First, there was the need to organise a constellation of ideas and thoughts that revolved around the Holocaust, identity and the moral imperatives of belonging to an oppressed and decimated people.
One day, our five-year-old son came home to say that it was Jewish New Year and they had all wished the Jewish children a happy new year. After a queasy period of parental guilt, we decided to do something about it. To belong to a Jewish community means to belong to a synagogue. But that proposition was insupportable for atheists. And yet we are undeniably Jewish. This was particularly true when the victimology of the Holocaust is studied. The killing was prescribed by clear laws; my family – and all its antecedents on both sides – would have ‘qualified’. Indeed, the most orthodox and the most assimilated were equal under the gas. This needed a lot of thinking through and working out.
Then there was the desire to share a love of classical music generally and, specifically, some of the ostensibly less accessible elements of the repertoire, notably string quartet music and, in particular, late Beethoven.
To a lot of people, Beethoven and Bach are the two greatest composers (whatever ‘greatest’ actually means). But some of their most extraordinary works are perceived as unapproachable. Bach’s Solo Violin Partita #2 is a work of power and intimacy, a tour de force of technique but, most importantly an inexhaustible source of consolation and pleasure. But it's a different sound-world and mood, so the three settings in which it is performed are designed to show it in different lights.
Beethoven’s five late string quartets were called by one critic ‘the crowning glory of his achievement’. And yet, for many, they are more or less unknown. His symphonies and concertos are famous and recognisable but these great works, his last outpourings, are inexpressibly inspirational, moving and brave. The novel launches something of an innovation in arguing that they are, in fact, one work, rather like the five acts of a play But what will make a hopefully irresistible impression is the depiction of a recital of the middle of the five quartets. It tries to capture the drama of a performance of the third of the five, culminating in the Grosse Fugue (or, most accurately, ‘Große Fuge’).
The only way to achieve wide distribution of such things is via the novel. To write these concepts into a compelling narrative would enable them to fly to the greatest number of hearts and minds. Hence a plot to accommodate ideas and to carry readers along through what might in other media be forbidding but which, in a novel, becomes accessible, understandable and seductive.
Perhaps three Russian quotes will help encapsulate my ambitions:
YEVGENY ZAMYATIN: There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes once, whereas a book explodes a thousand times.
VLADIMIR MAYAKOVSKY: Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.
YEVGENY ZAMYATIN, again: True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and sceptics.