Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2021

Mr Beethoven, by Paul Griffiths

I was always going to love this book. I was in love with Beethoven when I was a teenager: I was completely obsessed.  I listened to his music over and over again, I played as many of his piano works as I could manage, and I read everything about him that I could get my hands on.  (I have not entirely grown out of this obsession, as The Spouse can attest as I repeatedly work my way through my collection of Beethoven recordings.)

So Mr Beethoven, a novel in which he lives a little longer and writes another magnificent late work, kept me utterly absorbed.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmith’s Prize and the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize, and longlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, Mr Beethoven is playful fiction, which subverts the genre.  Its central—preposterous—premise is that Beethoven did not die in 1827, but lived long enough to travel to Boston in 1833 to produce a Biblical oratorio commissioned by the (amateur) Handel and Haydn Society.  This graphic via a review by Paul Fulcher at Goodreads reproduces a newspaper clipping that confirms the existence of the commission.

Beethoven’s hearing loss was severe by then, (and he was suffering from excruciating tinnitus too though this is not mentioned in the novel) but his task in the novel is eased by the presence of a young woman called Thankful, fluent in the sign language used extensively in Martha’s Vineyard.  (This was apparently because there was a high incidence of congenital deafness in Martha’a Vineyard at that time, because of intermarriage amongst people with a recessive genetic mutation. Like other aspects of this playful story, this is derived from historical fact.)  In no time Beethoven masters this sign language and communication is established. (Well, it is fiction.)  This enables him to tell the indignant librettist Ballou that his work is unusable, to fob off enquiries about how he’s getting on, and to indulge in mild intrigues with Thankful who doesn’t always translate exactly what is said to her.  ‘It’s more of the same’, she says, presumably keeping a straight face as she does so.

There are constant playful reminders that this is not your usual historical novel.  There are, for example, three different versions of one scene, which went like this, or perhaps like that, or no, it might have been this way—all of which of course could not actually have been any of the three because Beethoven died in 1827.  Some way into the novel the narrator—like the members of the society—is fed up with the apparent lack of progress and explodes into indignation.  Representing the frustrations of the reader, he lashes the author for an entire chapter:

We are not here now to dispute the virtues of fiction.  Let’s take that matter as read, shall we?  What we do dispute, however, is your right to hold back information.

You fill this book with information.  As if to taunt us, you tell us all kinds of things we do not need to know, such as the names and ages and trades of other passengers (the shipboard septet — oh, please) on the vessel that could have conveyed the great composer to Boston.  Remember that one?  And we know where you find all these annoyingly irrelevant details.  You even admit as much: on the Internet.  So what?

We have come this far largely in silence.  We have played the game.  We have done our part.  But we cannot go on keeping quiet when you continue to withhold what we most want to know, which is not the facts of the matter but the fiction.  Is Beethoven really stalling?  If so, why?  Or has he in fact (as it were) almost finished the score? Or has he hit a block? Most of all, what is the supposed subject of this oratorio.  You must know.  We have been patient long enough.  Over to you.  Get on with it. (p.127-8)

Another splendid aspect of this novel is that Griffith—who likes to play in the Oulipian sandpit—confines Beethoven’s dialogues (which, remember, are always in response to conversations he can’t hear), to authentic sources, from translations of his letters.  (Those so minded can inspect these sources in the appendix.)

Mr Beethoven is seriously good fun, but what I liked best was the very tempting idea that Beethoven was still innovating with a new style.  It would have been so wonderful if he had lived longer!

David at David’s book World enjoyed it too.

Image credit: Newspaper clipping from From Psalm to Symphony: A History of Music in New England By Nicholas E. Tawa, via Paul Fulcher’s review at Goodreads

Author: Paul Griffiths
Title: Mr Beethoven
Publisher: Henningham Family Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781999797492, pbk., 302 pages
Source: Bayside Library

 


Responses

  1. I have a bit of a passion for Beethoven too, because I lived on Eroicagasse and at the corner there was a Heurigen that he was supposed to have gone to quite frequently – and on the neighbouring street is where he realised that he was going deaf and wrote his Testament (and the 5th Symphony). So a lot of childhood memories attached to the dear, grumpy man (although musically I have to admit I preferred Mozart and Schubert at the time).

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    • On my first trip to Europe we made a pilgrimage to his grave in Vienna, and I saw his tuning fork in the British Library:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Lisa. Hadn’t heard of this. Definitely one for the tbr pile.

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    • It’s gorgeous, Brendan, I hope you love it too.

      Like

  3. My daughter won a prize in primary school, years ago now of course, to see the movie Beethoven, and took me. Great movie. I learned a lot.

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  4. Not sure that I’ll read this but isn’t it wonderful when you find a book that seems it’s been written just for you? (For me it was Turning by Jessica Lee – a book about swimming and the language of landscape in Berlin).

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  5. I remember when you reviewed that!

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  6. I enjoyed the review and may keep look around for this novel. Like you, I love Beethovan’s music but don’t know nearly as much about it and his life as you do! The novel sounds very innovative stylistically (nice to encounter with historical fiction) and, of course, the subject is intriguing.
    I have no trouble believing Beethoven would have continued to innovate had he lived. I rememer the first time I listened to his late quartets — I couldn’t believe they’d been composed in the 19th century.
    Thankful sounds like a great character!

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    • Me too, I know he would have. It’s almost painful to contemplate what we’ve lost due to his early death.

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  7. This does sound like fun and despite my lack of Beethoven knowledge, I’m very tempted by anything which, as you say, play(s) in the Oulipian sandpit – that’s my kind of book!!!

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    • I predict that you will love it too.
      BTW I have ordered the Penguin Book Book of Oulipo which apparently features another work by Griffiths…
      (I am shameless about the size of my TBR).

      Liked by 1 person

  8. My knowledge of Beethoven is sadly miniscule. I didn’t know about the tinnitus – that must have been utterly distressing for someone who lives in a world of sounds.

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    • My tinnitus is just an annoying whistle, which I rarely hear during the day. But his, apparently, was like the roaring of a truck. Can you imagine?

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  9. I loved Beethoven as a child too. Probably read a children’s bio about him as I read a lot of those. Sounds an interesting book and I’m sure Mr Penguin would be happy if he never heard Fur Elise again as I used to practise it so much during my dismal piano days. 🐧🐇

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  10. Intriguing book. I’m unsure why you associate it with Oulipo. I don’t see the similarity to authors like Perec and Queneau in what you have written, but a review is not the novel.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    • Hi Mae, it’s because he has written the novel subject to a self-imposed constraint, i.e. everything that Beethoven says in the novel, he didn’t actually say, in one of the letters that Griffith used as a resource.

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  11. Hats off to you, Lisa, for playing everything Beethoven that you could get your hands on. I can see you’re quite an accomplished pianist. I can only listen to enjoy his compositions. Have a whole LP set of his 9 symphonies with Leonard Bernstein directing the NY Philharmonic. This book sounds wonderful! I’ll have to check it out.

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    • Oh Arti, I wish I were an accomplished pianist. But as you can see, I wrote ‘everything I could manage’ which is not the same as ‘everything I could get my hands on’. With a very patient teacher I passed HSC Piano (which is the same as GSC, I think, it’s the final year of high school and used to be called Matriculation. But I think I passed on the strength of my technical accomplishment of the scales. I’m great at scales!
      I have a beautiful antique folio edition of his sonatas which was given to me by my teacher but I can only play some of them, and I know I play them badly because I don’t practise properly any more.
      I acquired some of those Bernsteins when The Spouse and I united our CD collections, but the vinyl set my parents gave me when I was a teenager was the Herbert Von Karajans, so now I’ve got that on CD, And it’s still my favourite.

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      • I had taken piano as a child, but only for a few years, not accomplished at all. But when I brought up my son, I introduced him to classical music and started him on the piano at 4 yrs. old. He eventually finished his ARCT (RCM Canada) at 16. Now that he has his own young sons, I hope he will instil in them the love of classical music. BTW, a biopic of Leonard Bernstein is in development… with Bradley Cooper directing and starring as LB, and Carey Mulligan to play his wife. Movie entitled ‘Maestro.’ Something to look forward to. :)

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        • Ooh yes, that will be a movie to see!
          I read a book a while ago about how the piano which was such a feature of ordinary domestic life has declined in importance, but I think it’s still something that gets passed on through generations of the same family.

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          • That’s exactly what we’re experiencing. We have a grand piano at home and my husband (who plays very well) always wants to leave that to my son but his home might not have enough space for it, and, he might not even want it. You’re right in noting that the piano no longer is an assumed, a priori item in a home (as in many Chinese immigrant families like mine). You might have observed that the older generation (i.e. me) come from the tradition of taking music lessons and making sure the next generation learn an instrument. But that is no longer the case with our children when they raise their own. The times they’re a changing… :-

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            • Yes… I think it’s sad that for so many people music is just background to their lives and not even shared with others because they have their own curated playlist through earphones.
              Of course it’s good that people have so many choices now, but it does not seem to make them much happier.

              Liked by 1 person

  12. Truly a book written just for you! :) Although it does seem as though you’ve got fine company, given the comments that share your enthusiasm. I was dedicated to classical music as a teenager too, but I had different favourites, and I can’t think of any who’ve made it into fiction (at least, not that I’ve discovered yet).

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    • It’s strange really, when you think about how many novels have been wrought from the lives of artists. The only other one I can think offhand is Music and Silence by Rose Tremain.

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      • I just thought of Janice Galloway’s Clara. And there’s one by a Québécoise writer Nancy Huston, Prodigy. I think the Welsh writer, Dorothy Edwards, had a couple of volumes too. But, yes, I agree, so many more about fine artists. And films about musicians? Maybe because films require soundtracks anyway. LOL 🎼

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