I reviewed ‘Ghost Variations’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.
The strangest detective story in the history of music – inspired by a true incident.
A world spiralling towards war. A composer descending into madness. And a devoted woman struggling to keep her faith in art and love against all the odds.
1933. Dabbling in the fashionable “Glass Game” – a Ouija board – the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, one-time muse to composers such as Bartók, Ravel and Elgar, encounters a startling dilemma. A message arrives ostensibly from the spirit of the composer Robert Schumann, begging her to find and perform his long-suppressed violin concerto.
She tries to ignore it, wanting to concentrate instead on charity concerts. But against the background of the 1930s depression in London and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, a struggle ensues as the “spirit messengers” do not want her to forget.
The concerto turns out to be real, embargoed by Schumann’s family for fear that it betrayed his mental disintegration: it was his last full-scale work, written just before he suffered a nervous breakdown after which he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. It shares a theme with his Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) for piano, a melody he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave.
As rumours of its existence spread from London to Berlin, where the manuscript is held, Jelly embarks on an increasingly complex quest to find the concerto. When the Third Reich’s administration decides to unearth the work for reasons of its own, a race to perform it begins.
Though aided and abetted by a team of larger-than-life personalities – including her sister Adila Fachiri, the pianist Myra Hess, and a young music publisher who falls in love with her – Jelly finds herself confronting forces that threaten her own state of mind. Saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.
In the ensuing psychodrama, the heroine, the concerto and the pre-war world stand on the brink, reaching together for one more chance of glory.
There are so many strands to this book, so many different things that have their own unique appeal. Firstly, it is beautifully written and an absolute pleasure to read. Secondly, its subject matter is intriguing, and a book that mixes fact and fiction is something that really appeals to me. The mystery of the concerto, the story around its discovery, the back story about Schumann himself which is heart-breaking, and the historical detail that seems so particularly relevant today – all these things are brought together in an intelligent, compelling narrative.
The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of Jelly herself, a violinist from Hungary, living in London, and, later on, from the point of view of Ulli, a young music publisher, in love with Jelly, living in Germany as the Nazis climb to power.
This sense of impeding horror and war is portrayed so clearly. These people don’t just suddenly come to power – they take it, little by little, piece by piece. For Ulli, in the midst of it, the realities become terrifying. For Jelly, feeling the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism in her adopted home country, the prejudice and intolerance is subtle, but still horrifying.
So this is a timely book too. This is what one character says about the Daily Mail, who have published an article with the headline ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’:
‘”This paper’s feeding us nothing but lies, lies, lies,” Alec said, “yet we gulp it down without questioning it, while there’s real suffering, real danger, out there.”’
And on the appeal of the Blackshirts themselves:
‘Anybody could be drawn to them, Alec said, from the unemployed to Eton lads, some believing they had the answer to keeping out the communists, others determined to restore the glory of British imperialism, or some such guff, which meant reasserting their superiority over filthy foreigners.’
While the author has obviously researched thoroughly, and also has a formidable knowledge of the world of which she is writing, this isn’t highbrow, or inaccessible – it is intelligent and knowledgeable, lyrical in places, but it is also very readable.
There is a real sense of time and place, with little details that bring authenticity to the story. Jelly is warm, talented, intelligent but not perfect – she has her flaws, her insecurities, she makes mistakes. But she comes across as wholly believable, a talented, intelligent woman, striving for success and happiness both personal and professional.
An excellent book.