Ghost Variations

By Jessica Duchen

The strangest detective story in the history of music

Monday, 14 March 2016

On the awkward bit

Of course, a book like this involves masses of "awkward bits". For the reader, it should hold the best of reality and fiction; for the writer, though, it entails the most tooth-gnashingly tricky aspects of both. 

Still, the most awkward bit of Ghost Variations - as you can imagine if you've read the synopsis - is those "spirit messages". Somehow we need to suspend disbelief to the point that these become convincing - because they certainly were to our real-life characters.

I've talked to numerous people who knew the d'Arányis and their circle; everybody insists that Jelly and Adila believed the messages that came to them through the "glass game" were genuine, not simply an emanation from the subconscious; and that it emphatically was not some sort of elaborate hoax on their part, springing from a few tiny references to the unpublished Schumann Violin Concerto in a couple of books of which they claimed no knowledge.

The "glass game" was a widespread pastime in those days. After World War I, so many people had lost loved ones that a certain desperation seems to have existed around the idea of contact from beyond the grave. Later, the practice appears to have drifted away into occasional corners of New Age esotericism, perhaps due to a combination of increased psychological understanding, the extremity of the Second World War's horrors and the rise of a scientific, rational era of information. 

Even now, though, you don't have to look far to find people who have "messed about" with a Ouija board; and often they have strange stories to tell. I've encountered someone, for instance, who claimed to have been contacted by the spirit of Chopin. One is free to believe it, or to splutter with outraged derision, or to take any view in between. We're less free, though, to tell people that they have not had an experience that they have had, and that we have not observed them not having at first hand, simply because of our own preconceptions. Many do this all the time, naturally, and with regard to far less peculiar matters than "spirit messages". 

What do I really think? I don't know. I had a New-Agey spell in my twenties, becoming embroiled for a few years in various systems of yoga, meditation, psychic investigations and so forth. These turned out not to hold the answers I was seeking; when three of my close family died in quick succession, perhaps nothing could possibly have held any answers. Today I don't dabble in esotericism, and I'm not religious either; yet I'm also aware that strange things happen occasionally that can't be explained away as easily as we might wish. (Yoga, I hasten to add, remains completely brilliant.)

In this book, then, I'm not passing judgment, but telling the story. I show Jelly and her assistant, Anna, receiving the initial messages (see The Extract), because it seems that messages were received. The explanation for them is a question that arrives to, er, haunt our cast at various points during the novel. Much hinges on that, and solutions are considered and discussed. What matters most for the book, though, is how the total experience changes the characters. The real people had that experience. The reader doesn't have to believe everything with them. But we need to believe that they believed it. That's the awkward bit - and if it works, I can breathe again.

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