Finding the Pearl: Why I wrote Ghost Variations

February 13, 2017 | By | 1 Reply More

Why do you start to write a book? Perhaps more than that, why do you finish it? There are enough books in the world already: why do you need to add yours?

The reason I started Ghost Variations is not the same reason I finished it. I can’t count the number of times I nearly gave up, or rewrote bleeding chunks, or chucked them out, or how often issues outside nearly scuppered the whole thing.

Its initial impulse was several-fold. I wanted to try writing a historical novel, as my former ones were mostly contemporary. Besides, it seemed a good idea at the time…

When I first came across the story of Jelly (pronounced “Yély”) d’Arányi and her discovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto in the 1930s, it seemed impossibly far-fetched. A few years ago, researching my third novel, Hungarian Dances, which centred on a musical family from Budapest, I’d got hold of an out-of-print biography of this revered Hungarian violinist and her musician sisters. I found more than I’d expected. Namely, a chapter entitled “The Truth About the Schumann Concerto”. I read it with increasing incredulity.

The Schumann is the least known and most mysterious of German romantic violin concertos. It was the composer’s last orchestral work: soon after its completion he suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, then spent the last two years of his life in an asylum. After his death, his widow, Clara, decided the concerto betrayed signs of his illness and left it unpublished. Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom it was written, kept the manuscript; his heirs deposited it in the Prussian State Library, embargoed for 100 years.

Then in 1933 Joachim’s great-niece – Jelly d’Arányi – claimed to have received a message through a Ouija board ostensibly from the spirit of Schumann, asking her to find the concerto and perform it. Her enquiries alerted others to the fact that there was something interesting lurking in that library. Schumann’s daughter was furious and insisted the concerto must never be performed. Nobody could override her directive…except people who cared nothing for niceties.

The Nazis’ Department for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, run by Goebbels, found a use for it: having banned music by Jewish composers, including the popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, they decided to take the Schumann themselves and launch it as a symbol: a great Aryan concerto by a great German Aryan composer.

Complicating things further, the work’s new publishers sent a photostat to the young American virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, asking his opinion. He fell in love with it and wanted to give the premiere himself. The unfortunate d’Arányi found herself in a three-way race to perform the work, while Europe was hurtling towards war.

It seemed a good story, but it needed to be more than that to make its telling worthwhile. And I felt that it was indeed more than that. The confluence between the situations of the heroine, her target and her world coalesced into a single key image: a tipping point, poised on the cliff edge, reaching for a last chance of redemption. Jelly d’Arányi, for whom composers including Bartók, Ravel and Vaughan Williams had created masterpieces, could feel her glory days slipping away; the concerto was written when Schumann was descending into madness; and when the work came to light, the world was sliding into fascism and the vortex towards cataclysmic war and the Holocaust.

I started the first draft in 2011. My mother-in-law, who escaped Nazi Germany aged 13 on the Kindertransport and never saw her parents and brother again, asked what I was writing. A historical novel, I told her. She asked when it was set. When I said the 1930s, she laughed. To her, that wasn’t historical at all.

Three years earlier we’d experienced a kind of modern-day 1929: the financial crash of 2008. Structures and certainties were crumbling. Witch-hunts were on the rise. People were frightened and insecure, taking out their alarm on those less powerful than themselves whom they considered had fallen out of line. After half the first draft was done, a period of intense stress rendered me unable to write a word for six months. I’ll spare you the gory details, and of course the outcome could have been worse, but it has caused a long-term health issue.

I kept trying to get back to the book, but it progressed only in fits and starts. I’d set about it without a contract as I didn’t want deadlines or directives, but this meant no advance, nor any certainty of publication. With my immune system apparently AWOL I then lost half of 2014 too, this time to something that turned out to be whooping cough.

Yet to give up, to shove the manuscript into the bottom drawer and forget about it, was unthinkable: you’re not beaten unless you allow yourself to be. I hunkered down and got on with it as best I could.

And one day in summer 2015, tired of the continual hold-ups, I decided to send the draft to Unbound, a new-look publisher that works via crowdfunding. It came highly recommended by several journalist colleagues. Once they agree to take you on, you pitch your project to potential readers. If you reach the crowdfunding target, they publish the book.

A few months later, having all but forgotten about the submission, I received a message saying they would take Ghost Variations. We launched the crowdfunding in January 2016. To my astonishment it made target in 12 days. Maybe the story rang some bells, because it wasn’t only people I knew who were jumping on board.

Soon I was working round the clock to chisel the novel into publishable shape. My editor gently pointed out that I’d paid plenty of attention to the rise of fascism in Germany, but not said much about what was happening in England, where our heroine Jelly d’Arányi lived. Indeed, the sporadic way in which I’d written the book had left a black hole of grand proportions, waiting for Oswald Mosley to fill it.

I looked up 1930s Daily Mail headlines and articles by Lord Rothermere. This was the country in which my parents-in-law had arrived as teenaged Jewish refugees with German names and accents. Because of that press-stirred hysteria about “floods” of such refugees, my mother-in-law’s parents and brother were refused visas, meaning they were trapped in Berlin, and were murdered in a concentration camp.

Meanwhile our television screens were filled with images of boatloads of people from today’s conflict zones sinking and drowning in the Mediterranean while our own western governments slammed the doors shut upon them. In June Britain voted to leave the EU. Nobody absorbed in research on the 1930s could view this as anything but a calamity of historic proportions. Over the Atlantic, the notion of Donald Trump as potential US president was derided, yet I’d been reading that Hitler himself was at first regarded as a joke by many who believed that an unstable, deluded fantasist could never take power.

When I first began Ghost Variations I had no idea it would be as relevant as it has turned out. Its delays were frustrating. But perhaps 2016 was its moment after all, because this year brought us our own tipping point. We’re no longer on the cliff edge: we’ve tipped and we’re falling.

I’ve learned a lot through writing Ghost Variations, so here are my lessons in a nutshell. First, if you want to write about the inconvenient truths of today, sometimes it’s better not to hold up a direct mirror. Instead, refract the light you want to shed. Shine it through a prism of a past parallel, or a sci-fi or fantasy world. Good historical fiction doesn’t only concern the past.

Next, that question publishers and agents always ask – “But what’s it about?” – is slightly misphrased. It means: “What are you really trying to say?” A “good story” isn’t enough. There has to be a pearl in your oyster, something special for the reader to extrapolate. Writing a book takes a lot of work, and the financial rewards are not huge even if you are successful. At some point you might need to reassure yourself you have a good reason for doing it at all. Your clinching point is that reason, so make sure it’s there.

I think – or hope – that Ghost Variations holds a positive message despite the times it portrays. I hope it shows there were, and there will be, people who see through lies, moral corruption and mortal danger and stand by higher principles. We’ve come through times of turmoil before; and despite huge, tragic sacrifices and horrors beyond comprehension, still people keep trying to do the right thing. There will be heroes and heroines, there will be life and there will be love. And maybe there is even a chance that in some unsuspected dimension love can last forever. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book.

Jessica is a versatile author with a musical bias. Her output includes five novels, two biographies, two plays, words&music projects, poetry for musical setting and an opera libretto (Roxanna Panufnik’s ‘Silver Birch’, commissioned for Garsington Opera 2017). Her journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Independent, for which she covered classical music for 12 years. She has maintained her highly ranked blog, JDCMB, since 2004. Born in London, Jessica studied music at Cambridge. She lives in London with her violinist husband and two cats, and loves long walks, cooking, ballet, theatre and hunting for out-of-print gems in second-hand bookshops.

Author page:

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Twitter:  @jessicaduchen
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Ghost Variations at Unbound

About Ghost Variations

The strangest detective story in the history of music – inspired by a true incident.

A world spiralling towards war. A composer descending into madness. And a devoted woman struggling to keep her faith in art and love against all the odds.

1933. Dabbling in the fashionable “Glass Game” – a Ouija board – the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, one-time muse to composers such as Bartók, Ravel and Elgar, encounters a startling dilemma. A message arrives ostensibly from the spirit of the composer Robert Schumann, begging her to find and perform his long-suppressed violin concerto.

She tries to ignore it, wanting to concentrate instead on charity concerts. But against the background of the 1930s depression in London and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, a struggle ensues as the “spirit messengers” do not want her to forget.

The concerto turns out to be real, embargoed by Schumann’s family for fear that it betrayed his mental disintegration: it was his last full-scale work, written just before he suffered a nervous breakdown after which he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. It shares a theme with his Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) for piano, a melody he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave.

As rumours of its existence spread from London to Berlin, where the manuscript is held, Jelly embarks on an increasingly complex quest to find the concerto. When the Third Reich’s administration decides to unearth the work for reasons of its own, a race to perform it begins.

Though aided and abetted by a team of larger-than-life personalities – including her sister Adila Fachiri, the pianist Myra Hess, and a young music publisher who falls in love with her – Jelly finds herself confronting forces that threaten her own state of mind. Saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.

In the ensuing psychodrama, the heroine, the concerto and the pre-war world stand on the brink, reaching together for one more chance of glory.

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

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  1. The Story of Schumann’s Ghost | Luis Dias | March 7, 2017

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