Sometimes a perceived lack in my own education leaves me vulnerable to a perverse pride that presents as a willingness to wade into deep waters, painfully aware I can’t swim. When words are the currency of exchange, I will always defer to the author, at least for a time. Though I may be musically tone deaf, I am not sensibility-impaired and risk the scorn of critics: reading this novel became a test of endurance, a stubbornness mimicking the very pretensions of the narrator, music critic Leslie Shepherd.
In 1923 England, the life of upstart composer Charles Jessod ends in a double-murder/suicide that mirrors the actions of an Italian composer years before. Jessod’s seminal opera, “Little Musgrave,” conceived with a thrilled Leslie Shepherd years before (in 1910) and inspired by English folk songs, will never enjoy the public acknowledgement of genius, the manner of Jessod’s death obscuring even his work. It is Shepherd’s mission in this book to reveal the truth of Jessod’s creative struggles and their linked journey from obscurity to infamy.
Stace salts his early 20th-century verbiage with the arcane language of musicians, composers and their necessary collaborators: critics. Shepherd dissects Jessod’s life, savoring every nuance, every note, the isolation of their community bridged only by the encroaching Great War. War brings politics into play as England rejects the tide of German composers who have defined England’s tastes, the new nationalism searching for redefinition. Although Jessod is interred for four years during the war, he and Shepherd maintain correspondence, the composer indulging in evermore outrageous behavior: “With a Cheshire Cat grin, he toasted the thought, the art, the murders.”
The word “atonal” becomes Shepherd’s tongue-in-cheek description of all things Jessod: his idiosyncrasies, his work, the facile genius of a man who scorns convention and follows his own muse, even into the madness of his tragic and dramatic demise, the double murder and suicide that ensures his opera will never be celebrated for its merit. Throughout, Shepherd is like a fussy uncle, excusing, worrying, his own career enmeshed with that of the younger man. As Jessod’s natural biographer, Shepherd holds his secrets close, revealing the truth only after a long exposition that panders more to public consumption of myth than actual fact. The truth must be earned. If the reader has survived the rest, there is a reward: “No more music. No more noise.” By the time I have peeled the very last layer of this smelly onion, I am unsure if I have been manipulated or informed. In truth, I do not care.
My understanding of the world of music has not been enriched, the overworked phrases of the novel filling my mind like a cluttered Victorian parlor. The revelation I expected and worked toward was present throughout the story, if unarticulated. In the end, I don’t care about Charles Jessod or Leslie Shepherd or the society of geniuses that I assume includes the author. The “atonal” has done me in, a dissonance without melody or beat. Perhaps Stace has mastered the form, but that’s a personal conceit and one best left to those with more esoteric interests than this reader.