Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Song of Names - Norman Lebrecht

Norman Lebrecht is a journalist and broadcaster who has written prolifically on classical music.  This, his first novel, published in 2002, is set firmly within the world of highbrow music.  His narrator, Martin Simmonds, is the middleaged chairman of a company that trades in cheap musical scores, counting off the days to desultory retirement.  His father, who set up the company before the war, was a musical zealot who not only published scores but promoted major concerts and managed emerging talent.

For father and son everything fell apart in 1950 when the old man's ward and most-gifted protege - Martin's adopted brother and hero - David Eli Rapaport (Dovidl) inexplicably vanishes on the eve of his heavily-rpomoted Albert Hall debut.

The structure is smart: the 'present', rolled out in present tense narrative, is actually 1990, allowing Martin to be in his very early sixties and therefore still just about active; the middle of the book, one huge chapter in past tense, is the boyhood and young adulthood of Dovidl, 1939-1950.  This is clever and appropriate without ever straying into the flashy.  Lebrecht has no need to show off his literary craft because the book relies on his encyclopedic knowledge of the classical field and his personal experience of being Jewish.  Yes, some of the Jewishness here is just as esoteric as the music.

Here, as just as taste of this heady confection, is a sentence that particularly struck me from page 241:  "In the intro-extrospective schism that afflicts every belief system, Dovidl won the battle of the navel-gazers."

The Song of Names, as you can see from the paperback cover above, won the 2002 Whitbread First Novel Award.  This is no surprise.  In the entire 311 pages only one false note distrurbed my reading delight, one clever flourish too many, and that - sadly - on page 310.  I wish Lebrecht's editor had persuaded him to think again.  Nonetheless, his second novel is The Game of Opposites (2007) and I'm on the lookout.

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