(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:

VII. An Exchange of Letters



August 20th, 2007

Dear Mr Spurling,

During 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).

When 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.

Your 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.

But 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?

If 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?

The 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.

So 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?

I am, Mr Spurling, yours very truly

F. Liszt

*Daniel Stern was the pen-name of the Countess Marie d’Agoult, mother of Liszt’s three children.

August 21st 2007

Dear Dr Liszt,

I 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.

Still, 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.

No, 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.

So 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.

But 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.

Your humble admirer,

John Spurling.