Thursday 1 September 2016

The Novel Approach to History: Ghost Variations by Jessica Duchen

Real people and actual events have provided rich pickings for storytellers for as long as stories have been told. And whenever a true story is told, teller and listener alike long to know what might have happened in the gaps left behind by history.

Novelist and Journalist Jessica Duchen tells the fascinating story of the rediscovery of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in the 1930s in her new novel Ghost Variations (released as an eBook in September 2016), which takes in virtuoso violinist Jelly d’Arányi, Europe on the brink of war, and messages from beyond the grave.

To coincide with the publication of Ghost Variations (clickhere for more information and to read an excerpt), Devil’s Trill spoke to Jessica about some of the issues that arise when writing a novel about people and events from history.

Devil’s Trill: How easy was it to research the historical settings and people featured in the book?

Jessica Duchen: Luckily for me, the 1930s exert a strong fascination for our own times. There is a wealth of material to read and to see – plenty of photos and film footage as well as endless books and articles about this era in Britain and Germany. In terms of background, it was more a question of where to stop than where to start.

The novels’ protagonists were another matter. Why are so many books about great “golden age” musicians out of print? One book exists about the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi and her gifted family: The Sisters d’Arányi, by Joseph Macleod. I got hold of a second-hand copy on (the site on which I spend most of my disposable income!). In fact, this was the book that sparked the novel; I bought it for information when I was researching my earlier novel Hungarian Dances, and in it stumbled over the bizarre story of the Schumann Violin Concerto’s rediscovery.

The British Library has a good-sized d’Arányi Collection, including numerous concert programmes. From this it’s possible to find out where Jelly played when, and what the repertoire was. This was especially useful in depicting the charity tour of nine cathedrals around the country that she undertook in 1933, to raise money for the unemployed. It also helped to ascertain that her presence on the concert platform reduced over the next few years. The Times Archive can be accessed and searched online, so I duly plundered that for reviews and reports. Other articles are easily available at various libraries.

Even more fascinating, though, was the tangential information that helped to build up a wider picture of Jelly’s world. She and her sisters, Adila Fachiri and Hortense (“Emilia”) Hawtrey, pop up in various books about famous figures of their day. Wherever there’s a Bloomsbury salon, an intellectual circle, a high society event, you were likely to find a d’Arányi playing the violin. And there’s some amazing correspondence between Jelly and Aldous Huxley. In the light of that friendship, you might notice a gently satirical portrait of Jelly in one of Huxley’s novels, Crome Yellow. Jelly was also close to Bartók and Ravel and inspired violin masterpieces from them both, as well as from Vaughan Williams, (“Uncle Ralph”).

I availed myself of plenty of books about Joseph Joachim, the sisters’ great-uncle, for whom the Schumann Violin Concerto was written; Donald Francis Tovey, their mentor, close friend and colleague; and Myra Hess, Jelly’s duo partner for 20 years. And more. Jelly’s friendship with ‘George’ Yeats, the wife of WB Yeats, is especially intriguing for George’s preoccupations with matters esoteric and occult, since it was through a Ouija board that Jelly first heard of the Schumann concerto’s existence. It’s not as if that took place in a vacuum. The d’Arányi sisters would have been encountering these practices for many years.

Eye-witness accounts are arguably still more valuable, offering insights hat may not be documented anywhere. I was fortunate enough to meet several people who knew my protagonists, or were related to them. I am deeply grateful to Jelly’s great-niece, Adila’s granddaughter, herself a fine musician, for her acceptance of this project; and to Nigel Hess, great-nephew of Dame Myra, for access to interesting material. I was lucky enough to meet Adila’s protégé, the cellist Rohan de Saram, and also to be put in contact by Steven Isserlis with several people who knew Jelly well – Steven’s teacher, Jane Cowan, had been a close friend of hers. Everyone confirmed that the sisters had believed unquestioningly in the “spirit messages”, and that the entire Schumann episode had left an odd taste in the mouth and they hadn’t liked to talk about it.

The more you look, the more you find. Another vital character is Baron Erik Palmstierna, the Swedish Minister in London, who wrote three books based on “spirit messages” channeled by Adila. He was the person who went to Berlin and physically unearthed the Schumann manuscript; and it was his first book, published in 1937, that released the story of the supposed Ouija board communication upon a derisive world. Some canny Googling revealed him to be utterly fascinating. His wife was a great supporter first of feminism, later of eugenics. His daughter died young during the war. His great-granddaughter became a famous supermodel and was at one point the face of Ralph Lauren…

…At some point you have to stop. I’ve used maybe a tenth of what I’ve learned.

DT: When turning this story into a novel, what did you find that you had to invent in order to tell the story?

JD: Any worthwhile fiction editor will say: “Don’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story”. Pick a genre and you must to some degree meet its expectations. Therefore turning a true-life incident into a gripping “detective” story is not primarily about setting down the facts. Get bogged down in research detail and you risk losing the reader to the greater attraction of watching paint dry.

You need to build characters who are believable and with whom the reader can identify. That’s not always easy with musicians, whose inevitable absorption in their work can (so I’m told) seem alienating. I’ve tried to make Jelly come across as lively, caring, passionate, positive, driven by her love for music and for life itself, struggling quietly against the many losses in her past. Then there’s her situation as a foreigner, at least partly Jewish, in a xenophobic pre-war Britain where fascism is on the rise; her insecurity – and later her victimisation in what today would be a fearful Twitter storm – should put us firmly on her side. This isn’t invention as much as accentuation – rather like lighting design in a theatre production.

The novel’s themes should give the story power and significance – otherwise it’s just a series of events. I was intrigued by the confluence of three tipping points: Schumann’s from sanity to madness, the pre-war world into fascism, and Jelly herself from stardom to decline – and the notion of a chance for redemption.

The theme of life after death is crucial if you’re dealing with “spirit messages”. I have invented a scene in which Jelly visits the deathbed of a former admirer/lover. The Joseph Macleod book makes it clear that she was close to this individual, an Irish-born diplomat, and that she mourned him deeply. Such a scene might not be real, but it’s needed for this canvas. Life turns to death. What then? Supposing you believe in a spirit life, yet you look over that precipice and you find nothing at all?

One crucial liberation was the extra vantage point of a completely fictional character who can watch the goings-on. I’ve invented a character named Ulli Schultheiss who works for the music publishers Schott’s in Mainz. The publishers played a vital role in the unfolding events, and their actions occasionally beggar belief. For instance, in the mid 1930s, in the heart of the Nazi era, a publisher in the Third Reich decides to send the newly discovered, propaganda-conscripted Schumann Concerto to Yehudi Menuhin? Ulli is a valuable observer; he can, for example, take us into Nazi Germany, he attends the premiere of the concerto in Berlin and he is, too, Jelly’s fervent younger admirer (something I’m told she probably had in plenty).  

One episode may shock some readers: Jelly’s less than happy encounter with Yehudi Menuhin’s father. The detail and the timing of this is invented. But I have it on good word-of-mouth authority that something similar did take place. 

DT: What did you feel happy inventing, and where did you feel you had to stop?

JD: I will fess up to having concocted a big scene involving Goebbels. Apparently the heads of Schott organised a meeting with some powerful Third Reich officials to convince them that Schott, not Breitkopf, should publish the concerto, and that Jelly had a moral right to a premiere of some kind. Given the opportunity to include Goebbels in this, what novelist would not? The detail of the argument that takes place, though, is based largely on the points raised in correspondence explored in an article in the Hindemith Society journal in 2002, kindly supplied to me by Schott’s themselves when I visited them in Mainz.

The relationships between Jelly and the men in her life are invented where necessary, but remain limited. I didn’t feel I could invade a real person’s private life to the extent of depicting a love affair. Similarly the Swedish Baron’s relationship with Adila is the topic of speculation. In later years, well after her husband’s death, he moved in with Adila and Jelly (the two sisters lived together for the rest of their lives). This situation appears to look, walk and quack like a duck; still, I’ve let well alone. One of my favourite episodes is pure invention, yet rings true to the spirit of the characters and the story. Having stormed out of the family home, Jelly ends up giving an impromptu free concert in the Savoy Hotel. Throughout the book there’s a conflict between her curiosity about the concerto and the “spirits” – and her passion for simply bringing music to people. It is her giving nature, her spontaneous love for her music and her audience, that makes her, I hope, an appealing heroine. In the end, music is redemption – the very best of ourselves – and that’s what the book is really about.

To find out more about Ghost Variations by Jessica Duchen, click here.

Thank you to Jessica Duchen for her help in preparing this article.

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