Recently Read: Stephen Downes & Louis Armand
Here are two novels I recommend, both with embedded photographs and both, oddly, by Australian writers, although Louis Armand is now based in Prague.
Here’s the premise of Stephen Downes new book The Hands of Pianists (Fomite Press, 2021): “A neurotic freelance writer aims to prove that pianos kill elite pianists. For decades, he has grappled with the guilt that followed an accident in which he severed his talented sister’s fingers. ending her promising career at the keyboard. His investigations centre on the violent deaths at 31 of three great pianists.” At first, I will admit that I was skeptical. Downes’ narrator is an obsessive driven by his guilt and I don’t have much patience with obsessives. But as it turned out, I read the book in two non-stop sittings, fascinated and ready for more. My initial prejudices melted away when I saw that the narrator’s true obsession was a global search for meaning through music.
The three men whose deaths are being investigated by the narrator are genuine virtuoso pianists who all curiously died at the age of 31. American William Kapell died in 1953 returning from Australia when the commercial airplane he was in crashed south of the San Francisco airport. Australian Noel Mewton-Wood also died in 1953, committing suicide. He apparently blamed himself for failing to notice symptoms of the disease that would cause the death of his partner a few days earlier. New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell died as a passenger in a car crash in Sussex in 1958. In this well-written, digressive, almost Sebaldian novel, Downes takes the reader into the minds of pianists to explore what music and performance means to them. For someone like me, who frequently listens to classical music and attends concerts, Downes gives an insider’s window from the professional’s perspective. He writes about stage-fright, pianists hands, the quality of different pianos, recorded music, and much more, in addition to writing about the aesthetic qualities of music. The book moves from Australia to London to the Czech Republic. My favorite section is a visit to the Czech campus of Paul McNulty, the foremost builder of fortepianos, who builds them completely by hand for some of the foremost musicians of our time, one fortepiano at a time. In Prague, during a visit to the Kafka Museum, the narrator encounters a ghostly “Dr. K,” who challenges him on the nature of his quest. Have you transferred “your guilt about your sister’s accident,” he asked, “to a dead instrument?” By the end of the book, the narrator admits that “my notion that pianos kill pianists was unraveling.”
The Hands of Pianists includes several dozen small black-and-white photographs, many apparently by the author. A few are purely documentary in function, but many are very evocative, helping the narrative feel more like fiction.
Canicule is French for the dog days of summer. In Louis Armand’s Canicule (Equus Press, 2013), three men struggle with their pasts, their passions, and their failures. The book culminates with two of the men, Hess and Wolf, meeting to scatter the ashes of the third, aptly named Ascher, who has committed suicide by self-immolation.
Hess is our first-person narrator. He’s a screenwriter who can’t get anyone to return his calls anymore. But he has a dream about “the perfect film. . . about three characters whose lives are completely empty.” “But why not tell it like it really is? Begin with that much, keep it in the margins, let the story speak for itself. The full two reels’ worth.” And so some of the chapters are written in third-person, free-indirect mode, with Hess just another character in his own story.
“Three boys in a fading kodachrome” first met in 1983, “the year the US embassy in Beirut got bombed. . . the sunset of a world with no future.” Wolf’s father was murdered on live television during an airplane hijacking in the 1970s. Depressed, his mother tried but failed to commit suicide and murder Wolf by putting rat poison in their milk one day. Ascher, an East German, was orphaned at ten, when his parents were killed in an auto accident. When the Berlin Wall came down he found himself angry “at having grown up at the fag-end of a defeated ideology” and proceeded to join “a succession of more and more radical groups. . . looking for the edge.” But in the end, Ascher’s wife walked out on him and took the children, and he ended up impoverished and friendless in an attic in Hamburg, where he finally killed himself.
Canicule is bleak and, to some extent, the men’s lives seem to be a reflection of the times they in which they live. But after a while I didn’t give two cents about the male characters in Canicule. Their masculinity had left them utterly adrift as adults and they were blithely ignorant about the damage they did to the women that got drawn into their circle. But what kept the novel intriguing was Armand’s ragged, inventive writing and Hess’s continual attempt to re-imagine his story as a film. Each chapter begins with a photograph, most of which appear to be film stills from classic movies (none of the images are credited or identified). Hess tends to see the world filtered through film terminology. “All of a sudden Ada turned towards him, tears in her eyes. Like Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s Jean d’Arc. That silent terror in the exchange of looks, shot-reverse-shot, between Falconetti and the mad monk Artaud. Martyr and prelate. History’s revenants, like blackened celluloid dolls. And right before his eyes she began to dissolve, a piece of film erupting into invisible flame.” But, in the end, even Hess questions his own belief in film. “Somebody dies and right before your eyes they turn to celluloid. Is that all there is?”