Wor­thy pur­suit of tor­tured soloist

Kathy Hunt

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

back sto­ries of Bene­dict’s trav­el­ling com­pan­ions.

Th­ese sec­tions are serene and re­flec­tive, draw­ing out the pathos of a fret­ful fa­ther in a strange land who yearns for a beloved son. Writ­ing in the first per­son, Davies in­vites the reader to iden­tify with the fa­ther’s sad­ness, fears and hopes, played out amid an ex­otic world of me­dieval souks, Jewish traders, Mus­lim scribes and pa­pal spies.

The clar­ity of the writ­ing, its con­fi­dence in the por­trayal of a dis­tant time, re­minded me of the quiet mas­tery of Rose­mary Sut­cliff’s Ea­gle of the Ninth se­ries of books, which was set in Ro­man Bri­tain and pub­lished in the late 1950s and early ’ 60s.

Mean­while, in the other, in­ter­wo­ven nar­ra­tive of the book, Bene­dict and his com­pan­ions travel through the Mid­dle East, In­dia and the East Indies to a port in China called Zaiton ( prob- ably present-day Quanzhou in Fu­jian prov­ince).

The group’s tit­u­lar lord back home is Man­fred, King of Si­cily, and the pre­text for their ex­pe­di­tion is the king’s de­sire to cap­ture myth­i­cal an­i­mals, such as the uni­corn of the ti­tle, which they be­lieve in­habit the steppes and jun­gles of Asia. With th­ese beasts Man­fred hopes to buy off the pope and his al­lies who are threat­en­ing to in­vade his king­dom.

Many of the places men­tioned and some of the action in The Uni­corn Road are trace­able to sto­ries told by in­trepid ad­ven­tur­ers in the Mid­dle Ages such as Marco Polo, the lesser known Ben­jamin of Tudela and Mat­teo Ricci, and the pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal Ja­cob of Ancona.

Th­ese men opened trade routes to the mys­te­ri­ous lands of the Great Khan and ini­ti­ated a new era of cu­rios­ity and ex­pan­sion for the city-states of Chris­tian Europe.

IT seems to me that the Smal­lvilles of this world pro­duce a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of phe­nom­e­nal tal­ent. With a pop­u­la­tion of about 3000, the town I live in is the birth­place of the pi­anist Bruce Hunger­ford, ad­mit­ted to the Juil­liard School of Mu­sic in New York without an au­di­tion in 1946, and thought by many to have been the world’s great­est in­ter­preter of Beethoven.

Foot­ballers and crick­eters of the district have since eclipsed Hunger­ford’s bril­liance, and his long hours of prac­tice in the house down the lane leave only the fain­test of echo in the col­lec­tive mem­ory.

The same thing ap­pears to have hap­pened to Noel Mew­ton-Wood of Brighton Beach who, as a boy of 15, ar­rived in Eng­land just be­fore the last war, ac­com­pa­nied by the dread­ful Dul­cie, his for­mi­da­ble stage mother. A cousin of the critic Wal­ter J. Turner, Dul­cie re­fused to ac­knowl­edge the pos­si­bil­ity of fail­ure, pointed Noel at Turner’s Stein­way and com­manded a Beethoven sonata. Or­chard writes that, im­me­di­ately and for­tu­itously, ‘‘ Turner knew that his cousin was des­tined to be one of the great­est pi­anists in the world’’.

Set mainly in post-war Lon­don, The Vir­tu­oso is not a bi­og­ra­phy but a novel about the gay soloist. To­day the phrase sug­gests a happy com­bi­na­tion of sex and mu­sic, but dur­ing the ’ 40s, when ho­mo­sex­u­als risked in­car­cer­a­tion in Worm­wood Scrubs and hun­dreds of hope­ful pi­anists could only dream of the Al­bert Hall, there was noth­ing light-hearted about ei­ther.

While Mew­ton-Wood ac­tu­ally ex­isted, his Boswellian nar­ra­tor is en­tirely a fig­ment of Or­chard’s imagination, al­though he some­how man­ages to es­cape iden­ti­fi­ca­tion de­spite con­stant in­tro­duc­tions and con­ver­sa­tions. For the sake of con­ve­nience I will call him Colin — the sur­name Gorm­less-Smith also springs to mind for, con­sult­ing my notes, I see I have him down as a wimp, a sponger and a fop. As a de­vice, be­ing name­less wa­ters down Colin.

He is less sub­stan­tial than an X-ray, but if his func­tion is to be a Salieri to Noel’s Mozart then he is use­ful.

Through him we en­ter the world of clas­si­cal mu­sic and the in­ner sanc­tum of those cho­sen few, the soloists, specif­i­cally pi­anists. ‘‘ A solo pi­anist,’’ de­cides Colin, ‘‘ be­comes his own or­ches­tra, he cre­ates his own world; he is ev­ery­body and ev­ery­thing.’’

In his opin­ion solo recitals are all very well, but it is in a con­certo that the soloist ‘‘ is el­e­vated’’; be­com­ing ‘‘ sep­a­rate to, and on top of, the world’’. This is Colin’s am­bi­tion too, his life ruled by the love of mu­sic and the lure of fame. When he fi­nally meets the charis­matic Noel in 1945, how­ever, his fo­cus is shifted rad­i­cally, knocked side­ways by their af­fair and its de­struc­tive af­ter­math.

The Vir­tu­oso was writ­ten as part of Or­chard’s PhD the­sis. She writes with as­sur-

Like the trav­ellers’ tales of old, Davies piles on mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tive lines. There are enough flash­backs, side­tracks, dead ends and em­bed­ded clues to make The Uni­corn Road read like a mys­tery novel. Mar­vels are found, strange cus­toms and land­scapes dis­cov­ered, and shock­ing cru­el­ties en­dured as the party trav­els in­land to the court of the last em­peror of the Song dy­nasty.

This trav­el­ogue then morphs into a ro­mance when a young Chi­nese woman, Ming Yueh, joins the trav­ellers. There is an in­tri­cate sub­plot re­volv­ing around a se­cret women’s lan­guage, which a note at the end of the book ex­plains ac­tu­ally ex­isted in China’s Yun­nan prov­ince un­til 2004. Things get more com­pli­cated as se­cret agen­das are grad­u­ally re­vealed, and the writ­ing takes on the feel of a po­lit­i­cal thriller.

For most of the novel, Davies car­ries off this ance, even elan, re­pro­duc­ing ef­fort­lessly the vo­cal tones and nu­ances of the era. Into Colin’s so­lil­o­quies on mu­sic she in­serts en­thu­si­as­tic vi­gnettes of the great com­posers: Schu­mann, Beethoven, Liszt, Bach and Tchaikovsky.

As Colin dis­cov­ers, it is Noel’s se­cret dream to be­come a com­poser but, as rel­e­vant as they are to ev­ery mu­si­cian’s ca­reer, and un­doubt­edly fas­ci­nat­ing in their own right, th­ese sto­ries ruf­fle the smooth sur­face of the main nar­ra­tive.

Three other pas­sages in­ter­rupt need­lessly or don’t make sense: Noel’s part­ner Bill leaves hospi­tal the day af­ter his ap­pen­dix bursts, there is a dis­ser­ta­tion on the V2 rocket and a re­flec­tion on the kid­nap­ping of a young boy, the lat­ter linked in­eptly to Colin’s aban­don­ment by Noel.

Al­most mak­ing up for this are Or­chard’s de­scrip­tions of a pi­ano soloist at work. Colin first sees Noel at his de­but in 1940. The nar­ra­tor is only 10 and with his fa­ther, a lover of mu­sic who is fated to be sus­pended from his job at the Home Of­fice and put on trial for per­ceived Ger­man sym­pa­thies. An at­trac­tive if in­com­plete char­ac­ter, he is killed twice by Or­chard who pushes him in front of a bus af­ter de­mol­ish­ing him in a rocket at­tack.

But all such dis­crep­an­cies are for­got­ten when Noel flips out his tails and sits down to play the mas­sive pi­ano looking ‘‘ like a spar­row perched on the haunches of a large black bull’’.

With the ex­cep­tion of the odd clumsy verb and a sen­tence in which a lit­tle girl’s eyes ‘‘ drifted up to the ceil­ing where they floated about, bob­bing like bal­loons’’, Or­chard rises to the oc­ca­sion when Noel’s ‘‘ crash­ing hands’’ come down.

At risk, ev­ery time, ev­ery recital, is the soloist’s rep­u­ta­tion. There are ‘‘ tens of thou­sands of notes to be played to ab­so­lute per­fec­tion’’ and ev­ery au­di­ence ‘‘ im­plor­ing, Lift us to the gods’’. There is vi­o­lent pas­sion (‘‘ his hands opened up like vipers about to swal­low the pi­ano whole’’) and sheer volup­tuous­ness (‘‘ ever so softly his fin­gers would sink into the ivory as if he were dip­ping them into a bowl of cream’’).

When­ever Noel is near a key­board the action never stops. But then, sud­denly, he does, and, trag­i­cally, in the great tra­di­tion.

Flawed and un­even, bright and bold, The Vir­tu­oso re­minds us all that what­ever we may pay for our tick­ets, the cost to the artist is im­mea­sur­able.

Kathy Hunt is a critic based in ru­ral Vic­to­ria grow­ing com­plex­ity, main­tain­ing a rol­lick­ing pace while al­ter­nat­ing tone and in­ten­sity to keep read­ers turn­ing pages. But when Dan Brown’s Al­bi­gen­sian Cathars ap­pear, it’s a sign that Davies is start­ing to lose con­trol. The sure­ness of the writ­ing in the early scenes with Bene­dict’s fa­ther gives way, by the end of the novel, to a few stretches of awk­ward, mawk­ish di­a­logue and some fre­netic plot twists that sug­gest Davies wanted to tie up loose ends and get on with an­other project.

At its best, as with Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori tril­ogy, this kind of writ­ing skil­fully mixes the his­to­ries of ex­otic lands and dis­tant times with uni­ver­sal themes and ad­ven­tur­ous plot­ting. When it suc­ceeds — as The Uni­corn Road does, mostly — it gives fan­tasy a good name. Jose Borgh­ino lec­tures in lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.

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