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Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
By Wesley Stace
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of British author Wesley Stace -- who when he's not writing has a second career as indie musician John Wesley Harding -- mostly because of the way that he can declare a theme and then weave in all kinds of complicated and subtle references to it throughout his dense manuscripts, yet maintain a light-hearted and very readable tone to the whole thing, as best manifested so far in his 2008 charmer by George, simultaneously a multilayered family drama and an overlook at the entire British live-entertainment industry from the 1870s to 1970s, as public taste morphed over a century from music halls to supper clubs, radio and television. And now his latest is out, the equally entertaining but much darker Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, which again pairs together two themes to fascinating effect, one more philosophical and one more practical -- it's essentially an examination of what we mean by 'objective truth,' and exactly how malleable that concept really is, told through the filter of a scandal within the classical music world, right at the time that Early Modernism was calling into question what exactly the future of chamber music was to even be, and what role British artists were to have in it.
Because that's an important thing to know if you don't already, long before discussing any of the weightier, more metaphorical issues this book raises, is simply that the British musical arts had a complicated relationship with the Early Modernist movement of the beginning 20th century; that after missing the boat during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the UK in the 1800s had just started producing its first world-class composers and performers, just to flounder again in the face of atonality and experimentation in the 1910s and '20s, which when followed by thirty years of international war meant an almost complete lack of influence in the music world until the rise of the first 'Britpop' bands of the 1950s and '60s. And this is one of the things to love about Stace, apart from anything else in his writing, is his mere dedication to and almost musicologist approach to the history of the British arts; and if nothing else, Jessold is a fine historical look at an intriguing era of British music, and really brings to life the image of mustachioed gentlemen still dressing in Edwardian tuxedos for formal evenings out, but now sitting around listening to the dissonant, challenging songs of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Debussy.
But like I said, this is far from the only pleasure to be had in Stace's work, with these rich settings serving as mere window dressing to the main tale he means to convey; in this case, a complicated "meta-story" that gets unspun through a series of retellings by the same main narrator at different periods of his life, each detail taking on new resonances as he slowly reveals more and more behind what went into each of them. That narrator is one Leslie Shepherd, who in turn is telling us mostly about the eponymous Jessold, a wild-child and former prodigy who nearly singlehandedly changed the face of British music in those years, if not for a tragedy on the night of his greatest triumph that weirdly mirrored the melodramatic details of his work itself. See, as we learn over the first third of this novel, Jessold was one of the rare Brits to really understand and embrace Modernism right at its centennial beginnings, only helped by his internment at a German non-military prison camp during World War One, from which he came back heady with experimental thought from the Continent; and so in the early '20s does he embark on his first major opera, based on similar twin legends that are introduced into his life and detailed earlier in the book, in which a wealthy patron discovers an affair his wife is having with the artist he is supporting, and kills both them and then himself in a fit of passion and insanity. And indeed, through a delicious series of events that Stace details in the first hundred pages, Jessold ends up in a quite similar situation himself, even as he is writing the opera that so closely mirrors it, culminating in a raucous opening night that ends in the real world with the same kind of murder-suicide that befalls his aria-singing characters.
Ah, but then we enter the second part of the book, in which years later Shepherd is pushed through circumstance into examining the sordid story again, where through time and distance he ends up admitting things about it all that he hadn't during his original remarks to the police, the story that made up the first third of the manuscript. Like, does anyone really know what exactly happened to Jessold during his three years in Germany during the war, besides what Jessold chooses to tell everyone else? Why has no one ever met this mysterious experimental poet who was supposedly writing so many of Jessold's librettos? Why did Shepherd's wife have such a cool attitude towards Jessold, anyway, even from the first day she met him? And so as the manuscript continues, we get a very different view of what exactly transpired between these people in those years, even as the "objective facts" laid out in part one never actually change; and then just as we think the mystery is finally solved, along comes the third section of the novel, written by Shepherd near his death when he decides to finally confess all the remaining secrets regarding these now half-century-old events. (And be forewarned, by the way, that Stace deliberately inserts several red-herring threads into his storyline that ultimately go nowhere, specifically for all you smartypants who like trying to outguess the author before actually getting to the end of the story.)
By the end, it all adds up to a highly inventive, surprise-filled but fundamentally sound reading experience, helped immensely by Stace's constant little references and callbacks in every detail to the book's main themes of identity, secrecy, and the slippery nature of capital-t 'Truth.' I mean, granted, it's not for everyone, which is why it's getting a score a bit lower than the love I personally feel for it -- many will find it much too convoluted, others will find it a bit too silly, while I imagine that those who actively dislike chamber music will often be bored -- but for sure this is one of those books for those who love novels not just as objects but as concepts, the kind of people who appreciate puzzleboxes equally for their complexity and their beauty. Weighty and light by equal turns, this is truly a manuscript for the deep-thinking reader, and it comes specifically recommended to such audience members today.
Out of 10: 9.2