A reluctant starlet, Friederike enrols for singing lessons at the Vienna Conservatory only after inheriting a vast fortune from her grandfather, an amateur musician. Her singing teacher, an Englishman called Archie, is lofty, driven, gloriously intolerant and entertaining. He is quick to realise the gorgeous potential of Friederike's voice, though he never tells her that she's good. (He prefers to mock and disparage her best efforts.) Despite their obvious differences they fall in love; marriage follows. Yet Archie, destructively obsessed with the composer Alban Berg, has secrets he will not share with his wife. Famously, Berg died without completing the scoring of the final act of his incomparable opera, Lulu. Archie is in possession of some of Berg's notebooks and claims to have found the manuscript of this missing completion. With peculiar innocence, his wife is thrilled by the discovery, but later, the manuscript is revealed as a fake.
'Wagner,' Nietzsche used to complain in his last wild years of madness, 'I hate his music, but I can hear no other.' Something of the torment and rapturous ardour of this remark is apparent in Archie's relationship with the dead Berg. A proficient though drastically limited pianist, Archie knows he will never be great. He is simply crushed by the thought of being ordinary, and his Lulu manuscript - his other Lulu - is his stake in the future, his pitch for glory. In contrast, Friederike neither craves attention nor quite understands just how good she is. Haughty, effortlessly superior, astoundingly rich, she is a free spirit. Yet, in the end, it is she rather than Archie who has a clearer sense of destiny. As we last glimpse Archie playing the piano, we know that only doom, despair and heartbreak lie ahead for him.
Like Berg's Lulu, the novel is extreme and melodramatic - there are sudden disclosures and swooning revelations; betrayals and fabulous reunions. The pages swarm wiih grotesques, dilettantes and preposterous creations. Like Lulu, it's obsessively addicted to secrecy; nearly every character has something to hide. And yet, again as in Lulu, there are moments of light and considerable wit. Much of the dialogue has a frothy playfulness.
What strikes one most about the book, however, is Hensher's stylistic daring. Not only does he succeed throughout in maintaining a consistent tone of voice, he actually sounds like a woman. (He sometimes sounds uncannily like Fanny, the young narrator of Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate.) His prose is fresh and bold and often memorable. What he doesn't do, however, is write with any real conviction about Berg's music. Here is Friederike on Lulu: 'There was something almost delicious, almost edible about the velvety near-operetta sound about me, a glittering heartless chaste excess of means to achieve the utterly limpid, the virtually unsingable, irresistibly hummable musics (sic).' Certainly this sentence, with its adjectival and adverbial massing and quirky diction, has a lively inventiveness. But what is it actually saying? The language - streaming, airy - is neither precise or unusual enough to be truly impressive; it doesn't really tell us anything about Berg's music. Still, so promising is this novel and so sympathetically does Hensher handle Friederike's slow accommodation of her talent, that his next offering will be worth waiting for.