The Lost Musicians
by William Heinesen
There’s something refreshingly slow-paced about old-fashioned novels, written in the days before the creative writing academy, with its axioms of place, point of view and voice to be disturbed only knowingly by the extremely sophisticated. I’ve grown a little tired, I think, of brilliantly conceived openings and expertly revealed characterisation, thrown into merciless relief by razor-sharp editing. It might help sift an agent’s reader’s heaving in-tray, but it doesn’t necessarily deliver a great book in the long run. For that, a writer needs something that, unsophisticated as I am, I can only describe as heart.
This novel has plenty of heart, though it’s an aching one. A minor Danish classic, first published in 1950, it’s an extended melancholy essay on where ordinary talent, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, goes when it has no scope for professional development. The musicians of the title are members of a modest family who earn modest livings on the isolated Faroe Islands as ferryman, schoolteacher, decorator, at which they are, in some cases, spectacularly inept. Music, for them, is a vocation, self-evidently; something pursued at leisure for its own sake; even the undisputed child prodigy, it is assumed, will soon be apprenticed to a tradesman, for what else is there for a boy in these parts?
I took quite a while to finish it, but I’ll remember it for longer than most page-turners. Its episodes come together like a symphony in a minor key leaving a few indelible refrains. Heavy drinking features large, as does its nemesis, puritanical religious evangelism. Doomed love, lost fortunes, suicides – not much here goes according to the best-intentioned plans. What makes life count is stoicism, and hope. The poet and composer live on in their work, which will find recognition, it is suggested, they didn’t dream of in their lifetimes. And the orphaned prodigy will find his destiny in the end.
They are all men, of course, these musicians. Their women are wise and beautiful, objects of love and desire, and may even appreciate music, as an audience, but are not particularly creative. The artist’s gaze here is forever male. At this point I wished for a Hilary Mantel, who even as she strides through swathes of old-fashioned misogyny will throw in a precocious girl child just to remind us they too have always existed. However, there is much sombre mood-music to enjoy here, and alongside the shy geniuses and stoic and/or retarded girls, plenty of truly idiotic blokes.