Monday, December 8, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 
“THE LOST STRADIVARIUS” by J. Meade Falkner (first published 1895)

            I know it will be a big surprise to you, but there have been times when I have come close to being a literary snob. When I was a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed Stevenson’s Treasure Island and later, as a parent, I had great fun reading it a number of times to various of my children and merrily overdoing the “Arr, Jim lad!” hamminess of Long John Silver. But had you asked me what was the best boys’ book of that period adventure sort, I might have said J.Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet. It is the stirring tale of a young lad’s initiation into smuggling on the Dorset coast and his years in slavery in the Netherlands, for much of the time mentored by an older man who plays father figure to him. I read Moonfleet to various of my children too.
            Now the fact is, I do not really regard Moonfleet as being better than Treasure Island – they are both excellent adventure stories for boys with the right sort of temperament. It would have been sheer snobbery for me to say that it was better: the awareness that fewer people had read Moonfleet, and that therefore it seemed a more educated choice. It partly had to do with the connoisseur’s reputation which had been acquired by John Meade Falkner (1858-1932).
An Oxford graduate from an impoverished background, Falkner was by trade an industrialist. For much of his working life he chaired a major armaments company, which must have been very exhausting for such a retiring chap during the First World War. On the side, Falkner was an antiquarian, the author of county guidebooks, and a novelist, although he wrote only three novels. (There is the story that the manuscript of a fourth was lost on a railway journey and Falkner decided to write no more). Far and away the best-known, and the most-often reprinted, is Moonfleet (1898). The one that real Falkner aficionados go on about is his last, The Nebuly Coat (1903), which I admit I have never read. However it is with the first of Falkner’s three novels, The Lost Stradivarius (1895), that I choose to deal here, partly because it is so representative of its age
            A ghost story, mainly told by the spinster Sophia Maltravers to her nephew Edward, The Lost Stradivarius concerns the haunting and subsequent death of Edward’s father John Maltravers.
An enthusiastic musician when he is a student in the 1840s at Magdalene College, Oxford, John Maltravers discovers in his college room a century-old manuscript of Italian music. But when he plays the galliard therein, he is certain that he hears a ghost enter the room. Later, in a long-sealed cupboard in the same room, he discovers a Stradivarius. It apparently belonged to the 18th century rake Adrian Temple, who was also a Magdalene man.
John Maltravers becomes obsessed with the violin, with the ghostly music he can play, and with the memory of Adrian Temple. Apparently it is because of this obsession that he marries Constance, a descendant of the Temple family, and has a son by her.
But almost from the completion of their honeymoon in Italy, he begins to degenerate. 
He deserts his wife and lives in Italy and seems to be involved in some nameless debaucheries in the places where Adrian Temple once lived.
He dies gibbering after he is brought back to England.
            Thus runs Sophie Maltravers’ narrative, which takes up most of the novel.
            But the last twenty pages are narrated by a fellow student of John’s, William Gaskell, who reveals that John Maltravers discovered not only the Stradivarius in the cupboard, but also the intimate diaries of Adrian Temple. We are led to believe that these diaries seduced John into tremendous evils (apparently Adrian Temple was stabbed for seducing another man’s wife at an orgy). The ultimate evil was a necromantic spell that allowed him to see a vision of pure evil.
Adrian Temple also died gibbering.
            I suppose in one sense ghost stories are like detective stories. The set-up is more intriguing than the pay-off. The best scenes in this late-Victorian effort are the early ones where the chair creaks as the music is being played and we are beguiled for a moment into thinking that the mood of the uncanny can be sustained. Nothing later in the novel recaptures this moment and its mood. Published three years before Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, this much lesser novel has at least one thing in common with James’ story. Most of it is told by a timid and proper spinster, so that her shudders and her evasions and her inability to call things as they are named can be more easily justified. When we switch to the very different narration of William Gaskell, we switch from somebody who believes in ghosts and the supernatural to somebody who is bluff, commonsensical and very moral.
There is also that thing about “nameless” evil and debauchery. Because the evil is not actually described, it becomes more monstrous. I can’t help wondering though if, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray (published four years earlier in 1891) the real question isn’t homosexuality. In The Lost Stradivarius, there are all those references to the Italian “paganism” that corrupts John Maltravers, and this is easily read as code for something else.
The Lost Stradivarius was first published in the year of Oscar Wilde’s arrest and trial. For the record, the website of the J. Meade Falkner Society informs me that Falkner married at 40 and had no children; that his marriage was a “passionless affair” and that he was a “natural celibate”. You can make of this what you will. It may simply mean that he wasn’t interested in sex.
What, then, do we have here? A not bad ghost story with a few genteel, and not too scandalous, “decadent” touches in tune with the 1890s. With the Stradivarius at its centre, it also has to opportunity to do a little aesthetic theorising on the relationship of music to beauty and morality, and to their opposites. A quick check of Wikipedia reminds me that it was the sort of subject (“evil invested in an object”) which just a few years later M.R.James would make the subject of his many short stories. The Lost Stradivarius is a short novel (little longer than a novella), but I am again left wondering, as I was in my piece on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Green Tea [look it up on the index at right] if the gothic and macabre doesn’t work better in short stories than in novels. Or even novella.

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