The Secret Knowledge
Paul Griffiths. Times Literary Supplement. July 19 2013.
A mystery tale that leaps between a washed-up pianist in London and assorted European intellectual heavyweights, with a pioneering socialist and a clandestine band of esoteric initiates in its background, Andrew Crumey's seventh novel finds the author up to his old tricks. Crumey begins his story in Paris in 1913, a date perhaps chosen for its significance both to modern music (the premiere of The Rite of Spring)and quantum theory (the Bohr model of the atom). A young composer at a peak moment - out at the fair with his fiancée on his arm and his first major work locked away back home - suddenly vanishes, only to pop up again six years later as a political agitator in Scotland. As Crumey's readers will immediately recognize, we have entered one of his mirrored boxes of many worlds. Pierre Klauer, a Schröaut;dinger's cat writ large, is simultaneously dead in Paris and alive on Clydeside.
The story belongs not so much to Klauer, however, as to his composition, The Secret Knowledge, as well as to a mysterious book explaining what the music encodes, and to David Conroy, the downward sliding pianist into whose hands Klauer's work comes. Chapters alternate between Conroy, as he struggles to understand the composition while keeping hold of his disintegrating life, and The Secret Knowledge, as it and its associated book make their way through the history, or histories, of the twentieth century. A jolt brings the book into the possession of Walter Benjamin on his final evening; another conveys it to Theodor Adorno. Crumey has some fun with Adorno, evidently uncomfortable at having to appear in a work of popular fiction. Caught in bed with a student, "Teddie" ponders her record collection and how "her non-compulsory attendance at his course on advanced dialectics has indicated to him acute awareness of the fundamental contradictions those commodities represent".
Of course, there are fundamental contradictions, too, in giving substance to the many worlds hypothesis, for, if each world is separate and entire, only God (a dice-playing God, to be sure) could see Klauer in two of them. But never mind that. Crumey is devising not a philosophical thought experiment but a fictional game, in which he alone is the architect of his many worlds, some of which overlap with his other novels. The dark, enigmatic "Rosier's Encyclopedia" returns from Mr Mee (reviewed in the TLS , June 2, 2000); Klauer and his Scottish sweetheart read the same memorial inscription as remains half a century later for the Coyles to contemplate in Sputnik Caledonia (TLS, April 4, 2008). We also have a bizarre new candidate for the originator of quantum theory in the French revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui. The story does not demand much knowledge of Blanqui (or Benjamin, come to that) but the invitation is there to look him up, and to find that he did indeed publish a many-worlds hypothesis, L'éternité par les astres, in 1872.
One could argue that Crumey's novel is less successful at giving solidity to its invented characters - or its invented composition. We listen as Klauer's manuscript is inspected by Conroy, his student Paige and Adorno, but the hints are faint and contradictory. This may, though, be deliberate. Crumey knows that, on a trivial level, we live our lives in many worlds, subject to faulty impressions and false information. It could be that the same piece reminds Paige of Messiaen, Adorno of Beethoven. Or it could be that, in its transit through alternative universes, The Secret Knowledge is changing; that it is, like the fiction containing it, an unending knot, as weightless as a bubble.
Lesley McDowell. Sunday Herald. July 14, 2013
Crumey specialises in the novel of ideas, which is an unfashionable thing at the moment. This is a pity, because his tale of parallel composers, Pierre Klauer poised on the edge of the First World War, and today's contemporary David Conroy, is more accessible than some may expect, and more gripping and more encompassing, too.
James Smart. The Guardian. August 17, 2013
In 1913 Yvette stands in the Paris sunshine, gazing at a fairground wheel and waiting for composer Pierre to greet her with what she hopes will be a marriage proposal - but fears will be something darker. Their rendezvous ends with a bang that propels Crumey's seventh novel past Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, civil unrest and war and into the present day, where troubled pianist David Conroy and his student Paige come across the dark symphony Pierre was writing before his tryst. Various men - some charming, some threatening, none entirely trustworthy - seek Pierre's notes, and as Conroy retreats into paranoia, another conflagration looms. With its enthusiasm for secret societies and acts that echo through time, The Secret Knowledge mines the ground between Cloud Atlas and Foucault's Pendulum, but fails to reach the heights of either. The dialogue can be annoying ("I thought you believed in destiny" . . . "I believe in hope"), and it's hard to care much for the characters, but some scenes - a febrile union meeting, a loaded meeting between rival pianists - are wonderful.
Publisher's Weekly. January 26, 2015
Crumey (Mobius Dick) takes on the complex and thorny subjects of parallel universes, Schröaut;dinger's cat, and the plight of philosopher Walter Benjamin in this intelligent work of speculative fiction. The narrative pivots back and forth among various times and locales, including the present day; Paris in 1913, home of rising composer Pierre Klauer and his fiancé, Yvette; Scotland in 1919; and Spain in 1940. When Pierre is shot and apparently killed, Yvette honors his last wish and, with the help of a stranger, Louis Carreau, reclaims his unpublished score from his parents' house. Pierre then appears to resurface in Scotland several years later as a factory worker. Whether he lived or died-or both-is the question, as modern-day pianist David Conroy, his career on the wane, ponders if a rediscovered Klauer score might be the answer to all his problems. Though the chapters featuring Pierre and his milieu read like heavy-handed melodrama, the philosophical questions the book raises are clever and insightful.
Lucinda Byatt. Historical Novels Review. November 2013.
Whether this qualifies as historical fiction is a moot point: it's set in multiple pasts, multiverses, spanning the 20th century, from 1913 Paris to 1919 Glasgow, 1924 Capri, 1940 Barcelona, 1941 New York, 1967 West Germany and modern London. However, the past is not there for its own sake. What matters instead are the interlinking strands of events whose effects spin through time and space - only a writer with a PhD in theoretical physics could write so effortlessly, and brilliantly, of these alternate realities, which also feature in Sputnik Caledonia, an earlier award winning work.
The physical object linking the different episodes in Crumey's latest novel is a musical score, the work of a brilliant pianist, Pierre Klauer, and an arcane book, a code-breaker perhaps, or an initiation to the "secret knowledge", last owned by Walter Benjamin. Both score and book are pursued by suspicious types, under false names (Carreau, Verrier, Verrine, Oeillet), who are doubles in time and space, as suggested by the radical 19th-century theorist, Auguste Blanqui.
Described as an "intellectual mystery", the book explores the illusion of progress in history, perhaps also in our individual lives, a tribute to Benjamin's own theories. Interestingly, the women are the most coherent and linear characters: Yvette and Paige, in particular, but even the historical figure, Hannah Arendt, who appears in the book alongside Theodor Adorno. The two key plots involving Yvette and Paige spiral together, doubles whose strands of DNA intersect only in that the music score is central to both: one has the feeling, at the end, that their stories might easily start all over again. As another of the characters says: "Who can say where anything begins or ends?" Challenging stuff, but fascinating.
Hysterical Hamster Feb 25, 2014
The book is described thusly:
In 1913 composer Pierre Klauer envisages marriage to his sweetheart and fame for his new work, The Secret Knowledge. Then tragedy strikes. A century later, concert pianist David Conroy hopes the rediscovered score might revive his own flagging career.
Music, history, politics and philosophy become intertwined in a multi-layered story that spans a century. Revolutionary agitators, Holocaust refugees and sixties' student protesters are counterpointed with artists and entrepreneurs in our own age of austerity. All play their part in revealing the shocking truth that Conroy must finally face - the real meaning of The Secret Knowledge.
In a month from now the Hugo Award nominees will be announced. As has become tradition there will be a slew of blog posts taking apart the ballot with specific focus on the Best Novel category. These critiques will generally bemoan the fact that the best novels of the year have been ignored; that the actual nominees - for the most part - only appear on the ballot because of their internet and social media presence; that by ignoring the work of auteurs in the field were actually undermining the genre as a whole.
Not that I'm having a crack at people who blog about the Hugo nominees. For one, I enjoy ranting about the ballot and furthermore some of the best genre discussions in recent history have been sparked by these blog posts. It's critique and discussion of award ballots in general that keep the genre alive, keep it vital. That's why I get upset when others try to quash these discussions.
However, I'm also aware that there's a paradox at the heart of these sorts of blog posts. On the surface, a critique of a list of nominees is an attack on popular culture. But the underlying message - which annoys those who have a problem with this sort of criticism - is the need and desire for the novel I like, for the novel I believe is deserving, to be recognised by the masses. The same masses who foolishly chose the original bunch of nominees.
It's precisely this paradox that Crumey explores in The Secret Knowledge. In particular, both David Conroy - a pianist at the end of his career who has never realised the potential of his youth - and Theodor Adorno - a European / American philosopher who argued against the commodification of culture by capitalism - typify this paradox. As characterised by Crumey, both hate popular culture. Both crave recognition. Both are awash in bitterness.
For Conroy that bitterness turns into madness as he gets caught up in the mystery surrounding a rediscovered score by little known composer Pierre Klauer. Conroy sees the music as encapsulating the "fraught opposition between autonomy and commodification that is the essence of bourgeois art." The irony, of course, is that Conroy believes he will find the fame he's been searching if he brings this music to the public.
The sections of the novel set in the past introduce the possibility of multiple realities - something that Crumey dealt with far more successfully in his earlier novel Mobius Dick. In this case, the multiverse is essentially a plot device to show what Pierre Klauer's life would have been like if he hadn't committed suicide in 1913. What's interesting here is how Klauer turns his back on being a composer, how in one iteration he leaves France and becomes part of the Clyde Worker's Committee in Scotland. Klauer has decided that being an artiste is not worth the hassle. As Klauer, or a parallel version of him, says:
I thought of retrieving my last work and burning it. And as I walked in that once-familiar room I truly felt myself to be a ghost, for my mother has made the place a shrine to my memory. Here is posterity, I said to myself, here is what you craved, to be remembered, and what does it amount to? The tears of those few who knew you, the continued indifference of the multitude who did not. Pierre Klauer can be removed from the world like a loose brick and who will notice the hole he leaves?
The message is a simple one. If you're going to be an artist accept the fact that people may never notice you. Accept the fact that mainstream and popular culture will find its own path, most likely leaving you behind. If you can't accept this, then walk away.
Thankfully Andrew Crumey has never walked away. Even if he doesn't get the plaudits his focus is on the art. As he says in this interview with John Self:
It would be nice if some day my backlist could go up in value and earn Dedalus some more money. Of course, for that to happen, I'd need to win some high-profile prize that would make me a more marketable commodity. How do I feel about all that? It's quite simple: writing is an art, publishing is a business, and I concentrate on the art, leaving business people to do the stuff that they're good at and I'm not.
I would also love for Crumey's work to be recognised. In the meantime, though, his novels are challenging, vibrant with philosophy and ideas and a unique insight. The Secret Knowledge is no different. The plot never levels out or feels comfortable and familiar, the style and voice changes from chapter to chapter and yet the novel is never anything less than engaging.
While I don't expect to see The Secret Knowledge on the Hugo ballot I hope that this years Clarke Award judges have taken note. Otherwise I might write a blog post…
Andrew Crumey (for a pronunciation mnemonic, try "Andrew Crumey: his imagination is roomy") is one of those writers who seems painfully underappreciated by those who admire him. This is no doubt because those admirers tend to really love his stuff, and to have the experience with him that Martin Amis did with John Updike: "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes." Certainly he is enough of a hero to this blog that he was the first author I interviewed. That was on publication of his last novel, Sputnik Caledonia, which marked a change in Crumey's style, away from a cycling of separate but ultimately harmonizing narratives, and towards a straighter story: or as straight as a story of alternate worlds can be.
The Secret Knowledge returns to the structure of the earlier books, sort of, but it takes an odd turn, and leaves the reader feeling more sober, sombre even, than the likes of Mr Mee or Mobius Dick (the latter is, for me, the must-read for those new to Crumey). Here, instead of three cycling stories, we have two. The first begins in Paris in 1913 with composer Pierre Klauer and his lover Yvette. Pierre is a revolutionary: he believes that art should be about "progress and modernity, even if that means sacrificing old laws of taste." And not just art: "there has to be a change in the whole of human affairs, a modulation into a new key." He has just composed a new piece, The Secret Knowledge, and he is intrigued by the new laws of science: relativity, quantum theory. This short chapter, when reread in retrospect, has the germ of the whole novel in it, though it is shaped like a simple romance. About to take a significant step (though not the one the reader initially sees), Pierre observes that "every moment is a decision."
The second story is David Conroy's: he is a pianist and music teacher in the present day, whose career in middle age hasn't come out where he expected. Once upon a time he was one of Britain's brightest young musical talents: "he won a few prizes and thought, this is how it will always be, like this, forever, because this is what I deserve." But he must acknowledge that "it is the innate impulse of all things to be forgotten," and that he will join Pierre Klauer, whose Secret Knowledge he has just been told about, in obscurity. "We are the unknown, [Klauer] says, and you will join us."
The Secret Knowledge is one of those books about which it is best to say very little if new readers are going to get the best from it. But how, then, to persuade them of its value? Existing readers of Crumey will need no persuading, and will recognise some of the names in the book from his earlier works: Jean-Bernard Rosier, for example, whose encyclopaedia was so keenly sought by the eponymous Mr Mee; or Minard, one of Rousseau's copyists from the same book. Perhaps I can hint at the developments. After disaster strikes Pierre and Yvette, she reflects that Pierre "was like a comet that visits Earth briefly, gloriously, then flies to another sphere. Wait long enough, she thinks, and the comet may return." I might also add that The Secret Knowledge for much of its plot exemplifies Crumey's stated desire that his fiction should exemplify a sort of negative capability, "holding two completely opposite and contradictory views in mind simultaneously." It is a book where people appear to disappear, and not just from celebrity into obscurity. ("How could she erase herself so quickly?") It is, in other words, intellectually provocative and stimulating, and not superficially so. This quality is present too in the music of Klauer's The Secret Knowledge: Conroy's pupil Paige finds it to be "an object on which she can't sustain any view, its shape constantly altering." All this, naturally, has wider application within the book, and even to the book itself.
Klauer's music is challenging ("progress and modernity"), and The Secret Knowledge - the book - is full of chiming references, such as to E.T.A. Hoffmann's Kreisleriana, a book which features "a musician completely opposed to false reputation, the shallowness of mass taste and received opinion; a person living for art in a world that recognises only commercial value, therefore considered mad." Crumey might have some sympathy, acknowledging in the interview above that the only way his backlist might earn his publishers - and him - more money would be to "if I were to win some high-profile prize that might make me a more marketable commodity." Yet, for all the rarity of Crumey's literary intelligence, there is nothing wilfully obscure about his work. The Secret Knowledge has a strong plot - it seems to have several, at times - and even takes us ultimately into a new-fashioned tale of evil corporations and lust for power.
Between the tantalising opening chapters, where alternating stories feed on and inform one another, and the end, where Crumey tilts it almost into a thriller, comes a surprising switch midway through. Crumey introduces real people as characters: Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. This suits the purpose of the book, as not only does Benjamin become a crucial pivot in the plot, but Adorno's thinking on mass culture fits with Crumey's themes and his characters' obsessions - and his assessment of the banality of popular entertainment makes an uneasy fit with Arendt's most famous phrase, itself reduced by popular culture to a soundbite. The chapters with these three, however, clash with Crumey's seductive style elsewhere, and if Crumey writes, as he says, philosophical novels, in these sections there is more philosophy than novel. However this seems to be anticipated by him: reduction of ideas to their essence can seem jarring, even intimidating. Adorno, accused of obscurity and jargon ("the very things he opposes") reflects that "when the world is discussed in the clearest possible terms it becomes infinitely opaque," and comments later on "the limitation of fiction in relation to philosophy." When I began to think that The Secret Knowledge would merit a reread to peer more closely into its thickets, I found another relevant thought of Adorno's, on the commodification of music: "Mass culture replaces critical appreciation with mere recognition: to hear anything often enough is equivalent to liking it." This idea will not be strange to anyone who has found their resistance to some chart-molesting atrocity gradually diminished to grudging acceptance or even Stockholm-like fondness, but it also made me think that sometimes mysteries, confusions and challenges are best allowed to remain unsoftened, without their hard edges worn down by the friction of repetition.
So The Secret Knowledge is not a traditional novel, though it has enough of the elements of one to tease the unwary. One element of the traditional novel is emotional engagement. Here, this is provided first by the longings and regrets of Pierre's lover Yvette, and more significantly by a returning traumatic memory for the young pianist Paige. Neither of these elements, however, really hits the solar plexus. For me, The Secret Knowledge's appeal is what it does to your head, rather than your heart. It's a novel which appeals in strange ways and, despite its being one of the most interesting books I've read this year, I am finding it difficult to express that appeal. Perhaps it is enough to cite arch-modernist Pierre Klauer's response when Yvette asks him if he doesn't like something: "The categories of like and dislike are outmoded."