications more generally, was inspired by Denis Capel-Dunn, with whom Powell served in the Cabinet Office, with additional background based on Reginald Manningham-Buller and political aspects possibly based on Denis Nowell Pritt. Pamela Widmerpool is allegedly based on Barbara Skelton; Dr Trelawney on Aleister Crowley; X. Trapnel on Julian Maclaren-Ross; Sir Magnus Donners on Lord Beaverbrook; Max Pilgrim on Noel Coward and St John Clarke on John Galsworthy.

Bizarrely, given Widmerpool is essentially an unsympathetic character, Powell’s brother in law, Lord Longford, expressed the view that he might himself have been the inspiration for Widmerpool.

Amusing though these attempts to allocate roles of fictional characters to real people might be as diversions, they disregard Powell’s statement that any novel has its own separate truth which is true only in relation to itself, based on the decision of the author as sole arbiter.

Here, however, I part company with Powell. I would argue that the author is not the “god” whose “decision is binding”. Any novel is a co-creative effort on the part of the author and the reader. The latter is essential for, without their imaginative effort, the words on the page are mere squiggles of ink on paper. It is in the mind of the reader that the scenes, written by the author, come to life. And that mind may, in fact, be influenced by outside sources. In particular, if a reader has seen a television or film adaptation of the novel prior to reading it then the pictures they may conjure for themselves may be coloured by that prior experience. So much so that characters may undergo radical change of appearance. Ian Fleming described Pussy Galore in Goldfinger as having black hair in “an untidy urchin cut” but I defy any current reader of the novel to be different from me in imagining the blonde Honor Blackman in “nothing but a grey fisherman’s jersey that was decent by half an inch” when reading the closing scene. Similarly, Trollope described Mr Slope in Barchester Towers as having “hair [that] is lank, and of a dull pale reddish hue…[and] his face is nearly the same colour as his hair, though perhaps a little redder: it is not unlike beef” but whenever I read scenes in which he features, it is Alan Rickman, who portrayed him in the TV serial Barchester Chronicles, that I picture, even where the scenes from the novel were not reproduced in the TV adaptation. 

So if the author is not a god but a co-creator then his shortcomings may be accepted and covered for by the imagination of the reader. In this volume, I feel that Powell with his resort to the introduction of a hippy cult, goes beyond his own powers of imagination. Powell when writing the novel was approaching 70 and the conviction of his portrayal of the hippies is somewhat lacking. I am reminded of the criticism of Agatha Christie’s 1960s novel Third Girl, written when she too was in her seventies as, “One of Christie’s more embarrassing attempts to haul herself abreast of the swinging sixties.” 

Indeed, though the narrative arc of the entire sequence of novels is completed by Widmerpool first seen running hopelessly as a schoolboy in the opening chapter of the first book, forever failing to make the team, to end up collapsing in the final chapter of the last book while out running with other members of the hippy cult he has tried to lead but from which position he has been usurped by the stronger will of the younger Scorpio Murtlock, this seems contrived. Given the series was begun in 1951, the final act set at the end of the 1960s involving nude hippy cults could not have been foreseen, no matter how god-like the author.

While enjoying the intellectual game unfolding through the final book of the twelve in the series, picking up the hints and direct references to the cycle – the Dance to the Music of Time – I felt less convinced by it than the earlier novels. I feel Powell was more insightful a writer about the inter-war years and the immediate aftermath of the second world war, describing a world he lived through as a younger man forging his career, than the more recent past which he viewed more as an aged observer than an active participant.

In this, Powell’s world is to me less convincingly concluded than Trollope’s Barsetshire/Palliser sequence of a dozen novels which ends on a strong note with The Duke’s Children. Trollope succeeds in conveying the perspective of the aging widower, the Duke of Omnium, with power and relevance as an actor in the plot whereas Powell’s Jenkins, always a passive character throughout the sequence, is reduced to a mere detached spectator. For me, Trollope’s steadfast craftsmanship, allowing his characters to lead the story where they will, is ultimately more satisfying than the intellectual artifice of Powell’s more contrived structure.

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