School of Velocity review: notes on a friendship

A classical pianist looks back on his life in Eric Beck Rubin’s short, meditative novel

Sat, Nov 26, 2016, 05:00


Book Title:
School of Velocity


Eric Beck Rubin


Guideline Price:

Since 2013, Pushkin Press’s imprint ONE and its editor, Elena Lappin, have unearthed quite a few gems of debuts. Issuing one title a season, more often than not a new voice, it has brought us the likes of Chigozie Obioma’s Booker-shortlisted The Fishermen, Rachel Elliott’s Baileys-nominated Whispers Through the Megaphone and, earlier this year, the American writer Ted McDermott’s darkly droll debut, The Minor Outsider.

The latest is Eric Beck Rubin’s School of Velocity, a meditation on music, memory and mental illness. From his Maastricht home, 40-something Jan de Vries charts his career as a classical pianist, centring the tale on a formidable friendship forged as a teenager.

Jan notices Dirk around their creative arts school in Den Bosch long before he meets him. A larger-than-life presence, Dirk is a handsome and charismatic teenager whom girls flock to and boys hope to be. Forgiving the theft of his girlfriend, Lise – soon discarded by Dirk– Jan becomes inseparable from his new friend, following him home after school and sleeping over in a largely parentless house.

The painful intensity of the bond comes alive through Jan’s descriptions. It is reflected in the title, which refers to the classical piano manual for practicing scales, but also in Dirk and Jan’s game of riding their bikes at speed downhill with their eyes closed.

Fantasies of escape

As Jan watches Dirk hog the limelight, longing to have him alone, there are overtones of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Like the flamboyant Dickie Greenleaf, Dirk is a vibrant presence, always teetering on the edge. Jan summaries his attitude: “Living life outside the bounds was worth it. Squeezing excitement out of every moment no matter where it led you, no matter what calamity it brought down, was worth it. Was the whole point.”

Sharp and funny, Dirk teases Jan with grand fantasies of escape: “Or maybe, de Vries, we shouldn’t go to school tomorrow. Eh? Maybe fly away to Paris instead. Or Mombasa. Or Kinshasa. Or Lake Titicaca.” A talented young actor with grand ambitions, Dirk’s greatest role is himself. Planning a show that will take the school by storm, he tells Jan: “It’ll be a demonstration of pure Dirkian nonsense.” That their friendship quickly turns sexual is not surprising. Told from Jan’s perspective, it is Dirk who controls the action, while Jan acquiesces to whatever the dominant personality wants.

The world of talented youth is a captivating backdrop for their story. More interesting in many ways than those who actually reach the top, both Jan and Dirk almost make it. Jan wins a prestigious scholarship at the de Vroot Conservatory, but while he is in high demand, it is as an accompanist not a soloist that he eventually makes his name. On the back of many offers, Dirk heads to America to fulfil his acting dreams. After a few visits back to Holland, he vanishes into the ether, sending enigmatic postcards from all over the world, leading Jan to believe his star continues to shine.

The turning point in the novel, and the friendship, comes with the arrival of Lena, a law student Jan falls for while training at the conservatory. Rubin depicts her as a faithful and steady presence, her commitment to nurturing the artist making for an admirable if somewhat dull female character. She is the opposite of Dirk – selfless, supportive, sympathetic – though as Jan waits to go on stage in Osaka for his first international tour, it is Dirk who he imagines in the audience, his ideal listener. The upending in later chapters of how we see their friendship is clever, though the storyline of Jan succumbing to mental illness warrants further exploration.

Musical backdrop

From Canada, Rubin is a cultural historian who writes on architecture, literature and psychology. School of Velocity started to take shape while he was on a language study course at the Regina Coeli school, in Vught, in the Netherlands. His knowledge of and research into classical music is impressive and lends an eloquence to Jan’s commentary, which is authentic and interesting: “The Schubert had the most beautiful opening of any piece I had played. As if the notes were balanced on the thinnest, most fragile wire.” The Rachmaninov C-sharp is “a pack of limbs falling spectacularly down a flight of stairs”.

Using music as a backdrop in fiction has resulted in some excellent novels, from Bernard MacLaverty’s Booker shortlisted Grace Notes to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. The subjects of music and friendship at the heart of Rubin’s debut don’t quite converge in a similar fashion, with a final quarter that is disjointed and includes a questionable shift of tense and voice.

School of Velocity makes for a very pleasant interlude nonetheless. Rubin has succeeded in his short novel, as Jan himself puts it, “to conceive of a piece as a story, and of composers as storytellers with specific voices, cadences, personalities”.