I simply cannot understand why this wonderful novel is out of print and languishing at 1p second-hand on Amazon. My own copy has been reread so often that it’s falling apart more than my Real Book is (and that looks like confetti).
Actually, I can understand why. The current trend in fiction publishing seems to be for tedious bonking fantasies or tales from the Land of Pling about how some plucky youngster overcomes the dreaded Wibbly-Dibbles with a special wand he just happens to have mysteriously received in chapter two (because he’s somehow special). Still, as a musician, who am I to argue against escapism, sexual or magical…
Paul Micou is a very endearing and intelligent writer whichever area of life he chooses to address, but here he absolutely nails the classical music world in all its glory and silliness. The book also works in tradition versus modernity, art versus craft, those who can against those who get promoted, rebellion against authority, conflicting parental influences… and through the middle of this trots the tale of a talented musician progressing from childhood to maturity. If all that makes you blanch and think this is some Dostoyevskian tough read – no. It trips along easily and is wildly and consistently entertaining.
Don’t want to spoil it for you, but here’s the gist. We are privy to the letters written by one Pierre La Valois to a certain Geoffrey Flynch, the subject of which is the young piano prodigy Debrizzi.
La Valois (our narrator) is an unapologetically dissolute, laissez-faire French mentor to the lad. He’s a failed prodigy himself – but despite his own fizzled career, still a formidable musician in his own right.
Flynch is a stuffy English conductor and promoter, who is brought in to further the boy’s career. The suggestion is that this puffed-up podiumista can hardly get through Für Elise, yet he publishes acclaimed treatises on Schubert symphonies (and later becomes ennobled for services to music, natch). In fact, it’s the publication of his self-serving biography of Debrizzi that gets La Valois all fired up to write.
They both, of course, have “issues”. In between the two of them, Debrizzi himself mostly just gets on with playing the piano extraordinarily well, and seems to emerge as a well-adjusted young man, who doesn’t find it at all remarkable that he could play most of Bach’s 48 upside-down for a laugh when he was still in short trousers.
Within this epistolary antagonistic setup, the fun unfolds. I don’t know whether Micou has a musical background himself, but if not then his research is deadly accurate. Every incident, from the fear-soaked squalor of competitions, to the preposterous shenanigens at posh post-concert soirees, to encounters with stoned recording engineers, hapless French horn players and toothsome flautists, rings true.
Another important character is the doomed composer Chanat. A contemporary of Liszt (and possibly loosely modelled on Alkan), this sad soul commits the most ridiculous imaginable piano music to paper then fails in his grand romantic attempt at suicide, becoming instead an obscure footnote in musical history. A century later, La Valois and young David unearth his ferociously difficult music and play it like tossing matchsticks around, fondly celebrating its preposterousness and the way it reflects on the preposterousness of music and life in general.
This novel is funny, stylish, humane, profound and exquisitely balanced. It just seems to read itself. I honestly don’t think there’s a better piece of fiction out there about the very wonderful and very peculiar world of classical music. Now, a message to whomever has the publishing rights: reprint this novel!
While we’re at it, to the BBC: serialise it on Radio 4. I’m thinking Roger Allam as La Valois. In fact, I might try and get hold of his agent…