The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, June 13, 2014

Musings from a County Dock

So la Caterina and I are down in North Carolina, from whence she hails, and we're staying at her sister's beautiful home on a lake. We came down for a family funeral, and I was once again reminded of how remarkably warm and embracing her side of our family is--the extended family, too, I mean; her two sisters and my brother-in-law and their children took me in from day 1. But the network of cousins, aunts, uncles, &c., found time, despite their grief, to make sure I was made very welcome.

So I'm writing this looking out on a beautiful lake, far from home, and yet feeling quite at home.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for CreateSpace to finish re-formatting revisions to Phineas at Bay, and to finalize the book, and re-reading Antony Powell's Hearing Secret Harmonies, the last volume of his twelve-novel series, Dance to the Music of Time. After finishing Simon Raven's "Alms for Oblivion" series and the linked "First Born in Egypt" books, as well as the two linking novels The Roses of Picardie and September Castle (which occur between the two series; a good conspectus may be found here), I felt the need of a change--something similar in scope but different in tone. So I returned to Powell.

As I near the end of this epic re-read, I've noticed much that I missed the first go, probably because Powell's narrative verve just carried me along. Some have criticized the ending, with Widmerpool falling prey to the young mystic Scorpio Murtlock, but it actually makes sense, in my opinion. Widmerpool has always had a self-destructive streak (his Cold War activities, his tangling with higher-ranking officers during the war), as well as a streak that Stringham describes as "slavish" that first surfaces in the minor incident of a banana thrown by the prestigious Budd which accidentally hits Widmerpool. His reaction to Barbara Goring's pouring a full canister of sugar on him at a dance, his engagement to Mildred Haycock, and finally his marriage to Pamela Flitton, demonstrate an escalation of the tension between Widmerpool's will to power and his will to self-destruction. He survives each, but in HSH, we see that he is seriously undermined by Pamela's final act: her suicide during a tryst with American academic Russell Gwinnett. (This is also entirely in character for Pamela, who, we are told, is like a corpse during intercourse. In Books Do Furnish a Room, at the Fission Party, Pamela asks Nick Jenkinsif he's attended any funerals recently, remarks that she's just awaiting her own; Nick answers, conventionally enough, "Not imminent, I hope?" only for Pamela to reply "I rather hope it is." When Nick asks her "How are you enjoying political life?" she replies, "Like any other form of life - sheer hell." Her thanatos-drive is already in high gear, in short) Widmerpool's loss of his actually rather precarious balance after this, and the reckless rush toward power through the youth movement combine to his undoing--and yet he breaks free of Murtlock at the very end. It's a superb ending, really; Widmerpool's survival instinct may have been overpowered, but he wrests his freedom back by a quick, tough, act of will, and dies in an echo of his introduction.

Even the cameos are masterful. The borderline-sinister Canon Paul Fenneau, who warns Widmerpool off Murtlock, but yields to his insistence at being introduced and puts the two in contact, has a surprisingly charismatic presence--Jenkins himself feels it. Fenneau carefully balances his obligations to his "cloth"--that is, his Christian orthodoxy--with his esoteric interests, and firmly disapproves Murtlock's heretical view of harmony. (He seems to me, for what it is worth, to have a touch of occultist and vampire folklore scholar Montague Summers about him, the description Powell gives of him even matches photos of Summers.)

In re-reading HSH, I was reminded of just how good Colin Baker's performance is in the fourth installment of the 1997 adaptation of Dance. A smallish part, but admirably enacted.

I'm not quite done with Powell, yet; I have his memoirs and journals yet to go, and his pre- and post- Dance novels.

Edited to Correct reference to Pamela and Nick's conversation; my memory played me false on the specifics.
Edited also to correct the state I was in. North Carolina is where I have family; South Carolina is Conroy Country. My bad, and I do know the difference.

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