For my next book, I decided to tackle the final instalment of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series: the wonderfully named novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

And so, nearly five years after beginning this series, and having read 12 novels, each typically around 250-300 pages (totalling over one million words), I have now finished this vast and impressive work.

In keeping with one of the themes of the series – namely how chance encounters can end up having a profound impact on one’s life – I have been reflecting on how I came to read these books in the first place. It was the summer of 2010, and I was on holiday in Cornwall with my wife and some good friends. One day we decided to visit Truro, and whilst there I wandered past a second-hand book shop, and decided to have a nose around. Whilst browsing the shelves, and I spotted this series, and having heard of it and knowing that it chronicled the lives of a set of English characters from their school days right through to old age, I decided that I’d like to read it for myself.

In actual fact, there were only nine of the 12 books on display, but the second-hand book shop owner thought that she might have the others in her warehouse, so said that she would look, and advised me to come back the following day. Sadly, when I did return, she had been unable to locate the missing three novels, but I bought the nine that she did have, and was later able to source the missing instalments in the same edition by searching online. Anyway, I guess that my point here is that I did not specifically set out to buy these novels, but I happened to come across them, and that chance encounter has resulted in me spending a considerable amount of time over the last five years absorbed in the world that Anthony Powell depicts in his series.

There seems little point in me reviewing this last instalment specifically, as that would presumably be of little interest to anyone who has not read the other books, but I will, very briefly, mention a few things about the series as a whole. For those who might know nothing about Anthony Powell or this, his most famous work, here is a succinct summary that I found in The Paris Review:

…the twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time cover some fifty years in the life of Nick Jenkins, who is, like Powell himself, a well-connected author and man of letters. But the novel is less about Jenkins than the metropolitan circles he inhabits. These circles overlap, so that men of action, socialites and artistic types are thrown together… Observing the way these contradictory social groupings intertwine, and the bizarre human gyrations that result, Jenkins discerns a pattern dictated by the rhythm of life — hence the theme of the novel, which is that its characters, like the four seasons in Poussin’s painting, are all engaged in a ritual dance to the music of time.

(Source: Anthony Powell, The Art of Fiction,  published in The Paris Review)

The series as a whole can be split into four distinct groups, each consisting of three novels, and these groups are often referred to by the names of the four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. This comparison is apt, in that the series does chronicle the lives of a set of characters from their youth (spring), through early adulthood (summer), then into middle age (autumn), and eventually into old age (winter).

As I have noted in previous posts, there is surprisingly little in the way of “action” – or, to put it another way – what action there is often takes place off stage. Rather, each novel tends to detail just four or five key social scenes, with the narrator, Nick Jenkins, reflecting at some length on the significance of such scenes. Jenkins is undoubtedly an artist and an intellectual, so there are many philosophical musings and also plenty of references to classical art and culture. In this respect, reading this series offers you quite a different experience than you get from reading most single novels. Here, it is the overall panoramic view that is arresting, rather than the pace or the excitement of plot.

It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them.

I have enjoyed reading these novels, probably most of all for the way that they chronicle a class of people and a way of life that is now no longer in existence in modern Britain. I have enjoyed becoming acquainted with the broad cast of highly eccentric characters, and seeing how their stories and their interwoven relationships pan out over the years. The world of A Dance to the Music of Time is peopled by members of the aristocracy and socialites, but also artists, writers, and musicians. Then there are the men of will and power: the business barons, the military figures, and the politicians. Many of the characters are to some degree absurd, but each in their own unique ways.

If you are interested in reading the series yourself, sampling the first novel would give you a good taste of what this literary epic is like. It would certainly not be to everyone’s liking, but I for one am glad to have read it (although I chose not to read each instalment back-to-back). Here is a list of the novels that make up the A Dance to the Music of Time series:

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