Book review / Keys to an elusive personality

THE BIOGRAPHY OF THOMAS LANG by Jonathan Buckley, Fourth Estate pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
BRILLIANT but troubled pianists make good tragic heroes. Their lives provide all the right dramatic ingredients: obsession, genius, agony, power and self-destruction. Glenn Gould, John Ogdon and David Helfgott have all been the subjects of successful films. Now, in his accomplished first novel, Jonathan Buckley has invented Thomas Lang, a child prodigy who grows up to be a globe-trotting global star, and has been killed in a car crash, accident or suicide.

The book takes the unfashionable form of an epistolary novel, the correspondence being between Lang's brother, Christopher, and Michael Dessauer, his would-be biographer. Buckley pulls off quite a feat: the person is put together as the image is taken apart. Popular notions of genius and creativity are fed, watered and then pulled up by the roots; biography also comes under attack. Christopher Lang rebuffs, cajoles and encourages Dessauer, who deals with this capricious behaviour with polite stubbornness and negotiation. Between them, they throw in most kinds of source material and show how convincing and also how misleading each can be. There are at least two versions of every story.

A precocious child, Thomas Lang became a serial expert on dinosaurs, collective nouns, heraldry and racehorses. A woman recognised his gift and devoted herself to coaching him. He kept his playing secret until the day he entered a local music competition. Thomas's peers struggled through "Fur Elise" while he brought the house down with Beethoven's Bagatelle in E Flat Major. The memories of fellow music students bring to mind all the expected adjectives: eccentric (he had "a morbid affection for mandarin ducks"), ascetic, elusive, charismatic and volatile. He could learn a complicated piece by heart in an afternoon.

Opening a box of Thomas's papers at random, Christopher comes across an assortment of those who attach themselves to celebrity: a model threatening kiss and tell; a sound engineer's 50 letters on the subject of tone; and a hopeful six-page continuation of a strikingly inane airport chat. In different ways, all these correspondents have confused fame with familiarity. Christopher reveals Thomas's own voice slowly, beginning with jokey postcards and professional notes. The arch cleverness and pedantry of the Lang brothers can wear thin, but Buckley has them play straight at just the right moment.

In both serious and comic asides, the classical music industry is exposed. Lang is depressed by the calculated nature of the exchange between performer and audience. He contends with illicit recording, refuses to play to a house bought up for corporate entertainment and tries to insist that ticket prices are kept low. Critics time, compare and dissect everything he does.

The music itself is another matter. Talk of inspiration and soul are anathema to Lang, but he discourses passionately about the interdependence of classicism and romanticism, Busoni and Wagner. He draws a line between performance and creation, and has a style that is described as clear, precise and brilliant. He strives for purity of form, but not mathematical reduction of the kind currently being applied in the discovery of fractals in Bach. It has something to do with the joy he experiences when blinded by heavy rain, or outside in such intense darkness that he cannot see his hand.

We do not, in the end, discover whether the biography is written, but we are given, in the correspondence, a spontaneous and searching picture of the life. In the same way, while the book resists our sentimental preconceptions about the music, the passion and intelligence of the insights it contains leave us wanting to listen more.