Andrew Crumey

Music, in a Foreign Language

The Sunday Times (London). March 20, 1994

The strikingly inventive structure of this novel allows the author to explore the similarities between fictions and history. At any point, there are infinite possibilities for the way the story, a life, or the history of the world might progress. The narrator wants to write a novel about a man and a woman who meet on a train, but is constantly distracted by his awe at the randomness of events and the number of discarded alternative stories. His ruminations are interspersed with a narrative about two friends, living in a totalitarian Britain, who are suspected of sedition. The whole work is enjoyably unpredictable, and poses profound questions about the issues of motivation, choice, and morality (Dedalus Pounds 7.99). IH

The Herald (Glasgow). April 23, 1994

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel are just two of the thinly-veiled literary allusions to be found in Scottish author Andrew Crumey's debut novel, an intriguing and illuminating post-modern meditation on betrayal, death, and paths not taken, both personal and historical. Employing fiction within a fiction, Crumey constructs a philosophical jigsaw puzzle, partly a portrayal of an alternative, Eastern European-style post-war Britain, partly the story of the exiled narrator's life and of the characters in the novel he's writing. A promising debut from a talented and unusual writer.

Jonathan Coe. The Guardian (London). August 16, 1994

ANDREW CRUMEY'S engaging debut begins with a naked man in a bathroom pondering the opening pages of the novel he is about to write. Sudddenly the scene changes and we find ourselves reading this novel - it starts with a spectacular car crash - but only a few pages later its central character is sitting on a train reading a book of short stories, and before we know it we, too, have begun reading one of these stories, which sends us off in a different direction altogether.

Many readers will recognise this as a none-too-distant variation on Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, and indeed, Crumey's book makes no effort to hide its affinities with this and a large number of other recent prominent European novels. The busy interweaving of texts within texts, the fractured chronology, the rigorous paring down of narrative incident (two strangers meeting on a train, a woman sitting in a cafe writing her diary) so that it becomes nothing more than a thin pretext for philosophical rumination - all of these suggest a writer more interested in inheriting the mantle of Perec and Kundera than Amis and Drabble.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel, then, is the way it cheerfully erases a large chunk of literary history: Crumey seems so untouched by the post-war British tradition that he simply writes as if it never existed. But cleverly, he has found a parallel for this in his plot, for Music, In A Foreign Language is set in an imagined contemporary Britain which has only recently shaken itself free from many decades of communist rule.

It's as if Crumey is so determined to write like a post-modernist east European that he even has to create the same political context for himself; although to his credit, it's done with a nicely ironic sense of the improbability of the whole scenario. Against this backdrop a multi-layered narrative unfolds, concerned partly with a novelist's struggle to give shape to his ideas, partly with a son's quest to discover the truth about his father, and partly with a story of love and betrayal between two Cambridge academics (Crumey himself is a physicist, which may be another reason why his novel feels so refreshingly unburdened by the usual English literary baggage).

But this is not the sort of novel anyone would want to read for the narrative alone: open-ended and self-reflexive, it is interested almost entirely in asking questions about itself and how it relates to its own culture.

Like much of the most interesting British fiction around at the moment, Music, in a Foreign Language is being published in paperback by a small independent publishing house, giving hope that a tentative but long overdue counter-attack is being mounted on the indelible conservatism of the modern English novel. The signs, so far, are encouraging: notable recent "independent" fiction has included Radio Activity, by John Murray, published by Sunk Island, and Counterparts by Nicholas Royle, published by Barrington Books; this month AK in Edinburgh will publish Stewart Home's Red London, while John Calder is bringing out Blind Needle, by Trevor Hoyle.

Both in its formal ingenuity and its political fantasy, Crumey's novel looks yearningly towards Europe, but what saves it from posturing is its author's quizzical awareness of the mild absurdity of his own position; his knowledge that the yoke which young English writers have to shake off carries none of the perverse glamour of political oppression, but has more to do with inertia and stifling lack of interest in experiment. With this novel he has begun his own small stand against cultural mediocrity, and to set himself up, like his hero, as "a refugee from drabness. From tinned peas, and rain."

Kirkus Reviews. September 15, 1996

This intricate, demanding story of political and personal commitment and betrayal -- which won Scotland's Saltire Prize for Best First Novel (in 1994) -- introduces a young master of postmodernist irony who will remind many readers of several of the brainier postwar Eastern European novelists.

The setting is a futuristic Britain where ''history'' is expected to serve the interests of the state and all dissent is ruthlessly suppressed. A narrator whose relation to the novel he's writing is colored by his own complicated erotic life speculates on the motives (which appear similarly sexual) of his story's protagonist -- who accepts open-ended possibility as proof of the genius of Alfredo Galli, an experimental writer whose work celebrates what might be called the principle of uncertainty. (''Galli had this idea that our whole life is just a story, and there are all these other ways the story could go, but somehow they get stolen from us.'') Yet both writer and character seek a conclusive explanation of the mysterious, and perhaps not accidental, death in an ''automobile accident'' of the latter's father, Robert Waters, a historian unwisely involved with both a supposedly seditious publication and a physicist friend, Charles King, with whom he seems to have shared musical and amatory interests. All this is every bit as complex and teasing as it sounds, and the book's obsessive concern with the ethics and logic of settling for received wisdom is further elaborated by such amusing leitmotifs as King's unhappy acquaintance with a probably deranged pseudo-scientist determined to undermine the reputation of Albert Einstein and ''the pernicious ideology of relativity.''

This is a genuine novel of ideas, more than a little disorienting in the early going, as we labor to understand how its several parts will intersect -- and surprisingly stimulating and exciting, as we see how Crumey imperturbably puts it all together. A formidable debut, from a writer whose possibilities, so to speak, seem virtually unlimited.

Jim Dwyer. Library Journal. October 1, 1996

A narrator tries to tell the story of a man and a woman meeting on a train, but interruptions force him continually to restart. He provides many versions of a closely related, more important story: two friends in an imaginary Communist Britain a generation earlier are caught up in a cycle of oppression and betrayal. An historian who believes that history is about investigating other people's lives becomes the victim of a government investigation. Crumey considers questions of history, physics, politics, sex, literature, and philosophy, all based on the seemingly divergent concepts of theme and variation, on the one hand, and coincidence and randomness on the other. He brilliantly interpolates passages from imaginary texts reminiscent of Borges and Calvino. Although the publisher is promoting this as a postmodern 1984, Crumey's work clearly bears more resemblance to the work of those two authors than it does to Orwell's. The British edition, published by Daedalus in 1994, won the Saltire Prize for Best First Fiction. Highly recommended for medium to large public and academic libraries, particularly for sophisticated readers.

Sybil Steinberg. Publishers Weekly. September 30, 1996

Crumey's thought-provoking but somewhat too ambitious debut stages love and betrayal in a subtly rendered British police state peopled by authorritarian bureaucrats and bobbies. Two story lines are unevenly linked by the musings of an introverted authoritarian figure, an exile from this prison state, writing his first novel (this one) while reflecting on his marriege. One plot focuses on Charles King, a physicist (like Crumey), and his friend, Cambridge historian Robert Waters, who has been chosen to write an official history of this alternate English revolution. Unfortunately, the official vetting turns up an incriminating political pamphlet. "Flood," that Robert and Charles anonymously wrote years ago during a sort of Prague spring. The investigation in turn threatens to expose the routine betrayals of Charles's caddish lovelife (and his current liaison with Jenny, a London secretary) and the secret of Robert's repressed (and illegal) homosexuality, which he sought to hide through marriage. Interleaved with these events, which turn out to be flashbacks, is the contemporary story of Robert's son, Duncan, a constantly redrafted narrative in which Duncan mulls over his father's sudden death and his chance meeting with an Italian tourist while he is reading a book by metaphysician Alfredo Galli. This arch pastiche of Calvino does not quite work, and discursions on history, physics and music hamper the story. Crumey is more successful in skillfully enmeshing ordinary relationships in a subtly constructed totalitarian world.

Tobin Harshaw. New York Times. January 5, 1997

Andrew Crumey's first novel doesn't suffer for plot lines. First there's the story of Duncan Waters, who may or may not meet a beautiful stranger on a train. Then there's the story of Duncan's father, the historian Robert Waters (who may or may not be Duncan's biological father), and his physicist colleague Charles King (a more likely candidate) and the dissident newsletter they briefly publish during an Orwellian regime in a futuristically depicted England. Then there are Charles's various love affairs and his hounding by a crazed lay physicist who claims to have mathematical proof of the existence of the human soul. Most important, however, is the narrator, who, like Mr. Crumey and Charles King, is a physicist, and who may actually have met two beautiful strangers on trains and certainly married the wrong one. Into this jumble of betrayed trusts, lost opportunities and unrequited loves, Mr. Crumey throws a discussion of the ''work'' of the Italian surrealist writer Alfredo Galli (who does not exist) and several story fragments that the narrator at first credits to Galli but later admits to have been ''my own invention.'' What all this amounts to is less a novel than a discussion of what a novel is -- or, more precisely, of what the act of writing a novel is. The characters never come to life, which is probably part of Mr. Crumey's plan: just when the narrative threatens to take off, he reminds us that it's all simply words on paper, the fruit of someone else's midnight inspiration. ''The historical events with which fate has chosen to entertain and torture us,'' the narrator proclaims, ''are little more than numbers on the throw of a die.'' In this sense, ''Music, in a Foreign Language'' is the literary equivalent of a long night at the craps table.