Job's Sons and Daughters overwhelmed by Satan, seen through the eyes of Beethoven's contemporary, William Blake.
Mr. Beethoven is his fifth work of fiction; a sixth, the novel The Tomb Guardians, is on press now for publication in June. All these are in addition to a bibliography listing some two dozen musical reference works and monographs, from the 924-page Penguin Companion to Classical Music, The String Quartet: A History, Modern Music and After, A Guide to Electronic Music, and A Concise History of Avant-Garde Music to lucid studies of the likes of Béla Bartók, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Peter Maxwell Davies, György Ligeti, and Igor Stravinsky.
In short, however Mickey Mouse or mandarin your question in the classical domain, Paul is the first person to consult—thanks not least to what a colleague has described as his "readable, nontechnical language," an attribute that likewise characterizes his flights of fantasy. As a conjuror of music never played because it was never written, Paul stands shoulder to shoulder with the Thomas Mann of Dr. Faustus. Bypassing the eardrum, impressions flash in the mind, leaving traces impossible to distinguish from memories.
An anachronism for Mr. Griffiths. The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, founded in 1815, shown here 110 years later in a festival performance (not of 'Job') at Symphony Hall, which opened in 1900.
Apart from Paul's grace as a stylist, a constant in his fiction is his fidelity, within imaginary worlds, to the preexisting realities from which each takes flight. He fills in blanks; he does not contradict. Myself and Marco Polo dances like who knows how many angels on the head of the pin of the celebrated medieval Venetian travelogue known in the original as ll Milione. The Lay of Sir Tristram knits up with a silken hand a raveled sleeve of chivalric romance. The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories recasts theatrical parables of Japan as cut-glass Borgesian ficciones. More daring than these, the interior monologue let me tell you gives new voice to Ophelia, whose vocabulary here consists of the words Shakespeare gives her to speak in Hamlet—of all those words and no others. I seem to recall Paul once telling me that he had jotted the book down in disjointed phrases and sentences, on whatever scraps of paper came to hand, as ideas came to him on the go, in transit, at intermissions. And from such confetti, he fused his tidy micro-roman fleuve.
Mr. Beethoven is more magnum an opus, playing out not within one person's head but in a social multiverse of remarkable intricacy. To anchor what never happened in the realm of fact, Paul draws everything Beethoven says or jots down from historical records, adduced in footnotes. Nor does the academic legwork end there. Paul's Beethoven travels aboard a vessel that really sailed the course he specifies when he says it did, in the company of passengers named on the surviving manifest. And to judge from the va-et-vient through the streets of Boston, Paul has studied in some depth antique maps of the city and environs, not to mention auction catalogues and a whole lot more.
Maybe for some it's all just too much, as Paul suggests in his razzle-dazzle 27th chapter, "An Intervention," Zoomed in, it almost seems, from Tristram Shandy. "Sorry, but we have to interrupt you there," the anonymous protester begins. "You keep teasing us with this 'great' work [the new Job] while offering as little information about it as you can get away with. [...] We know, yes, that this is an oratorio he is supposed to be writing, this 'great composer,' as you archly call him, [...] and yes, we go along for the ride. [...] And we know where you find all [the] annoyingly irrelevant details. You even admit as much: on the Internet. So what?"
"When the morning Stars sang together, & all the Sons of God shouted for joy," from Blake's 'Job' series.
Nor does the population of Paul's New England consist exclusively of more or less recent immigrants from Europe. Digging through the institutional History of the Handel and Haydn Society, of Boston, Massachusetts (1883-93), he found mention of a rehearsal in 1837 attended by "a number of Indian chiefs." In Mr. Beethoven, it's the tribal leader Wonkŭssis who shows up on just such an occasion, puffing her pipe. "How could it be possible for the art of colored air to be written on fine sheets of paper?" she wonders through an imperfect interpreter. "I would like to see such writing." Then the music begins, and she listens without expression until the sound of the organ brings her to her feet.
"Let its name be Mighty Horse," Wonkŭssis declares, teeth chattering in amazement. "Let its name be Rainbow of Stars. Let its name be Silver Waterfall."
What a scene for the movie! Who, though, will dare to compose the soundtrack?
Originally published in London last year by the Henningham Family Press, Mr. Beethoven is scheduled for release in the United States from New York Review Books on October 19.