In the key of life

Books: Dermot Clinch detects some false notes: The Biography of Thomas Lang by Jonathan Buckley
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Biography of Thomas Lang by Jonathan Buckley, Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99

A sequential story", writes a character in this novel, "Isn't necessarily a straight story." So be warned. In The Biography of Thomas Lang - biography by name, fractured postmodern novel by nature - there is not a straight story in sight. The novel is framed as an exchange of letters, though also stuffed with essay, allegory, fable. Though containing biography it expends plenty of time and effort questioning biography's purpose.

Thomas Lang is a recently deceased pianist. He performed with Karajan and Abbado; his playing was "marked by fierce control and economy of means"; he refused to give encores, but the applause would be in "full spate" ten minutes after his last bow. He was a "genius", his biographer tells us. All looks set for a ripping biography - except that the author, Michael Dessauer has a problem. His principal source - Lang's brother - is not cooperating.

The biographer's campaign of coaxing letters, along with Christopher Lang's replies - resisting, misleading, rapidly giving in - provide the momentum. Neither biographer nor source, we realise, is entirely trustworthy. The correspondence, it's clear, is a pretext, for a debate about the nature of biography and identity. Dessauer is on the traditional wing. "The Thomas Lang of my book", he insists, "will perhaps be closer to the whole man than the character perceived by any simple person who knew him." Lang retorts that the book is "an absurdity, a kind of Platonic super-life, an impossible feat of pedantic devotion and clairvoyance."

It's a novel driven not by character or narrative but ideas. The pianist himself - Glenn Gould magnified ad absurdum - is tossed about by the heavy conceptual seas. Reclusive, obsessive, a pianist who storms out of performances, he is a strange, distinctly unprofessional but recognisable type. Even his most controversial recording remains just the right side of plausibility: Beethoven's last sonata, in wildly opposed interpretations on either side of an LP.

The narrative, such as we can piece it together, is neatly constructed. But it's the stuffing of ideas that Jonathan Buckley is really bothered about. Want to read an essay on "Busoni Contra Wagner"? Lang wrote one and here it is. Keen on "cod-Arthurian" allegorical tales examining the selective nature of love and understanding? The Lady of Doriolan, pages 139-147, is such an one. What is a biography? What is the nature of performance, of artistic sincerity? The reader may not emerge with the answers. But if any of the author's admirably sharp musical scepticism rubs off on us we'll be doing just fine.

It's a sharp, intelligent novel, which makes its single, overwhelming misjudgement the more surprising. Dessauer we can put up with. He is a pedant, but he is credible. The Lang brothers are not. A more arch, irritating pair of characters, in fact, I have never spent time with. Instead of having a plain lunch, Thomas speaks of "doing battle with a bacterial baguette". This taxes our patience enough. But Christopher, with his parody of camp superiority in every utterance, takes us over the edge. "Musings on musicianship are like watching elephants waltzing over daisies," reads one letter critical of the biographer's method. "There is no reason to be ashamed of dedication to the quotidian, as Tom might once have told me, aetatis VII." The quotidian task of Dessauer is to read these affected, squirming letters. The reader's duty may just lead elsewhere.

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