Ghost Variations

By Jessica Duchen

The strangest detective story in the history of music

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Why this, why now?

I started writing Ghost Variations about five years ago, in 2011, struck by the country's volatile mood and widespread interest in the 1930s. We'd had the 2008 crash, innumerable people were struggling, life was changing at an extraordinary rate as an ideologically-orientated government decided to hammer the country further by introducing "austerity" and big business cashed in for all it was worth. We were, one sensed, at a tipping point. Things were leaning and about to topple.

So it was, too, with Schumann when he penned the Violin Concerto, about to tumble from bipolar-fuelled musical ferment into irremediable mental collapse; with Jelly, her career and her playing just beginning to fade after her peak, like an autumn leaf; and with the world of the 1930s, the cathedral audiences hungry for Jelly's charity concerts and the Nazis rising in Germany as they grabbed the concerto for their own ends. The three tipping points were in confluence. Things were turning.

Then they turned.

Work on the novel was slow. It was only in November last year that I got the email from Unbound saying they'd like to take on Ghost Variations, and chiselling my manuscript into better shape has been an intense process since. It didn't take long to discover that the relevance I'd sensed at the start is now much more pronounced. 

Ulli Schultheiss, Jelly's (fictional) younger admirer who provides our window into Germany, attends the premiere of the concerto by Georg Kulenkampff in Berlin, 1937. And he wonders what happens when the forces of insanity are unleashed into society. Hitler is present, racism is rife, fear is everywhere. The Third Reich mythology is peddling lies about a master-race, about superiority over everyone else and so forth. The opposition has been banned. The people are swallowing the entire imaginary, paranoid construct wholesale, no matter what it will do to them or anybody else.

Meanwhile, Jelly's brother-in-law, a high-level lawyer in London, is involved with work for the League of Nations, an international organisation formed after World War I to make sure such a calamity could never happen again. But in 1933 Japan announces its intention to leave the League; months later Germany follows suit. The organisation had its weaknesses, but it preserved, briefly, world peace. Once countries could simply turn their backs on it if and when it suited them, its authority was fatally weakened. Five years later, World War II broke out. 

Stir up nationalist hubris, racism and xenophobia, peddle lies to a disaffected people and weaken the institutions that prop up our world and preserve what's left of its greater-good ideals, and you have a recipe for real insanity. That's what happens in Ghost Variations. And that's what's happening now. By the end of 2016 we may find that Ghost Variations is a book for our times in too many senses: the EU would be in meltdown as the UK pulls a brick out of the bottom of its pile, and Donald Trump might take power in the US because voters think they don't like Hillary Clinton quite enough.

This is the most dangerous moment I have ever seen. 

Above, hear Kulenkampff play the slow movement of the Schumann Violin Concerto - recorded in December 1937 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.

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