I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who got 'stuck' trying to read JD Landis's 'Longing' - Richard responds to the book quiz by wondering how I got along with this. While I'd hate to throw cold water over a book that has evidently taken so much research, immersion and general blood and guts from its writer, I just can't get into it. That started me thinking back over the handful of novels I've attempted to read that are based on the lives of composers. The results are not encouraging - not least because I've always kind of fancied writing one myself.
I ploughed through Janice Galloway's 'Clara' - like 'Longing', it is of course about the Schumanns. I had my doubts about it, though most people do seem to have loved it and it is a great achievement, exquisitely written too. I felt that she dodged all the difficult issues, however - whereas Landis jumps straight in with both feet, speculating almost immediately about whether Brahms could have been the real father of Felix Schumann. My main complaint over 'Clara', however, was that although it is poetic, it is also over-intellectual and pretentious and although it paints the most fabulous picture of a Schumann who is totally, utterly, stupendously nuts, it never truly touches the heart. The same is true - as far as page 60 - of 'Longing', which on the other hand tries to be poetic but never quite makes it. Its self-conscious intellect, clumsy sexual symbolism and a style that attempts much but doesn't flow easily prevents any real identification with the characters. What's more, unlike Clara, the writer doesn't seem to have managed to assimilate his research into a fictional world of his own. Footnotes that take about third of a page spin you off at a tangent and there's nothing more offputting in fiction than constant reminders that it is based on fact. It's like flying a plane without retracting the wheels.
Most other novels about composers that I've read have been about Beethoven and Mozart. I hated Leslie Kenton's 'Ludwig' so much that it put me right off even trying John Suchet's multi-volume effort, though I've been told it's rather good. There was a book about Mozart writing Don Giovanni in Prague that was quite fun but, in writerly terms, somewhat amateurish. I haven't ventured into Anthony Burgess's 'Mozart and the Wolf Gang'...or a more recent book called 'Igor and Coco' (what more can one say?).
Here's the nub of the problem: either the fictionalised biographies of composers appeal to the head and not the heart - perhaps because of a perception that their potential market loves to be intellectually pretentious - or else they are just plain awful. The question is WHY? Is that what comes of trying to base a novel on fact? Or is it more the case that in musical spheres we all have our own mental images of our heroes and don't particularly like to take on board someone else's interpretations of them? I don't know, but I do know that the tempting scenarios that whisper to me from the 19th century need to be handled with extreme care and are probably best left alone.