Jessica Duchen's new novel 'Ghost Variations',
highly recommended by ALICE McVEIGH
Miss Jelly d'Arányi, scion of a famously musical Hungarian family, is forty-two, a violin soloist once singled out by both Ravel and Bartók, but considered, in late 1930s London at least, perhaps just past her prime.
She lives with her married sister and fellow solo violinist Adila Fachiri, while consorting with the famous (Prime Minister Clement Attlee) and the famously gifted (the Menuhins, Myra Hess, Sir Adrian Boult). Basically everybody who was anybody in London musical life between the wars weaves, dances or glitters through the pages of this intriguing book.
As the novel opens Jelly is still mourning the death on the Somme of her first love, and is soon dismally anticipating the death of her second, Tom.
Yet Jelly is, from beginning to end, a puzzle. She is so generous-hearted that she performs to people in hospitals and in cathedrals without payment, yet she puts off visiting the dying Tom until it's almost too late. She appears feverishly passionate but her interest in people seems curiously superficial compared to her passion for music. She secretly lives to rekindle her previous fame.
Jessica Duchen: 'Ghost Variations'. Unbound 2016. Click on the image for higher resolution
At this point, the spirit of the late great Robert Schumann then 'contacts' her, via her sister's Ouija board, urging her to track down and espouse his lost violin concerto. This suppressed — not truly 'lost' — concerto, Jelly strongly believes, will not only reignite her solo career but also give her life meaning ('a matter of ... salvaging something good, something worthwhile,' she explains, rather sadly) and she becomes obsessed with the notion of finding it and truly introducing it to the world.
There is no shortage of obstacles to be overcome: Schumann heirs are stubborn against its dissemination, believing Schumann to have been entirely mad by the time he wrote it; the (partly Jewish) Jelly is strenuously advised not to risk travelling to Nazi Germany in order to search for it; and she's not even the only violin soloist — the, still starrier, young Yehudi Menuhin himself being another — with a strong interest in finding it.
In terms of her position as an artist and a woman, Jelly entirely and instantly engages our sympathies: she is held to an impossible standard of ageism, her career is far inferior to what it would probably have been as a man, and Duchen perfectly recreates the nervy undercurrent of anti-Semitism that tugged at her, in every sense. Jelly's complexity is a gift to the novelist: robust and even manipulative in her ambition, yet simultaneously delicate and enervated to the point of neurosis — her mysterious arm fragility, the breakdown she endures etc. Her febrile charisma, though impacting on many men (here combined into one — completely original — male character) leaves her psychologically vulnerable to being imposed upon by the living as well as the dead — though Duchen astutely enables us to realise all this only very gradually.
This imagined male character, Ulli, an appealing, rather dazzled younger German, is hugely sympathetic and convincing, as are most of the 'real' characters, though I confess to wondering whether Duchen could have made more of Jelly's relationship with her sister Adila throughout the book. (Adila only truly emerges near the end.) It's hard to imagine that there weren't more obvious tensions and rivalries between two Hungarian sisters, both violin soloists, living together, than feature here. Indeed, I wondered if rivalry with Adila might not be the reason for Jelly's psychological fragility. But this is a minor cavil.
Another enormous strength of the book is both the level of research and inspiration employed in bringing to life its fabled characters — Myra Hess positively romps through her scenes, Sir Adrian Boult conveys dry conviction, Donald Tovey comforts, Goebbels terrifies.
The period itself is exquisitely evoked, from the Chinese silks to the teas spread out on the lawn, from the rather privileged expat London musical elite to the late 1930s forebodings of history yet to come: 'A symbol caught her eye, scrawled on the filthy wall under the railway bridge: the crooked flash logo of the British Union of Fascists. Beside it, in ill-formed white-painted letters, were the words JEWS OUT.'
As for the writing, anyone who has read Duchen previously can attest to the elegance of her style. Here's a sample, a description of Jelly herself:
Her image filled two rounds as he peered through his opera glasses: just as he remembered, all scarlet gown, dark hair and rather dusky skin, her eyes kindling the flame he recalled. And when she began to play she seemed more spirit than body. She moved not like a normal musician, but like a dancer, with her entire being. He imagined that when she spoke to him eventually, he might hear not her human voice but the Bergonzi's emanating from her delicate throat. So this was what had captivated all those composers. This solitary woman had sparked into existence a whole new repertoire of violin pieces. Something exceptional had to lie behind that.
This is a hugely atmospheric and thought-provoking book featuring fascinating characters, written by someone as fully in command of her research as of her imagination. It evokes a period pregnant with both promise and menace — and a musical world itself lost forever.
Copyright © 7 October 2016 Alice McVeigh,