Writing Beethoven's Assassins (October 31, 2023)

Every novelist gets asked, “How long did it take to write your book?” And for many – including me – it’s always a difficult question to answer. There isn’t some particular day when I sit down at my desk, open a calfbound notebook and inscribe “Chapter 1” in neat copperplate, then start making things up. Nor do I spend months working out an entire plot in my mind before eventually switching on the computer to turn it into words. If I knew beforehand what was going to happen in my novels there would be no point writing them. I write in order to find out.

Beethoven and I go back a long way, which again is not unusual – he’s hard to avoid, whether it’s as a cartoon caricature, film soundtrack or meme. For me the Fifth Symphony might have been ELO’s cover of “Roll Over Beethoven”. My introduction to the Sixth was an advert for Tweed by Lentheric (“Everything you wear says something about the kind of woman you are.”) My working-class parents had left school at 14 and were classical music lovers only to the extent that among their pop, rock and jazz LPs were a small, seemingly random assortment of earlier hits: Strauss waltzes, The 1812 Overture, Sheherazade and so on.

We never had a dog or cat, or even anything mammalian in the council house where I grew up. Instead it was a succession of caged budgies, and then an exotic novelty – a red-cheeked cockatiel, proudly crested and with a jaunty swagger as he waddled along his perch. My wisecracking father first called him Johann, after Strauss, but that didn’t last long. Instead he became Beethoven, decades before the dog in a film. Beethoven’s regular flights around the living room were exercise for his wings and entertainment for my sister and me – until one Saturday afternoon a door was left open and he flew out of the house. Dad rushed after him, spotted him on our roof and vainly beckoned him to come down. Across the road was a parade of shops and a bus stop, whose queue watched a man standing in his small front garden and calling up to the sky: “Beethoven! Beethoven!”

Is that where Beethoven’s Assassins started? Maybe, or else a few years later, at secondary school where my English teacher was Mr McLanachan, a flamboyant figure of the kind described in those days as a “confirmed bachelor”, close to retirement age and in my eyes very old, though with a youthful impishness and an awareness of intellectual culture that made him seem to me like a living encyclopaedia. My ambition was to be the next Einstein – science was my priority. Mr McLanachan advised on the artistic appreciation necessary for any future epoch-maker’s fully rounded education. The Late Quartets, I learned, were a pinnacle of human achievement, and clearly something I ought to listen to. I started with Opus 130 – a succession of attractive tunes, to my ears. It was only the Grosse Fuge that seemed as tortuously difficult as tensor geometry.

I slowly taught myself keyboard playing – though because my parents felt about pianos the same as they did about pets, I had to start with a wheezy little three-octave electric organ. It was only when I went to university that I was able to spend hours in the music department’s practice rooms, tackling Beethoven pieces that I loved but were far too difficult.

At school I’d told Mr McLanachan I planned to be a physicist until I was thirty, then a novelist. He said there were already too many novelists in the world and I should stick to physics. Yet things really did work out as I’d predicted, if not exactly in the way I’d planned. It turned out I was not after all the next Einstein, though a research trip to Poland inspired what became my first novel, Music, in a Foreign Language, published by Dedalus in 1994. The hero, Charles King, was older than me, more successful with women, a better physicist and better pianist, fond of Beethoven and Bach. The novel, set in an alternative communist Britain, was musically inspired in its structure, drawing a parallel between the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations and the endless variations of history. The book won a prize, was translated into several languages, and set me on my way as an author, though I worked as a schoolteacher while writing my next two.

By 2004 I was a newspaper literary editor with five novels in print and a sixth – Sputnik Caledonia – under way. Beethoven was still stalking me as an idea, the classical structures of symphony and sonata still underpinned my writing aesthetic, but I hadn’t yet found a way to address Beethoven directly in fiction. I read the major biographies and came upon Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an orientalist who offered Beethoven some texts to set and also wrote a history (or pseudo-history) of the Ismaili sect known to the west as the Assassins. Here was the germ of an idea – a lost opera project among the many that Beethoven is known to have started then abandoned. If Beethoven’s Assassins started anywhere, it was with the title. In that case it took me about twenty years to finish it.

Beethoven’s Assassins became my main project after Sputnik Caledonia was published in 2008. I won’t try to summarise the next 10 years – so much of which I’ve forgotten – except to say that the project branched and morphed, sprouting two quite separate books – The Secret Knowledge and The Great Chain of Unbeing. In 2018 I started again on Beethoven’s Assassins, and at last felt I could really get it done, though something was still missing.

What happened next was the pandemic, horrible for everyone in different ways. In my case it was the loss of both my parents, then clearing and selling the house where I grew up. I said farewell to many things. Material objects are easy to part with – other stuff is harder. Yet quite unexpectedly it gave me the focus I needed for the novel – the core that would hold everything together and make sense of it.

If art is to be worth anything at all, it has to be a process of discovery as well as communication. What is communicated is not the discovery itself, but an invitation for others to make discoveries of their own. Really, it doesn’t matter how long it took me to write Beethoven’s Assassins – what counts for me is that I finished it. Whatever its fate, now it’s out in the world and out of my hands, I’m proud of it.

A Message to Students (December 10, 2018)

This week at Northumbria University it was graduation day, or congregation as we like to call it. Our chancellor, paralympian champion Tanni Grey-Thompson, was handing out the symbolic scrolls, with an honorary one going to historian David Olusoga. Both gave eloquent and uplifting speeches, much like ones heard at similar ceremonies around the world. Easy in fact to be cynical about wise words from the great and good if you happen to be a young graduate fidgeting in fancy dress, eager to get out and throw your mortarboard in the air, less certain what will happen after that. For the parents in the audience, as I know from experience, the encomiums sound different; fitting tribute to one’s offspring and a welcome signal that they’re now on their way to, well, something less expensive. My presence on this occasion, though, was for a different reason; not as graduate or guest, but as creative writing PhD supervisor. Beside me in the front row was novelist John Schoneboom, whom I was to accompany onstage as he was awarded his degree. It was a truly happy and proud moment.

John initially came to Northumbria as an MA student in creative writing. He was working on a novel – surreal, off-beat, hilarious – from which it was immediately apparent that here was a very special voice and distinctive talent. I suggested that when he completed the novel he should send it to Dedalus; he did and in 2014 Fontoon was published. Like most works of literary fiction it did little to shake the dogmatic slumber of mass consciousness or – to put it another way – make either John or Dedalus rich. That’s not why we do what we do. John had stuck his first flag into the great pimply backside of posterity, and now he’d better try and come up with another.

This was what he worked on as a PhD student at Northumbria. His thesis was to consist of a 70,000-word novel and 30,000-word critical commentary, written under the mentorship of myself and co-supervisor Michael Cawood Green. Think of it like Andy Murray coached by Ivan Lendl; Italo Svevo and James Joyce; Steve Brookstein and Simon Cowell – heck, do I need to go on?

What I’m saying – a lot less well than Baroness Tanni or Dr David – is how genuinely satisfying it is to see the achievement of people to whom you’ve given a little help, occasionally a little push, hopefully some encouragement and maybe even, who knows, a morsel of inspiration. Having in the last quarter of a century made my own pinpricks on the bum of history – The Great Chain of Unbeing is the latest – I draw hope from those still in the antemeridian of their career. To John I say well done, and to all my students I say – keep writing!

Mr Mee and Mobius Dick (May 2, 2014)

It’s funny, the labels that get stuck to you. During the last ten years or so I’ve often found myself billed as a science-fiction novelist; I’ve no idea if I really count as one, but if that’s what people want to call me then fine. Apparently I’m also an historical novelist: in the 90s I was described as being a writer of tales in the spirit of Voltaire, and in May I’ll be at the Warwick Book Festival talking about historical fiction. That’s fine too. Back when I started out, a little over twenty years ago, the first label that came flying my way was “postmodernist”, and it made me feel uneasy at the time since I felt I’d learned more tricks from Laurence Sterne or Flann O’Brien than Derrida or Baudrillard. But really that’s fine too, no better or worse than the others. Oh, and there was also “detective novelist”, stuck on me by the person who decided to review my first novel in a crime fiction round-up. But it meant that the reviewer thought my novel sucked, so it wasn’t such a good idea.

For the moment let’s go with my 90s image, the historical novelist. I was especially interested in the 18th century, and read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. I was struck by many things, but one little detail in particular caught my imagination. Rousseau did the familiar writer’s thing of finding himself a little country hideaway where he could work in peace: it was a house in Montmorency, just outside Paris by modern standards, but a distant rural retreat in those days. In the Confessions he describes two men who moved in next door: he became convinced they were using false names and were spying on him. That, I thought to myself, is a story waiting to be told.

My novel Mr Mee tells the story (or let’s be blunt, makes it up), as well as telling the story of a present-day scholar intent on solving the mystery, and an elderly book-lover, the eponymous Mr Mee, who somehow gets mixed up in it all, and blunders into the world of internet pornography.

I’ll leave pornography for now (you’ll just have to read the book) and instead stick with Rousseau. Some novelists would want to start by going and visiting that house in Montmorency, or even contacting some scholars to find out what was known about those mysterious neighbours, but I did it the other way round: I waited until after I’d written the novel. Montmorency was pretty much how I imagined it (or close enough), and my idea that the neighbours were mysterious figures whose true identities have never been established, well, that pretty much checks out too.

This left me with a warm sense of having been somehow prophetic – a common enough feeling whenever something happens that we think we dreamed about or in some way anticipated. Like many novelists, I’ve found situations arising in my life some time after having written about them. Rationalists attribute it to randomness and statistics, mystics call it premonition. Like those labels that get stuck on me, I can live happily enough with either. And that idea of two simultaneous views, the rational and the mystical, came to be central to my next novel, Mobius Dick. I won’t try and summarise the plot (it’s a while since I wrote it and my memory’s not what it used to be), but one reviewer called it the only novel about quantum mechanics you could read on a beach, and I’ll go with that.

So Mr Mee is one of my “historical” novels and Mobius Dick is “science fiction”? Well, there’s a bit of science and maths in Mr Mee, and history in Mobius Dick, so I wouldn’t say they’re so different. And as regular readers of my novels will know, there are connections. I write all my novels by putting together bits and pieces that at first seem unrelated. I take the same view with the novels themselves: they’re parts of a whole. The plot of that whole, or mythology if you prefer, has been partly revealed over the course of the books: the philosopher Jean-Bernard Rosier, his bizarre theories and encyclopedia; the modern corporation apparently named after him, involved in sinister world-changing experiments. Other stuff.

My plan, such as it is, is to finish things off with a further one or possibly two novels (I can’t decide if one will be enough for all the bits I’m currently working on). It will then be series that can be read in any order: I want readers to be able to start anywhere, then if they like it they can try another, and keep going in random sequence until they’ve had enough, maybe even get to the end. Though of course, in a series without order there can be no end – unless perhaps it has happened already, for instance in the final chapter of Mobius Dick. Which is no reason why you shouldn’t start with that one anyway.

© Andrew Crumey

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