I've just finished reading an incredible book, Gerontius by one James Hamilton-Paterson, and I have to say I am utterly sold on this author. During a harrowing, mile-a-minute winter soujourn to Los Angeles by way of Las Vegas, I happened upon two books of his--Cooking with Fernet Branca and it's sequel Amazing Disgrace--which beautifully detail a fussbudget, uptight expat Englishman (decamped to the hills of Tuscany), a biographer by trade who has happened upon the money gig of ghosting biogs of sports heroes and popstarts, and his odd relationship with a composer next door. These are funny, frothy books (excellent summer reading I'd bet) done so artfully that I could not put them down. After these, I decided (as is my way) to read many more books by this author, and so picked up Gerontius, which details, oddly enough, a trip British Composer Elgar made to the Amazon.
Now, I have to confess here, I have a soft spot for Sir Edward, and for his music, which always strikes me as perfectly well wrought and deeply sincere, almost to a fault. In photos he always seems so stodgy, and it is important to remember that as the musical world was in the sway of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Ravel and Shostakovich, there was Elgar, chugging away at his massive oratorios, tone poems and symphonies, wroght in high Victorian style, fripperies and finery and lofty aims all around. It is a heartbreaking story, one Mr. Hamilton-Paterson captures gorgeously. I do not know what the author's musical background is--he is British, so he's likely so adept simply through public school--but he gets everything exactly right: the dillemma of an artist and his obligation to fashion; how a composer thinks; how a life in music is not only unremunerative but also at times desperate to discuss anything other than music; all the stupid questions a famous composer must suffer; and the pain of sticking to one's vision despite praise and money going to someone else.
I am often annoyed by the whole "art above life, genius above art" ethos that tends to plague art about art, and as a musician the pap about music most often sticks in my craw. And yet I always read a novel about a composer if I hear of one, because I am always waiting for someone to get it right, to not paint us as savants or madmen or a voice of God, but as people who work and strive and doubt and then work again, usually in an echo chamber, often for some cause we've forgotten. This was that book, the book about a composer for which I'd been waiting.
Sadly the bulk of Mr. Hamilton-Paterson's work is long out of print--and I have to confess more, I bought the first one because of it's sleek and beautiful design, the work of Europa Editions (who also published Hangover Square, another of my new favorites). Perhaps they will release to us in the States more of this author's work, because it needs to be here. If nothing else, it is nice to read an artist so skilled in one discipline who is not totally (and usually proudly) daft about concert music.