A BOOK OF LISZTS
(Variations on the theme of Franz Liszt)
Published by Seagull Books in May, 2011
Six years ago John bought a CD of piano music by Liszt and was fascinated first by the music and then by the composer, whose personal charisma and incomparable skill as a virtuoso pianist made him the 19th-century equivalent of a modern international star.
His innovative music isn’t as well known these days as it deserves to be, but that should change in 2011, the bicentenary of his birth.
This novel tells the story of an extraordinary man in an unusual way. The fifteen self-contained chapters are written in various styles and from various points of view. Here is Chapter VII, an indignant letter from the Master himself, with John’s reply:
An Exchange of Letters
Dear Mr Spurling,
my lifetime people frequently spread false rumours about me, misinterpreted
my motives and even wrote trashy and libellous novels about me (though
they partly disguised my identity with other names and occupations).
I was young I hastened to correct their lies or misunderstandings by
writing either to them personally or to the newspapers which had published
them, but when I was older and had grown a thicker skin I ceased to
bother, unless the lies were so gross and widely-circulated that they
might distress my friends or family.
book (which does not even attempt to disguise my identity) can do no
harm now to anyone I cared about and very little to me. My reputation
has had its ups and downs, but in spite of some neglect in your country,
which from my many triumphs there in my lifetime I might have expected
to honour me more than others, it is now, I believe, securely established,
even if somewhat diminished still by my former protégé, friend
and son-in-law, the incomparable genius and self-publicist Wagner.
Yes, I can be generous to real greatness even from my grave in the shadow
of his theatre.
since you profess to admire both me and my work, indeed to be so absorbed
by both that you have thought about little else for the past three or
four years, I would like to ask you why you take the liberty of fictionalising
me in this way, freely inventing whenever the established facts of my
life fail you. You put words in my mouth, discover thoughts in
my head and ascribe actions to me which if I were still alive I would
robustly repudiate and for which, even if I could not be bothered to
call you to account publicly in the newspapers or the courts, I would
find it hard to forgive you. Do you really wish to offend the
person you have taken so much trouble to study?
you were doing this for money, I would understand. In my younger
days when I was short of money and wanted more of it, I travelled and
played, played and travelled and put up with infinite irritations, pains,
sicknesses and tedium for the sake of earning money. When I was
older I was short of money again, but since my children were grown up
and I did not by then want much for myself beyond cigars and alcohol,
I no longer cared to make myself a martyr to money. However, neither
my reputation probably nor certainly yours is sufficient to earn you
more than a sorry sum from this long labour of yours, so what is the
point of it?
novels written about me in my lifetime by friends or lovers (George
Sand, Balzac, Daniel Stern*, Olga Janina) were intended either to earn
their authors money and further success (Sand, Balzac) or to take revenge
for blighted love-affairs. But your love affair with my long-departed
spirit and my still living music is not yet blighted. Perhaps
it would be, if I had any say in the matter and could stop this book
of yours in its tracks, but I do not think you would continue to write
it if you were to become disillusioned, like those two vengeful women,
with your erstwhile hero.
what the devil do you think you are doing? What service to me
or yourself do you imagine you are performing with this ersatz
tissue of fact and fiction?
am, Mr Spurling, yours very truly
Stern was the pen-name of the Countess Marie d’Agoult, mother of Liszt’s
Dear Dr Liszt,
have no wish at all to offend you. I am, as you say, a passionate
admirer both of your life and your music. I might perhaps have
written another straight biography of you, but since the publication
of Alan Walker’s definitive life in three volumes there is no need
for that and besides I am no biographer.
I clearly have offended you and will continue to do so, since my book
is scarcely begun and I shall continue to invent as the mood and the
material lead me. You did after all write to your official biographer,
Lina Ramann: ‘My biography is more to be invented than written after
the fact.’ And I am only doing what you constantly did with
your own compositions, taking a motif and very often - in your wonderful
transcriptions, ‘paraphrases’ or ‘reminiscences’ - another composer’s
motif and running away with it.
I am not writing for money or revenge and I don’t imagine that I’m
writing on your behalf - whether to add to your already glorious reputation,
to inspire fresh interest in it or to illuminate your life and music
in some way that straight biography can’t. I’m writing primarily
for myself, to tease out and if possible clarify whatever it is that
you have aroused in me - my one-sided love-affair - and to discover
in the process some fresh approach to writing fiction which often in
the last half century has seemed to be a dying art, but never actually
is because it has no discernible boundaries. You, I know, felt
just the same about your music.
forgive me if you can, dear Master, when I say that although your life
and music and reputation are my subjects, as, for instance, Byron’s
Mazeppa or Goethe’s Faust were the subjects of works of
yours, what I’m really trying to do is to make you into something
else, as you made those literary works into pure music. Not that
there is anything pure about my book - except that it’s pure words
- it is precisely, as you have pointed out, an ersatz tissue
- or shall we say a Hungarian goulash? - of fact and fiction.
if you could think of yourself less as the great Franz Liszt, who lived
and played and travelled and loved and composed with such inexhaustible
energy, and more as a motif or series of motifs which can be stated,
transformed and improvised upon and might or might not in the process
emerge as an independent work of art - whether successful or futile
in the outcome I can hardly say, but that is the intention - then, I
believe, you might forgive my presumption and perhaps even wish me success.