by James Hamilton-Paterson
Cape, pounds 9.99
"Music is what it says & it says what it is through sounds & not the written word." This quotation from Elgar's diary in James Hamilton- Paterson's magnificent novel Gerontius expresses the paradox at the heart of his new collection of stories. Always an important theme in his work, music here becomes the starting point for a series of tales, fables and meditations on life, art and creativity. Written in a wide range of voices, from that of a wisecracking lesbian pianist to a bluff, middle-aged literary executor, they reveal an imagination as wide-ranging as it is dazzling.
It begins with music in its most debased form, the piped "foam-rubber music" in a supermarket. Less a story than "one of those sharp moments which feels like a jab of sanity", this cynical piece describes a trip to the supermarket as a brush with the Grim Reaper. The piped music becomes a symbol both of existential angst and of a society of mind-numbing conformity. It's extremely short, striking and funny. Entitled " (1)", it's clearly to be set against " (2)", a moving meditation on the Stabat Mater that concludes the book. These two pieces provide reference points for the other stories and a framework that ranges literally from the ridiculous to the sublime.
From the supermarket, Hamilton-Paterson moves to a family picnic, interrupted by a sad soul who believes he's Schumann. The father, a doctor, is torn between his natural kindness to a misfit requiring an audience and his desire to protect his daughters. The resulting story is beautifully crafted, touching and edgily funny, ending on the powerful link between music and memory. Many of the stories involve this kind of uneasy collision between people from different worlds, all requiring subtle shifts in tone. "Jaro" is about the relationship between an Italian woman and a young Croatian refugee who comes to stay. He finds and plays a guitar and the resulting music represents not only what's left of his identity but all that he has lost. The tension between Jaro as vulnerable young boy and tough, cynical survivor is skilfully done in cool, precise prose that gazes unflinchingly at the complexities of loss.
A profound awareness of the suffering of others is central to the collection. His subject is nothing less than "the still, sad music of humanity", but he takes Wordsworth's phrase one literal step further, exploring the idea that music emanates from everything whether we hear it or not. In "The Dell", a musician teaches his apprentice how to listen to the sounds of the landscape. In "People's Disgrace", a satire on academia and censorship, the central character has an experience of grief as a "far chord of D flat, the aching sound of limitless distance and separation".
But is not entirely in D flat. Hamilton-Paterson is astonishingly versatile and many of the stories are extremely funny. "Anxieties of Desire" focuses on a subject more lucratively explored by Martin Amis - artistic envy. The narrator, a failed composer living in exile in North Africa, discovers he has a younger, more successful namesake. He suffers years of bitterness and resentment, but is delighted when his namesake disappears in the war and their shared name is spoken of "with pity, affection, reverence". The story is told with a Casaubon-like dryness and pomposity in the measured tones of an Ishiguro narrator. It is witty and touching.
These stories, set in Italy, Africa, Britain, Vietnam and the Middle East, reveal a tireless search for an answer to the question of what's common to human experience and what remains culturally specific. It's perhaps most memorably raised in the hilarious "Farts and Longing", where Mozart is reincarnated as a Nigerian heart specialist. Wolfgang Amadeus, alias Dr Tom Abandanaya, discusses the false dichotomy between his music (the sublime) and his farts (the ridiculous), arguing that both are of equal value. In "Frank's Fate", a story about a writer haunted by his belief that he's second-rate, Frank observes that "old Pater was spot on" in his assertion that "all art constantly aspires to the condition of music". In this wonderful, playful and profound collection, we feel we have the best of both. Any art that's half as good as will do just fine.