Consider the opening eight chords of Beethoven’s fifth; probably you hear the ominous beginning of that darkling flight of music. Yet, to someone listening for the first time, those same chords might be the jubilant sound of E-flat major: we only perceive it as minor because of what follows. Time too is like an unfolding score, according to Bergson. This is just one of the mind-altering observations Crumey presents in Beethoven’s Assassins, a deliciously intellectual, ambitious book that explores time, metaphysics, narrative and pretty much everything, all at once.
Therese, Beethoven’s sister-in-law, opens the book, with a droll account of the composer’s final days; here are the first intimations of an opera the maestro may have been working on, from which the book gets its title. The motif of the missing opera (and the story it tells) carries through the book, as the narrative slip-slides through history to the present day.
The narrative is anchored by Robert Coyle, tasked with writing about Beethoven and philosophy. Having lost his mother in a terrible accident, he must look after his elderly father, whose dementia means finding appropriate care, and disembowelling the family home. During this upheaval, he is invited to a residency at Axtoun House, a locus which unites several of the narrators through different time periods. These include Adam Crouch, an alcoholic writer who isn’t writing, Schindler, Beethoven’s biographer, and Sullivan, an early 20th-century scholar, all of whom are connected in the text by interwoven details and refrains.
Hypnotism, deception, murder, and madness are the counterpoints to the main melody, while the unsettling and wonderfully gothic minor movement in the book comes through governess Marion; in a warped version of Jane Eyre, she arrives to look after a lonely, odd child at another iteration of Axtoun house in 1823.
From the voice of Caruso heard through the jittering of a gramophone, to the rippling of a dead person’s thoughts through the centuries, the repeating preoccupation of the book is time: if it flows backwards as well as forwards, or if it is rather three-dimensional — all embodied by the non-linear, self-referencing narrative structure, accomplished with humour and virtuosic imagination. “Every moment in music is shaped by antecedents and sequels. Can a similar situation arise in physics?”