Unwritten Secrets, By Ronald Frame

Two voices in perfect harmony
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Every summer, as the Edinburgh Book Festival approaches, editors reach for a state-of-Scottish-fiction piece. Almost always, the leading lights hail from the healthy tribe of urban modernists: from Irvine Welsh to James Kelman, A L Kennedy to (in his unique fashion) Ian Rankin. It seems a shame that other strands of storytelling in Scotland implicitly appear less lively or robust. That's not the case at all.

Prolific, versatile, capable of a William Trevor-like understated drama, Glaswegian Ronald Frame has published 14 works of fiction. Unwritten Secrets returns to the musical motifs, and the tangled teacher-pupil dynamics, of his Booker-longlisted The Lantern Bearers (1999). Its cleverly braided double narrative alternates the stories of two singers, bound by the time that the younger woman spent as a student of the elder.

In 2008, leading American soprano Mariel Baxter returns to Vienna and to the glacial, secretive diva, Ursule Kroll, who taught her in the 1980s. "Your voice has minted very nicely, I gather," the elderly legend icily remarks. There follows a fast-moving dual account of the singers' lives in separate cultures and ages. Their divergent careers have both fallen prey to sexual hypocrisy, industry manipulation and political pressure. With scandalous liaisons, family secrets and even (in Ursule's youth) a plot that ropes in top-level Nazis, Frame's twin intrigues even verge on the sensational.

Switching between the US and Europe, and Austria during and after its submission to the Third Reich, the novel explores two models of the musician's role in society – and suggests how closely they connect. Above all, the singers' personalities convince in their blending of a high artistic vocation with guilt at the shabby compromises required to get, and stay, ahead of rival voices.

Frame evokes the sounds that makes these burdened lives worthwhile with deft and laconic skill: from Mariel singing an aria from La Traviata on a Paris bridge in a "transfigured night", to the melancholy "sweet balm of memory" audible in Ursule's recordings of her favourite Schubert songs. His novel strikes with flair and resonance those dissonant chords of money and desire, fame and politics, that rumble behind great music and its makers. Its various mysteries unfold at a presto gallop, free of all Viennese schmaltz, in a tight-knit, allusive and sardonic style: more Alban Berg than Richard Strauss.