Worthy pursuit of tortured soloist
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.