The book is described thusly:
In 1913 composer Pierre Klauer envisages marriage to his sweetheart and fame for his new work, The Secret Knowledge. Then tragedy strikes. A century later, concert pianist David Conroy hopes the rediscovered score might revive his own flagging career.
Music, history, politics and philosophy become intertwined in a multi-layered story that spans a century. Revolutionary agitators, Holocaust refugees and sixties’ student protesters are counterpointed with artists and entrepreneurs in our own age of austerity. All play their part in revealing the shocking truth that Conroy must finally face – the real meaning of The Secret Knowledge.
In a month from now the Hugo Award nominees will be announced. As has become tradition there will be a slew of blog posts taking apart the ballot with specific focus on the Best Novel category. These critiques will generally bemoan the fact that the best novels of the year have been ignored; that the actual nominees – for the most part – only appear on the ballot because of their internet and social media presence; that by ignoring the work of auteurs in the field were actually undermining the genre as a whole.
Not that I’m having a crack at people who blog about the Hugo nominees. For one, I enjoy ranting about the ballot and furthermore some of the best genre discussions in recent history have been sparked by these blog posts. It’s critique and discussion of award ballots in general that keep the genre alive, keep it vital. That’s why I get upset when others try to quash these discussions.
However, I’m also aware that there’s a paradox at the heart of these sorts of blog posts. On the surface, a critique of a list of nominees is an attack on popular culture. But the underlying message – which annoys those who have a problem with this sort of criticism – is the need and desire for the novel I like, for the novel I believe is deserving, to be recognised by the masses. The same masses who foolishly chose the original bunch of nominees.
It’s precisely this paradox that Crumey explores in The Secret Knowledge. In particular, both David Conroy – a pianist at the end of his career who has never realised the potential of his youth – and Theodor Adorno – a European / American philosopher who argued against the commodification of culture by capitalism – typify this paradox. As characterised by Crumey, both hate popular culture. Both crave recognition. Both are awash in bitterness.
For Conroy that bitterness turns into madness as he gets caught up in the mystery surrounding a rediscovered score by little known composer Pierre Klauer. Conroy sees the music as encapsulating the “fraught opposition between autonomy and commodification that is the essence of bourgeois art.” The irony, of course, is that Conroy believes he will find the fame he’s been searching if he brings this music to the public.
The sections of the novel set in the past introduce the possibility of multiple realities – something that Crumey dealt with far more successfully in his earlier novel Mobius Dick. In this case, the multiverse is essentially a plot device to show what Pierre Klauer’s life would have been like if he hadn’t committed suicide in 1913. What’s interesting here is how Klauer turns his back on being a composer, how in one iteration he leaves France and becomes part of the Clyde Worker’s Committee in Scotland. Klauer has decided that being an artiste is not worth the hassle. As Klauer, or a parallel version of him, says:
I thought of retrieving my last work and burning it. And as I walked in that once-familiar room I truly felt myself to be a ghost, for my mother has made the place a shrine to my memory. Here is posterity, I said to myself, here is what you craved, to be remembered, and what does it amount to? The tears of those few who knew you, the continued indifference of the multitude who did not. Pierre Klauer can be removed from the world like a loose brick and who will notice the hole he leaves?
The message is a simple one. If you’re going to be an artist accept the fact that people may never notice you. Accept the fact that mainstream and popular culture will find its own path, most likely leaving you behind. If you can’t accept this, then walk away.
Thankfully Andrew Crumey has never walked away. Even if he doesn’t get the plaudits his focus is on the art. As he says in this interview with John Self:
It would be nice if some day my backlist could go up in value and earn Dedalus some more money. Of course, for that to happen, I’d need to win some high-profile prize that would make me a more marketable commodity. How do I feel about all that? It’s quite simple: writing is an art, publishing is a business, and I concentrate on the art, leaving business people to do the stuff that they’re good at and I’m not.
I would also love for Crumey’s work to be recognised. In the meantime, though, his novels are challenging, vibrant with philosophy and ideas and a unique insight. The Secret Knowledge is no different. The plot never levels out or feels comfortable and familiar, the style and voice changes from chapter to chapter and yet the novel is never anything less than engaging.
While I don’t expect to see The Secret Knowledge on the Hugo ballot I hope that this years Clarke Award judges have taken note. Otherwise I might write a blog post…