There was a legend in Victorian England that when Friedrich Handel was the chapel master to the Duke of Chandos, he was caught in a ferocious thunderstorm one afternoon while out walking and took shelter in a blacksmith's workshop. He witnessed the blacksmith singing in time with the striking of his hammer against his anvil. Victorian music journals debated endlessly the story's validity, and whether the steel smack of the singing metal forger inspired the melody for the final movement of one of Handel's most famous pieces of music, Suite No. 5 in E Major, otherwise known as "The Harmonious Blacksmith."
I bring this legend up with regards to Wesley Stace's excellent third novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, not only because the book's titular composer, Jessold, writes a tribute to Handel's suite — an atonal study called "The Inharmonious Blacksmith" — but also because the book explores the idea of narrative as the circulation of gossip.
Jessold is a young, excitable composer in the years leading up to World War I. We are introduced to him by way of a news article about his death: "COMPOSER KILLS WIFE, ANOTHER, COMMITS SUICIDE." Stace spends 400 pages opening up a single quotation from that article — "The musical critic of this newspaper, a sometime collaborator of the composer, Leslie Shepherd, blamed Jessold's alcoholism and obsessive nature, declaring the murders an unnecessary tragedy, one that would inevitably tarnish the composer's legacy." The matter of Jessold's legacy is at the heart of the novel's construction: two separate books within a book, each written by Shepherd, a music critic and the composer's collaborator on his final masterpiece, Little Musgrave, which was performed for the first and last time — a dress rehearsal — the final night of Jessold's life.
The two separate books are a veritable lesson in the question of authenticity in narrative. The first, an "objective" biography-cum-police report of Jessold's life and death, reveals its falsehoods and considerable plot holes only after the second book, Shepherd's personal memoir of his relationship with the composer, is revealed. Both texts are an attempt at abolishing Jessold's inauspicious posthumous reputation, a result of his supposed double murder/suicide, defenses of his body of work. Yet the two halves are near opposites, like two tonal and atonal scales in the same key. "Biography makes sense of art," Shepherd remarks at one point, though what he really means is deferred until the very end: "Art is more important than my life."
The two books inside Stace's smart and highly stylized novel interpret one another. During the first telling of the performance of Little Musgrave, for which Shepherd wrote the libretto, our narrator sits in the audience, overwhelmed by the music. "Not even epic evenings of Wagner, five-and-a-half-hour marathons that left me reeling, unable to orient myself through the dull reality of the London streets, had had a vaguely comparable effect," he claims. In the more confessional telling of the scene, we learn the real reason for his weariness is that Jessold had rewritten the libretto entirely. "The surprise, however," he says, "was not that so much wasn't mine, but that so much was. Though he had rearranged and rendered unrecognizable much of my written work, it was still there."
This confusion of Jessold's words with Shepherd's in the performance of Little Musgrave is a kind of metaphor for the book itself. It raises the question: What do we believe? Just like Handel's legend with the blacksmith — a miserable myth or the reality behind his greatest composition, depending on which music journal you read — we can never be sure of the real story, whether we should consider Jessold a murderer or just misunderstood.
Michael H. Miller writes for the New York Observer. He lives in Brooklyn.