Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman, 1 June 2023
It's Shakespeare, in the first act of Hamlet, who forever reminds us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy; and Andrew Crumey's latest novel takes the form of a vivid 500 page variation on that theme, inspired by the power, depth and beauty of the music of Beethoven.
For all our attempts at analysis or interpretation, after all, the precise nature of that power remains mysterious to us; and the many voices that we hear in Crumey's novel - from the brisk introductory chapter in the voice of Beethoven's much-despised sister-in-law Therese, to the central story of a present-day academic called Robert Coyle, who is pondering a book on Beethoven and philosophy - seem to circle around the life and work of the great man with varying degrees of predatory intent, and in an ever more complex dance of truth and contradiction, speculation and uncertainty.
The action centres, loosely, on a country house in the Scottish Borders that was once the 19th century home of an eccentric former military man, then a psychiatric hospital with mystical interests run by an enigmatic Dr Hyle, then a centre of military operations and research during and after the Second World War, and now an institute or retreat where experts from a wide range of disciplines - art and science, academia and industry - are invited to meet and share their wisdom.
From the 1820s to the 1920s and the 2020s, the house - and particularly its windowless upstairs library - seem linked to Beethoven's life and music through a strange web of connections, involving mystical traditions from that range from freemasonry and the Maltese Knights of St John, to the booming interest in various forms of mystical knowledge and conspiracy in Beethoven's Vienna, and the early 20th century supernatural experiments of Aleister Crowley and George Gurdjieff. There are speculations about past life regression, forms of telepathy linked to musical frequencies, and the impact of the theory of relativity, and later of quantum physics, on our linear understanding of time; and there are sudden deaths, which often seem to strike people on the point of discovering, or perhaps revealing, the truth behind some of these speculations.
The overall effect is like a brilliantly well-informed 200-year history of philosophy, science, music and mysticism, touched with an edge of Da Vinci Code hocus pocus, in the sense of an alternative "sub rosa" world history never quite revealed. To say so, though, is to miss the sheer fun and narrative energy of Crumey's writing, the skill and insight with which he conjures up each of his narrators from the repellent to the poignant, and the huge ingenuity with which he interweaves their stories, including that of Adam Crouch, a failed writer and memorably seedy 21st century buffoon, who enters the story by accident, and becomes its final boozed-up witness to timeless tragedy.
There's something profoundly post-modern about the dense cultural references, and the complex patchwork of fact and fiction, that make up Crumey's narrative; and in that sense it continues in a vein he has been mining for the last 25 years and more. The intensity with which the story questions the very nature of time, though - and follows its central voice, Robert Coyle, through the strange reality-shifting nightmare of the pandemic - seems entirely of this moment; as if Crumey were leading us into a terminal vortex of history and thought, music and culture, parallel universes and competing realities, where all things sparkle and implode with extraordinary vividness, on the edge of oblivion.
Beethoven is dead ... deaf! No, definitely dead. His brother's wife, Therese, has mixed feelings, remembering the composer mainly as a scrounging vagabond and a terrible houseguest who once scribbled on her expensive mural. He in turn scorned her as a "fallen woman" and a gold-digger. Nevertheless, she was good and dutiful enough to sit at his bedside as he lay dying and heard his last, whispered words: "Everything is allowed."
What did he mean? Was Beethoven commissioned by Freemasons to write a secret, lost opera entitled The Assassins, or Everything is Allowed, which, if found, would be worth an incalculable sum? That question binds together the separate narratives of this ambitious, fascinating, engaging novel - along with the eerie strains of the glass harmonica and the pungent aroma of a mesmeric potion.
Andrew Crumey, former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, has a PhD in Theoretical Physics and a reputation for writing post-modern "philosophical fantasies" outside the mainstream tradition. For that reason, he's the kind of novelist you expect will be heavy going, but are always pleasantly surprised by.
Beethoven's Assassins may be a gloriously multi-faceted puzzle-box of a novel, but even those anticipating a dense, abstruse intellectual exercise of interest only to literary theorists will find themselves drawn in by its well-drawn characters and emotional weight.
Beethoven is almost entirely absent from his own story, the main strand being a first-person narrative by academic Robert Coyle, who is working on an essay on Beethoven and philosophy during the Covid lockdown, a time when regulations are preventing him from visiting his parents just when he's most concerned about their well-being.
The location around which most of the book's Beethoven-related enigmas revolve is a stately home called Axtoun House, now rechristened the Hyle Centre and bringing together people who have distinguished themselves in their various disciplines. Long before then, back in 1823, it is visited by a young woman called Marion who has been employed as a governess for a boy with learning difficulties and learns that its owner, the Colonel, is part of a secret society whose elaborate conspiracy theories embrace the Knights of Malta, the Russian Tsar and literal mind control.
A century later, the writer J.W.N. Sullivan arrives at Axtoun House. Author of one of the earliest books on relativity, he plans to follow it up with a study of Beethoven, seeing the philosophical implications of Einstein's work as a way of bridging the gap between the arts and the sciences. He has been invited by the present incumbent to assess a psychic phenomenon that might have far-reaching implications.
In the present day, washed-up comedy writer Alan Crouch is invited to a conference at the Hyle Centre as a last-minute replacement for a guest who died on the premises. He's an incongruous figure among the intellectual heavyweights and just wants to get drunk and make a start on his novel. Fate, though, has other plans for him, in the shape of a secret Axtoun House has been sitting on for 200 years.
Beethoven's Assassins is that refreshing thing, a novel of ideas with all the intrigue and momentum (and occasional red herring) of an absorbing mystery, underscored by a dark, ironic sense of humour. Coyle's shifting relationship with his dementia-afflicted father, Crouch's feelings of inadequacy, Marion's compassion for the boy in her care and Therese's willingness to forgive her brother-in-law Beethoven on his deathbed all anchor the story in a relatable humanity, even as the characters are drawn inexorably into a weird hinterland of esoteric lore, paranormal phenomena and ancient conspiracies.
He is one of Jonathan Coe's "three or four favourite modern writers". Hilary Mantel praised the "good-humoured, jaunty and sometimes enjoyably silly" nature of his work. So why isn't Scottish novelist Andrew Crumey better known? Perhaps because (as Mantel also said) his books are "an intellectual treat", and give our brains an unaccustomed workout.
Crumey's novels link stories in a complex matrix of equivalence, incorporating elements of the European enlightenment, parallel universes and daft jokes. Start with his shorter books Mobius Dick (2004) or Mr Mee (2000), or perhaps Sputnik Caledonia (2008), his most straightforward - a relative term, in that it features only one pair of alternative worlds.
The author's new novel, Beethoven's Assassins, takes its title from the (fictional) idea that at his death Beethoven was working on an opera called The Assassins, or Everything Is Allowed. We learn this from the earthy narrative that opens the book, from his sister-in-law Therese, who's unimpressed by "that stupid deaf lunatic" Ludwig. Forget the "tunes and portraits", she says. "I know what the real one smelled like."
But most of the book is set around the fictional Axtoun House in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the base for various pseudoscientific organisations, and structured - Cloud Atlas-like - as a series of chapters from the viewpoints of different visitors to the house in different eras. In 1823, a young governess, Marion, moves there to look after an orphaned boy; she hears that her predecessor died mysteriously, and learns about the Islamic Assassins sect, who "followed the wicked dictum: nothing is true and everything is allowed".
The story then whisks us to 1923, when Beethoven scholar JWN Sullivan is staying at Axtoun; Sullivan knows everyone, from the literati - DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley - to charlatans like George Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley. While he's there, a resident begins channelling the voice of Therese van Beethoven. Then we find ourselves in the present day, as the grumpy, washed-up scriptwriter Adam Crouch (last success: Saveloy, a "nineties sitcom set in a chip shop") is at a conference, where he finds under his bed a USB stick containing a folder titled Assassins...
Sitting alongside these worlds is a narrative by Robert Coyle, a writer who fills his empty time during Covid lockdowns with research about Beethoven, Sullivan and others, having been invited to the same conference as Crouch. And it's in Coyle's sections that the book targets not just the brain but the heart, with a beautiful, vigorous account of his mother's death and father's decline into dementia, and the "constant flow of Dadmin" that follows.
Yet all of this barely touches on the motifs in Beethoven's Assassins - things that keep disappearing, people who keep disappearing - which tease us into connecting the parts even as we're distracted by the sparky dialogue and comic brio. (Corresponding character names and descriptions, for example, suggest reincarnation across the centuries.) It's a book about how "utopian idealism" can be born "from indignation more than love of humanity", and about the human appetite for magical thinking, which arises in opposition to - even as a consequence of - our intellectual and scientific development.
But Crumey seems less interested in bringing things to a clear conclusion here than he was in earlier novels, and when another new narrator appeared on page 456, I felt like Philip Larkin: "Too much confectionery, too rich". Still, over-reach is better than the reverse, and when Sullivan describes "a book on 'everything' masquerading as a novel", you can see where Crumey found his model. Beethoven's Assassins is impeccably ambitious, reliably entertaining and a little over the top. It's what happens when everything is allowed.
No, Andrew Crumey is not proposing that Beethoven was bumped off by a squad of hitmen. Instead his book turns on spiritualist seances and the theory of relativity, an odd situation involving an early 19th century Scottish governess and a mysterious death in a mysterious library, a present-day writer's strained relationship with ageing parents, desire and suspicion at a centre for visiting artists, the reversal of time, the nature of art and the rage for occultism in England a century ago. There are appearances by Katherine Mansfield and others. And yes, there are assassins in there too: hashish users and descendants of everyone's favourite medieval mystery men, the Knights Templar. There is also a good deal about Beethoven and his music, and the waft throughout of a fictional lost opera.
The linchpin of all this, and perhaps the starting point for the author's thorough and enthusiastic research, is J W N Sullivan, who, largely self-educated, wrote not only a 1927 study of Beethoven that remains useful but also several books explaining the new physics of Einstein, Planck and others, as well as several novels. With such a range of interests, the Sullivan of Beethoven's Assassins is something of a stand-in for Andrew Crumey. Crumey gives each of his chapters its own period and central character, and flips from one to another with the dexterity and humour of a champion juggler. Matters of art, science and philosophy are deftly discussed and sometimes linked to each other within the narrative. 'Seeing connections everywhere is a hallmark of madness as well as German Romanticism' is just one of Crumey's witty remarks, with a hint of self-mockery to it. But Crumey is not mad or a German Romantic; he is just full of pizzazz and fun.
In an uncanny way, Andrew Crumey's Beethoven's Assassins reminded me of Vanity Fair. It has no epigraphs, but both these quotes nudged into my mind: 'Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out'; and 'The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face'.
I have admired Crumey's work for decades. When I first returned to Scotland, I found it astonishing that there was a writer being talked about as 'our' Calvino or Borges when the enthusiasm generally was for Trainspotting. His latest novel is more like Umberto Eco in some regards, but is still quintessentially Crumey. I hope its valedictory tone is a fiction within a fiction.
Structured around interlocking stories across time, it opens with Therese, Beethoven's sister-in-law, who has little good to say about her dishevelled, dying relative but may know about a lost opera, The Assassins, or Everything Is Allowed. It then switches to a contemporary discussion about Beethoven, supposedly written by Robert Coyle, the dimension-shifting protagonist of Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia, who in this iteration is dealing with grief.
The next voice is Adam Crouch, a washed-up screenwriter with no commissions, who somehow manages to bag a place on an interdisciplinary retreat. The connections begin to build. He is only at this once aristocratic pile because Coyle died there during his residency. Crouch is unlucky Jim, and these sections are acerbically funny. But there is also the forgotten J.W.N. Sullivan, a popular science writer and acquaintance of Katherine Mansfield, who stayed at the same estate, where séances involving armonicas seem to bring back the 'imprint' of Therese van Beethoven.
The book is seeded with recurring images which serve its theme. Is the perfect conspiracy so well-constructed it isn't even recognised? Are tales of the Assassins, Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, Knights Templar, Aleister Crowley, spiritualists and so forth merely sleights of hand and distractions from the true secret clockwork of the world?
It's great cerebral fun, with its quantum physics, telepathy, time travel and fraying of fact and fiction. But all this is its own misdirection. Coyle's mother has died suddenly, and his father has dementia. The writing here about the soul-grinding nature of the bureaucracy surrounding illness and death is chillingly good. The questions the novel poses about science and aesthetics (is Einstein as good as Beethoven?) pale in comparison to the rawness of the loss it depicts with the same scrutiny as an equation or a late quartet.
In 2003, Crumey was selected as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, but honourably pointed out he was actually 41. It is a pity that his work is not more widely recognised as the achievement it is.
The opening to this book reminded me of Monty Python's "Beethoven's Mynah Bird" sketch. Beethoven's sister-in-law complains of how difficult he was to live with. To ensure that we know she is untroubled by higher intellectual capacity, her voice has traces of a northern accent. Thus begins a long and meandering tale, featuring a multitude of characters and a definitely non-linear time-line.
Like Beethoven's music, the first impression is of an assault on the senses. Chapters leap from 1820s Austria to pandemic-bound North-east England, with an interlude in a 1920s new age commune near Paris, and a slice of life from a Jane Eyre-like 1820s governess. Other characters include a 1920s journalist, and, in the present day, a philosopher and a sitcom script writer. The themes seem at first chaotic. Hoarding, the pandemic, ageing, quantum theory, mesmerism and mystic sects all feature in what ultimately proves to be a meditation on the meanings of both art and time.
Individually, chapters are well-written, immersive in their setting. Frequent references to Beethoven's works, and works by his biographers and critics, demonstrate the author's homework. Eventually, the Beethoven references link the characters. And when two of them meet, they are not shy of discussing the man still regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Western World.
Their stories gradually coalesce around the secrets of a remote country house, somewhere in the borders between England and Scotland – borders being another of the themes of this book. What are they? Do they exist outside the minds of those who believe in them? What is existence, anyway? This is a book to appeal to readers who enjoy time-travel, mystery, illusion – and no clear-cut answers.
The likes of Hilary Mantel and Jonathan Coe ("One of my three or four favourite modern writers") have sung the praises of Andrew Crumey. The author - who teaches creative writing at Northumbria University - is known for his playful and engaging work, and his latest, 'Beethoven's Assassins', is a huge knickerbocker glory of a novel that weaves together history, art, science, music, and more. Philosophical, but funny with it, it concerns Beethoven, with the composer viewed through the eyes of multiple characters across time (everyone is linked by the strange events happening at a rambling country house). Also in the mix are a lost opera, a dark conspiracy, Crusader legends, mesmerism, freemasonry, psychoanalysis, and a present-day scholar whose pandemic disasters propel him into the past...
Consider the opening eight chords of Beethoven's fifth; probably you hear the ominous beginning of that darkling flight of music. Yet, to someone listening for the first time, those same chords might be the jubilant sound of E-flat major: we only perceive it as minor because of what follows. Time too is like an unfolding score, according to Bergson. This is just one of the mind-altering observations Crumey presents in Beethoven's Assassins, a deliciously intellectual, ambitious book that explores time, metaphysics, narrative and pretty much everything, all at once.
Therese, Beethoven's sister-in-law, opens the book, with a droll account of the composer's final days; here are the first intimations of an opera the maestro may have been working on, from which the book gets its title. The motif of the missing opera (and the story it tells) carries through the book, as the narrative slip-slides through history to the present day.
The narrative is anchored by Robert Coyle, tasked with writing about Beethoven and philosophy. Having lost his mother in a terrible accident, he must look after his elderly father, whose dementia means finding appropriate care, and disembowelling the family home. During this upheaval, he is invited to a residency at Axtoun House, a locus which unites several of the narrators through different time periods. These include Adam Crouch, an alcoholic writer who isn't writing, Schindler, Beethoven's biographer, and Sullivan, an early 20th-century scholar, all of whom are connected in the text by interwoven details and refrains.
Hypnotism, deception, murder, and madness are the counterpoints to the main melody, while the unsettling and wonderfully gothic minor movement in the book comes through governess Marion; in a warped version of Jane Eyre, she arrives to look after a lonely, odd child at another iteration of Axtoun house in 1823.
From the voice of Caruso heard through the jittering of a gramophone, to the rippling of a dead person's thoughts through the centuries, the repeating preoccupation of the book is time: if it flows backwards as well as forwards, or if it is rather three-dimensional - all embodied by the non-linear, self-referencing narrative structure, accomplished with humour and virtuosic imagination. "Every moment in music is shaped by antecedents and sequels. Can a similar situation arise in physics?"
I was reading the TLS just before reading this and it had a review of a biography of Schubert. It seemed to me that biographies of well-known classical composers are fairly common but so are novels featuiring composers . Crumey himself gives us a list on his website. I have not only not read any of them I have not even heard of them. I note that I have quite a few books on this website where Beethoven is mentioned but nothing that is even vaguely biographical. I mention this in passing but would point out that the book under review is not especially biographical,though we do get a fair amount of excerpts from Beethoven’s life, some of which may be true, some of which may have been accurately reported from sources which may themselves may not have been true and some of which may be entirely fictitious.
As we might expect from Crumey, remembering what Jonathan Coe said of him : a writer more interested in inheriting the mantle of Perec and Kundera than Amis and Drabble, this not straightforward biography, nor is it a fictional story, a story about connections with the real life of the narrator(s), speculation and rumination about various topics, but all of these and much more.
The first section recounts Beethoven’s death as seen from the perspective of Therese, his sister-in-law, née Obermayer, married to his brother Johann. This is not the only section that might be called biographical; however Crumey imagines what Frau Beethoven might have said and thought and what we know of the biographical facts is distorted and indeed changed (such as who was present when he died and his last words. (Allegedly he said Pity, pity—too late! in reference to some bottles of wine sent by his publisher but Crumey’s possibly partially fictionalised Frau Beethoven improves on that. Beethoven and his sister-in-law did not get on and, indeed, Beethoven tried to stop the marriage so a lot of her thoughts are critical of her brother-in-law. Not only is it distinctly possible that Frau Beethove’s musings are imaginary, invented by Crumey, but, as we learn later, it is possible that Frau Beethoven, real or imaginary, did not say any of this. Yes, as with a lot oi this book, things are not what they seem. In any case we will continue to see (Crumey’s verson) of Frau Beethoven further on in the book as, of course, things happen after he dies.
The next section sees us introduced to a Scottish philosopher, Robert Coyle, seemingly based, at least in part, on Crumey himself. Coyle is to write about Beethoven’s philosophy for a collection of articles celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven and, foolishly, as it turns out, planned for publication during the covid pandemic. What philosophy? you may well ask, as does our Scottish philosopher. However he does introduce to us to one of those fascinating people who lurk around in British literature (other literatures, of course have them), of whom most of us have not heard or know little about. He is John William Navin Sullivan. He was one of the first British people to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, was in love with Katherine Mansfield and wrote a book on Beethoven. Our philosopher tells us about Sullivan and about the theory of knowledge (Art must rank with science and philosophy as a way of communicating knowledge about reality). Sullivan will play a major role in this book, by no means all Beethoven-related.
While Coyle does get into Beethoven and Sullivan, he also has another issue – ageing parents, including a father who is deaf and has dementia and there is a certain comparison made between the ageing father and the ageing Beethoven. Indeed, he makes a list of parallels between his own life and Beethoven’s: A troubled childhood, short on parental affection, leading to withdrawal and difficulty forming friendships. Parallels of this sort occur throughout the book. He will return to this theme more than once.
Both Coyle and Sullivan spend time at the Hyle Centre near Berwick-upon-Tweed. When Sullivan went there, it was a sort of treatment centre for the mentally unstable and we meet one patient and, of course, find her connection to Beethoven. We also learn more about Sullivan’s circle and find he knows or has connection with people like Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, Peter Warlock and other historical contemporaries, some I had heard of and some I had not. We will spend time in this house on three occasions, each approximately one hundred years apart and, of course, with each one there is a Beethoven connection.
In the modern period, when Coyle goes there, it seems to be a place for “artists, scientists and intellectuals as well as social activists, policy makers, innovators. We mainly follow Adam Crouch who has had a hit sit-com but whose writing career seems to be on the wane and, now is considering writing a novel on which he makes little progress,. Of course, there are more strange goings-on.
You may be saying that the book is called Beethoven’s Assassins. Who are these assassins? Well it seems that Beethoven wrote an opera called The Assassins. No, you will respond, he only wrote one opera called Fidelio née Leonore. Yes and no. He only completed one opera which was indeed called Fidelio but he apparently (as Crumey is happy to tell us) started/considered/proposed several other operas. And then there is The Assassins.
A key book (there are others in this book) is Joseph von Hammer‘s Die Geschichte der Assassinen aus morgenländischen Quellen. It has been translated into English (as The History of the Assassins) and the translation is readily available online from the usual sources for a paltry sum. However, more importantly, it seems it influenced Beethoven in writing his quite probably non-existent opera. Loyal Assassins gave their lives in expectation of Paradise while their leader, the Old Man of the Mountain, followed the wicked dictum: nothing is true and everything is allowed, the latter phrase being key to this book. The assassins do pop up in strange places in this book and are one of the many interesting but not always fully explained themes.
I have mentioned some of the themes and scenarios of this book but to cover them all would take up far more space than I normally allow myself so let me just cover a few points.
Key ideas in this book
Nothing is as it seems
Lots of things/themes/characters are linked in strange ways. Interconnectedness, or to, use a term that is used in modern physics (Crumey studied physics) complementarity is important .
The real life of ordinary people may find a reflection in the life of the more famous. Robert Coyle makes this point more than once.
As in physics, many seemingly different things are actually two sides of the same coin. Science and art are just one example: Science organises fact, art organises experience. Science explains phenomena, art expresses values. We get other examples, including from modern physics. Taking it further. Robert Coyle comments : Quantum physics asks us to imagine forms of matter existing simultaneously in contradictory states. One need only look at human affairs to see such things in effect. Also one can also see it in this book. One self-deprecating comment may be apposite: I should have become a criminal had I not chosen art. The two vocations are, after all, essentially equivalent, comments one character.
As we know from modern physics, time is a dimension.
The Theory of Everything.
Everything is allowed.
Observations on the characters
Quite a few of the characters are divorced.
Quite a few of the characters drink too much.
Quite a few of the characters die. This may or may not be connected with the two preceding comments.
As far as I can recall, none of the major characters have minor children
Quite a few of the characters really existed, though I suspect that they would not all concur with what Crumey writes about them.
Quite a few are novelists or would-be novelists.
There are characters that appear in his previous books putting in an appearance here.
Observations on the plot
Plot? There are loads of plots. They generally seem to connect with others but the connection may not always be obvious, though, of course, somewhere, somehow, Beethoven will be involved.
There is a lot about what we might call crank science/pseudo-science/alternative philosophy/New Age, depending on your point of view. They include reincarnation, past life regression, channelling the dead, ghosts/spiritualism , parapsychology and much more.
There are quite a few conspiracy theories. We all love a good conspiracy theory and clearly Crumey does. He even has one of my favourites: did Viscount Castlereagh kill himself or was he murdered? (Interestingly Crumey refers to him (quite correctly) as the Marquess of Londonderry. However, as Byron and Shelley will both confirm, he is more usually known as Viscount Castlereagh.)
Advice to follow based on this book
If you receive an unsolicited and unexpected invitation to go to a remote country house, be very careful.
In particular, if it has a small secret library, do not go there.
If this review is somewhat chaotic, it us because the book under review is chaotic. This is meant as a compliment, not a criticism. Yes, it is about Beethoven but even if he pops up everywhere, somehow or other, this book, as I hope I have shown, is about a lot more. Crumey mixes in a whole host of ideas, a slew of fascinating stories with plots which are sometimes resolved but often not, a range of historical characters, many of whom most of us will have known little about and a lot more about Beethoven, some of which might be true and some might not. In short this novel is aiming to be an everything novel, a novel which aims to cover a whole range of seemingly unrelated or only tangentially related topics while telling its story. From my side, it is a first-class novel and essential reading for anyone interested in the modern novel.
Andrew Crumey has been writing exacting, inventive novels quite unlike those of his contemporaries for almost thirty years now, the latest of which, Beethoven’s Assassins, shows no diminution of his ambition or skill. Its five hundred pages revolve around a lost Beethoven opera, commissioned by a mysterious masonic lodge, called ‘The Assassins, or Everything is Allowed’. (“Nothing is true and everything is allowed” lies at the heart of the Assassins’ doctrine, but also, one might suggest, at the heart of this novel). Crumey’s story (or, more accurately, stories) are told over two hundred years and using eight different narrators, many of them real-life characters, though the setting is limited with much of the action taking place in one particular house which in 1823 is owned by a Colonel Wilson, connected, at least by his own telling, to the masonic lodge which commissioned the opera. It is later a psychiatric hospital visited by one of the narrator’s, J W N Sullivan, and later still an artists’ retreat.
The novel begins in comic fashion in the voice of Therese, Beethoven’s sister-in-law (“By heck he couldn’t half go on”). Therese is not an admirer of the composer, and is particularly outraged when he writes on a mural which she regards as the pinnacle of art (immediately introducing one of the novel’s key themes – what is art?). She is, however, the only person present when Beethoven dies, reporting his final words as, “Everything is allowed.” The narrative then changes to the present day and the voice of Robert Coyle, a professor who has been commissioned to write an article ‘Beethoven and Philosophy’ only for the commission to be withdrawn as a result of Covid. (Coyle has appeared before in Sputnik Caledonia and is the character who feels most drawn from Crumey’s own life). Coyle’s story takes up a generous proportion of the narrative and develops into something of a lockdown novel, charting Coyle’s difficult relationship with his father throughout the pandemic. Even when considering Beethoven his father is present:
“Another coincidental parallel. Beethoven, like my father, was paranoid, convinced that people were out to trick him, betray his trust, steal his money.”
Though Coyle finds his father a frustrating figure, this section of the novel is often quite moving and certainly depicts the difficulties of lockdown, with elderly parents living at a distance, vividly. In the novel’s second part we are introduced to Adam Crouch, a writer (recently lacking in success) who has been invited to the Hyle Centre at Axtoun House:
“A multidisciplinary centre bringing together innovative thinkers from diverse backgrounds.” Adam’s link to what has come before is soon made apparent when he is referred to as “the replacement for Robert Coyle” who, we learn, has recently died at the centre. (Don’t panic – more of Coyle’s narrative remains). Crumey has fun describing the various antics of the arts centre from the point of view of both Adam and Coyle, the eccentric cast of invitees and the various issues which arise from being an invited artist. He does not, however, forget the connecting plotlines, as Coyle uses the time to further investigate Beethoven biographer Sullivan who has also stayed at Axtoun House (when it was a psychiatric hospital) and Adam finds a mysterious flash drive in his chalet with an encrypted file entitled ‘Assassins’. Sullivan’s story is also told from his own point of view – he has been invited to Axtoun House by Dr Hyle to with regard to a patient, Martha, who can channel the spirit of Therese. Sullivan is, of course, sceptical:
“Therese van Beethoven was a German-speaking Austrian, not someone from wherever Martha’s vulgar colloquialisms originated.”
(This may explain the “By heck” of the opening – not Therese’s voice, but Martha transcribed). Part four of the novel is a separate section entitled 1823 which also takes place at Axtoun House, at this time in the possession of Colonel Wilson. Wilson hires a young woman, Marion, as governess for his ward, Thomas, but Thomas is a strange boy who does not seem amenable to teaching – though Marion also finds he is closely guarded by the housekeeper, Mrs Struther. In fact, as you may have guessed, Crumey uses many of the trappings of the Gothic novel in this section. Wilson also asks Marion to scribe letters for him, some of which are dictated in a special room:
“This is a place of complete secrecy.”
The letters mark him out to belonging to the masonic lodge which commissioned the missing Beethoven opera, though later his friend Baron Adeling suggests that his mind was disturbed.
Beethoven’s Assassins, then, is a novel collecting some outstanding writing, and demonstrating Crumey’s versatility over a number of genres. At no point does it lag and from each narrative the reader wants more not less. It does not unfold into a perfectly solved mystery but remains as elusive the genius of art itself. Some common themes accrue beyond the central enigma of the missing opera – not only art, but artistic failure (in Beethoven’s later life, but also seen with Adam and perhaps also Katherine Mansfield who makes an appearance); ageing (Beethoven again and Coyle’s father) and, we should not forget, the paranoia and conspiracy theories that were also part of the pandemic. It is a novel quite unlike any other you will read this year, channelling the spirit of Umberto Eco in the lightness of its learning and the cleverness of its craft, and deserves to be widely read.
The 'Assassins' of the title of Andrew Crumey's novel is a bit of a tease -- both regarding the possibility of real-life killers of the great composer (though only a few pages into the story sister-in-law Therese admits that: "As some would have it, I'm the one who killed him") to the opera, The Assassins, or Everything is Allowed, which Beethoven hoped to write but never did (or did he ...?). The opera and its possible existence do figure prominently in the story, but Beethoven's Assassins ranges far beyond it, over multiple narrators and perspectives, as well some two centuries in time. (As to the 'killing' of Beethoven himself, varieties of that are also addressed -- from the physical to the reputational (the latter of course not very successful), but it's also more patter in the background.)
Fairly long chapters focus on a variety of characters from Beethoven's time to our own, with some accounts in the first person and others in the third -- with one narrator, philosopher Robert Coyle, philosophically changing his approach late in the novel ("Why didn't he think of it before ? So much easier since Robert decided to use the third person"). The novel is polyphonic; symphonic in scope; and with a good bit of the operatic to its stories. Beethoven is one connecting thread; another is Axtoun House, housing the Hyle Centre in the present-day -- "a place for 'artists, scientists and intellectuals' as well as 'social activists, policy makers, innovators'" -- but first visited in 1823, when it is a Colonel Wilson's home and Marion arrives, for her first professional posting, as a teacher for the young boy of the house, Thomas (despite the fact that nothing is expected from the poor child, who is very peculiarly (mis)treated). And among the novel's other locales is Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.
Philosopher Robert is one of the main figures. With the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth to be celebrated in 2020, Robert is invited to contribute to an anthology, asked to write on the subject of Beethoven and philosophy. Like many of the other projects mentioned in the novel, the anthology doesn't come into being, but before it is cancelled, Robert does devote considerable time to musing about what he could write connecting Beethoven and philosophy -- leading him, among other things, to the work of Beethoven-biographer (among much else) J.W.N.Sullivan -- who had been at Axtoun House in 1923, confronted with and exploring a possible psychic connection to Beethoven. Much of Robert's accounts are also devoted to his navigating the coronavirus-lockdown times, when he gives his lectures via internet and worries about his parents, as their physical and mental conditions break down faster than he was prepared for and he has to deal with these difficult personal issues.
There's also writer Adam Crouch, invited on short notice to do a writing residency at the Hyde Centre -- a last-minute replacement for Robert Coyle who, we soon learn, had died on site. (In a novel full of echoes and and the like across the centuries, he's not the first replacement: centuries earlier, Marion's predecessor as teacher to Thomas had also died when she was there.) Adam sees the invitation as a chance to: "finally get down to a novel. Though he wondered which he'd choose, out of all the ones he'd planned over the years".
There are all kinds of overlap of connections, as, for example, Therese's account comes not directly from her but rather is channeled by Martha, a patient at Axtoun House in the 1920s, while Sullivan's work is read by the contemporary characters. What Robert notes at one point applies to the novel itself as well:
I'd been losing myself in a chain of literary connections whose diagram might resemble the tangle of charging cables on Dad's coffee table.
Beside her role as teacher, Marion is called to take dictation from Colonel Wilson -- revealing his obsession with a far-reaching conspiracy, a sinister alliance and 'the Fold' that was created to resist it. If others have their doubts about the Colonel's wild ideas, nevertheless, as Marion is told: "Truth in this house is whatever the master decides".
With a hidden library, invisible ink, and a USB stick that goes missing, as well as psychic connections and secret societies and Beethoven's opera there are many thriller-type elements here, but Beethoven's Assassins is also steeped in the history and theory -- musical, literary, and biographical (especially regarding Beethoven, of course, but also, for example featuring Katherine Mansfield). Death -- and the aftereffects on the living -- figure prominently, too, from Beethoven's to Robert's parents' (and, of course, his own).
The broad sweep and multiple storylines make for a very far-reaching novel, engaging along its different paths and with sufficient crossover connections to make for an intriguing whole as well. Beethoven's Assassins remains a bit diffuse however, not committed enough to a sufficiently strong main and guiding thread or theme. The alternate title to Beethoven's opera is Everything is Allowed and Crumey has no qualms about taking a similar approach in his novel, for better and worse; it makes for an enjoyable work, all along its many ways, if ultimately not an entirely satisfying one.