Friday, January 23, 2009

Fiddles in the library

Thrilled to have a full house at East Sheen Library for our Hungarian Dances evening. I talked and read from the novel; Philippe Graffin (left) and Tom Eisner (right, in purple shirt) played Bartok Duos. With a good glass of wine and a little confusion over which violinist I'm married to [=Tom] the evening went with quite a swing! Huge thanks to the wonderful team from the library and Hodder for putting so much energy into this lovely occasion.

Several people wrote to me beforehand to say they'd love to hear a podcast from it, but I'm afraid I don't possess the right technology and wasn't able to record. However, you can hear Philippe and Tom play the Duos on the Hungarian Dances CD, on the Onyx website, and here's the text of my introductory spiel.

A dear friend of mine has a three-year old daughter who possesses a rather poetic turn of phrase, which she trots out when she’s not asleep at times when she ought to be. Not long ago, my friend reported that little Ellie came into the room at 5am and said ‘Mummy, I’ve runned out of dreams.’

Maybe Ellie will be a writer… for any writer, running out of dreams would be a nightmare. You need your dreams, because this is where the creativity begins, or at least the oven where the ideas bake on a good slow setting.

Hungarian Dances is the product of a number of different dreams that all imploded at once when I decided to write a novel about the violin. I’ve always had a thing about the violin, something that I’m afraid goes back possibly to when I fell in love with my violin teacher when I was 18, or possibly even further. My brother, who’s a lot older than me, is an excellent violinist and some of my earliest memories involve sitting on the stairs, listening to him playing sonatas with a pianist friend, wishing that I could join in. Funnily enough, last summer we put on a Hungarian Dances Concert of the Book and when Philippe and his pianist came round to rehearse, I found myself sitting on the stairs listening, thinking ‘this feels familiar…’.

As many of you know, I’ve been trying to combine music and words in various ways for some time. I’ve been a music journalist for longer than I’d like to admit. I’ve written biographies of the composers Korngold and Fauré; my first novel was called Rites of Spring, named after Stravinsky’s ballet score, and my second, Alicia’s Gift, was about a child prodigy pianist.

Music of course has inspired countless writers across the centuries, and somehow we writers who love music more than words always feel that music can speak to an audience’s emotions faster and more directly than spoken language. We hanker for its power! The paradox is that conveying music in words is actually impossible. Daniel Barenboim, whom I’ve interviewed several times, often points this out and he compares it, rather pertinently, to writing about God. You can’t really describe the thing itself, you can only describe the effect it has on someone.

You can probably tell that it has quite an effect on me. I’ve always felt that music and fiction complement each other perfectly – music can be almost as much about telling stories as books are; at their best, both can evoke entire worlds of atmosphere, culture and humanity in just a few well-chosen phrases.

But you can’t ‘combine art forms’ on your own. And being a writer is maybe a more isolated job than being a musician. We all spend hours alone writing or practising, but I imagine that for Philippe, as for most violinists, collaboration is all in a day’s work. For a novelist, it’s not. So, when I met Philippe about six years ago and we decided to cook up a project to work on together, it was quite a new departure for me. How on earth does a writer collaborate with a violinist?

Funnily enough, that first project was the one that hasn’t happened – yet. I don’t think we’ve given up entirely on the notion of making a film… but the central idea turned into a sort of scripted concert telling the story behind the story behind the Chausson Poeme, which is Philippe’s ‘signature’ work. It’s based on a story by Turgenev, one on which Turgenev’s relationship with the opera singer Pauline Viardot had a major impact. The story is called The Song of Triumphant Love; so was our concert, which involved Chausson, Viardot’s music and other composers from their world. It’s not a complete coincidence that my next novel, which is due out in July, is called Songs of Triumphant Love. Maybe Jeremy will let me come back and tell you more about that another time.

Next Philippe commissioned me to write a short story for a CD booklet when he recorded the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. He said he was going to ask me to do programme notes, but that’s boring – so he wanted a story instead! That was great fun and actually it’s the only short story I’ve written that I’ve been remotely pleased with. Next, he asked me to write a play about Messiaen to be performed before Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. That was a lot more difficult and it went through a number of drafts and incarnations, but finally has hit the stage several times, first in French at Philippe’s festival in St Nazaire, once in the Lake District last summer where we performed it together, and it’s even gone to Australia. Meanwhile Philippe has fed me some of my best journalistic stories. So by the time I started on Hungarian Dances in 2006, we were already a creative team. But I never actually expected him to get so involved in my ever-so-solitary novels.

Hungarian Dances is my third novel and it’s not just the longest but also the most ambitious that I’ve attempted so far. My first two novels are not only about music but about modern family life crumbling under intolerable pressures from the often very artificial society around us. Hungarian Dances is a family story on a grand scale, crossing three generations of what I hope is a delightfully eccentric dynasty of Hungarian musicians who have migrated to Britain. Like the other two books, it’s about the way each generation’s individual experiences affect the others, the way psychological scars are unwittingly passed down through the family. It’s also about the experience of being a first-generation Brit, the clash of two different cultures – in this case Hungarianness and Britishness – and the way we learn to deal with each other, or don’t. There are second chances, new beginnings and the forging of new identities.

But when I first thought up a plan for the book, it wasn’t going to involve either the violin or Hungary. It was just a family story. Until my editor returned my synopsis with the fatal words: “Where’s the music?”

They want music? They got music. Actually they got a lot more than they bargained for. It was the perfect excuse to home in on the violin, my favourite instrument, the one that opens the subconscious floodgates. It so happened that Philippe had just released a CD of 20th-century pieces influenced by Gypsy music and Hungarian players, entitled ‘In the Shade of Forests’. Quite unconsciously, that CD sparked off some crucial elements of the story. I realised only when I was half way through writing the novel that the little Gypsy girl who peers out of the back of a wagon on the CD’s front cover had got under my skin and grown into the character of Mimi Rácz, the Gypsy violinist who transcends her background and its traditions, but at a price… I soon found that the more I delved into the violin, the more everything pulled me towards Hungary. First, many of the great classical violin pedagogues of the 19th and early 20th century were Hungarian – Jozsef Joachim, Jeno Hubay, Leopold Auer, Carl Flesch and more. And alongside this great tradition, there coexisted a very different one: the Gypsy violinists whose playing is every bit as strong and seductive in its own way, but involving a wholly different approach to music-making.

The novel’s heroine, Karina, is the daughter of two musicians who both escaped from Budapest during the Uprising in 1956. She’s born in London in 1970, where her parents have brought her up speaking no Hungarian and knowing almost nothing of her family’s background. Karina is a gifted violinist but has given up performing, to be a teacher, wife and mother; she’s married a very English lawyer, Julian, who’s the younger of two sons of an hereditary peer, and they have a seven-year-old son named Jamie. Karina’s grandmother was the famous Mimi – who was born into a family of Gypsy musicians in Hungary in 1915.

Mimi, aged 10, was performing in a Budapest restaurant with her father’s café band when a philanthropic doctor heard her and decided to adopt her and send her to the Franz Liszt Academy to be transformed into a classical soloist. She was world famous by the age of 20. But her life involves secrets that have lain buried for decades – and they include not only a missing violin made by the great Nicolo Amati, but also missing family members and a long-concealed love affair with a French composer named Marc Duplessis. A series of crises leaves Karina questioning her sense of identity and desperate to learn more about who she really is. As she investigates what really happened to Mimi, her world changes and she finds not only the truth about her family but the truth about her inner self. As in the story of Bartók’s Cantata Profana, a legend of nine hunters who are transformed into stags, the very creature they hunt, Karina grows into the musician she is hunting as her own ideal. And her story and Mimi’s interweave and echo one another in ways that Karina doesn’t always suspect.

Of my novels so far, this is the one that means the most to me, because it’s been one long, remarkable voyage of discovery. I often find that I’m spurred into writing by things that bug me in one way or another. ‘Rites of Spring’ and ‘Alicia’s Gift’ both dealt with issues that either made me angry or required a kind of catharsis, but in Hungarian Dances I started writing simply out of love and fascination. It’s been a process of opening and discovering, not wrapping things up, to the extent that it was really quite hard to let go of the book. I’m still finding ways to keep the process going. I’ve made a website devoted to the book and the associated CD including lots of stuff about Hungary, the recipes that Karina and her mother cook, some Youtube video of the 1956 revolution, and a bonus track for everyone to listen to free of Philippe playing Ravel’s Tzigane, which is from the Shade of Forests CD. It’s at

Meanwhile the incidents of life-imitating-art since I finished the book have been absolutely incredible. First, when I was completing the book a friend put me in touch with a Hungarian historian living in London. I asked her to read the manuscript and let me know if the historical context was reasonably OK, which she kindly did – but it turned out that not only is her husband the younger of two sons of an hereditary peer but they have one child, a boy whose name begins with J, and her husband’s middle name is Hilary, which in the book is the name of Karina’s husband’s brother.

Next, I’d installed Mimi, aged 91, in a flat in Montagu Square in the West End of London, but not long ago I was introduced to an extraordinary Hungarian lady who is actually 93 going on 21, and she too lives in Montagu Square.

Then last summer, Philippe phoned up. He told me that his old violin teacher in Paris, Devy Erlih, was about to turn 80 and had never received the recognition he deserved – couldn’t I do an interview with him for The Strad, which is the specialist journal for string players? So I did. Well, this amazing man is Jewish with Moldovian origins. His parents left Romania and settled in Paris where his father had a café orchestra, Devy learnt to play by ear and by the age of ten he was the star attraction in his father’s café orchestra. And someone walked in and heard him…. It all felt bizarrely familiar. Philippe and I met him in a restaurant in Paris, had a wonderful interview over lunch then went back to Mr Erlih’s flat to find some photos. And I couldn’t believe my eyes, because right next to his apartment block there was a restaurant called Chez Mimi. And there’s a lot more, the sort of things that are best revealed late at night over a good glass of Hungarian wine… It’s reached the point where I start to wonder just what will happen next.

Of course, the CD happened. As far as I know, it’s the first time that an international classical star has decided to make a whole new album based around a novel. It all began because I asked Philippe to read the manuscript and tell me if there were any violinistic howlers. He read it, then invited me to lunch. And over a very wicked millefeuille he announced that the only thing wrong with the book was that it needed a CD to go with it, and he wanted to make this himself.

He’s put together a very stirring and exciting programme of Hungarian and Hungarian-influenced music with a strong Gypsy element running through it. Some of the pieces are mentioned in the novel – Bartok’s duos and Romanian Dances, some Brahms Hungarian Dances and Monti’s Csardas, for example, so you can hear the pieces you’re reading about. The great Fritz Kreisler is also there, and Mimi meets him briefly. In the book, Mimi’s lover Marc Duplessis, who of course is fictional, writes her two pieces – a suite telling the story of her Gypsy childhood, which I named ‘Dans l’ombre des forets’ after Philippe’s previous CD; and a concerto in Gypsy style – which is lost, along with her Amati. As in life, some things are found, others are not. But Philippe found Marc Duplessis’s lost concerto and played it to me in my front room – a piece which I had never heard before and which was exactly as I had imagined Marc Duplessis’s concerto. It’s by Dohnányi and it’s called Andante Rubato alla Zingaresca. At that stage of production, I still had time to make a couple of changes, so the fictional piece acquired the title Andante amoroso alla Zingaresca and it’s the first piece you hear on the CD.

The process wasn’t all fun and games, though. Last summer turned out not to be easy for anyone and the odds against the recording actually happening were stacked extremely high. At times it looked as if everything was going wrong – for instance the day Tom went to Holland to record the duos with Philippe, everything really did go wrong, including a train being turned back because of an accident on the line. But Philippe pulled the disc off nonetheless and I have to say that when I first started listening to it I turned very wobbly. It seemed to me that Philippe has created in this disc exactly the atmosphere I’d wanted to create in the book; that not only did he understand everything I’d wanted to do with the book, but he’d also found the same ‘dream-pool’ and jumped straight into it too. I dived in and came up with a novel; he dived in and came up with his CD. As a writer it’s rare to collaborate – but to find that someone has decided to dream your dream together with you is simply indescribable.

Last night (Wednesday) Philippe had a big concert at the Wigmore Hall and he played the Chausson Poeme, the piece based on The Song of Triumphant Love. Hearing him play this wonderful music is like the feeling you get when you see a coral island, or a glimpse of the Himalayas, or an ancient Indian temple, or the Monet Waterlilies in Paris. While it lasts, you try to implant it deeply into your mind and your heart so that it can stay with you, and later it’s there to sustain you – you can remember that this was real, that this moment of absolute beauty and wonder is something true and possible and it can renew itself again and again and reconnect you with these mysterious creative forces that make life worth living. That’s why sometimes writers need musicians, and that’s why I am so completely overwhelmed that someone capable of such artistry has put so much effort into diving into my Hungarian pool and found such wonders lurking in its depths.

As long as this is possible, it’s very difficult to run out of dreams.