A shattered symphony

Susan Finlay – My Other Spruce and Maple Self (Moist, 2021)

The cellist voted ‘most sexy’ by Gramophone magazine broke her wrist. Allegra. She can no longer spend between four and eight hours a day practising. Into a spiral of destruction she goes.

You can see her already, with barely a description. Charcoal background and velvet drapes and dress, cream and ivory skin. A living trope that emerged through various female classical musicians across the 1990s.

It walked through these women and out into the world, like a dybbuk. A ghost image that blended in, became part of the landscape of the millenium. Everyone thought that view was fixed, until recently.

Allegra buys poetry volumes that are well reviewed in weekend papers. You already know the publishers. But she also talks to her cello, a Montagnana.

Allegra meets a friend and gets drunk. They end up at the flat of a guy called Johnnie, with a man called John. Wealthy guys. City guys. They get stoned. She wakes up and some porn is on the TV. The numb, amoral boredom of it all is being communicated.

It returns later, the porn scene, as Allegra repeats a fantasy to a guy she contacted via a dating site. The point being made is that she has no fantasies of her own. Whether she did or not before is a moot point.

Moments like this are powerful in this novel. They seem to connect the malaise of the main character with the last six months, and the preceding time to 2016, in which all our fantasies dried out. Withered in the intense heat of the dream-drought.

Initially, Allegra’s inner monologue has that ironic tone which was extremely annoying in the 1990s, all smart answers. But it works in a different register here, as the language of a people now on a kind of social parole. The smart answers are sometimes in a slightly film noir-ish register, and that register already contains tragedy, even if only tragedy-lite.

But the references are those of regular readers of How To Spend It magazine. It has become a sort of subcultural lingo, a green colour is that of a ‘Verdaccio underpainting’. It makes me remember the way very posh people say Glasto, which could make me actually heave, rather than just say I might heave.

But here that whole register has become a kind of antiquated tongue which is still being used – and that is very interesting. Lots of literary critics talk about that, Raymond Williams, when discussing structures of feeling. Benjamin, too, was interested in the recently outmoded for what it illuminated.

Specifically, the cadaver stink can be traced to the ‘lit’ of the 1990s. Dead twenty years, but the corpse is big, its shadow long. So long that maybe we cannot see we are still in it. I wrote some fiction a while back and realised I was still in the shade.

Here, Allegra’s waspish tongue is the death rattle of 90’s ‘lit’. Her inner monologue illuminates her sickness and the drained lagoon we have all ended up in. An airless and socially unwell enclave is still a ghetto, even with money.

Allegra goes to the ladies pond at Hampstead and en route says ‘hi’ to her neighbour Helena Bonham-Carter. There’s a dead python at the swimming pond, full of maggots, half rotted. A deacying phallus. Her distant husband is called Albion, but he is in Amsterdam working as an art expert. And she can never quite call her husband her husband.

It’s a great big metaphor. ‘Britain’ is in Europe, but back in England the newspapers are full of toxic words about the EU, which the country, the precariously named United Kingdom, is leaving. It’s a swollen symbol.

This novel has to whack the big nails into the largest timbers to make its construction, because the sense of the old architecture is going. In five years it may not be obvious what this period was about at all. That is what the novel is about, underneath its story, so the reconstruction with the old wood is actually not just the best thing, but the only thing to do. Turner’s Deluge is referred to. Very obvious, but very relevant and economic. Good craft.

The repeat references to Rossetti are about Allegra’s looks, but they also point to a nostalgic and unrealistic art movement. The Pre-Raphaelites peddled an over-aestheticised, reconstructed past. Now, everyone seems to be living in their own nostalgia fantasy bubble, because there is nowhere else to be. Some are nasty racist reconstructions, others more benign, but the reference is well made.

The main character is called Allegra and of course ‘allegro’ is a musical term meaning brisk and lively – in a healthy sort of way. But she is going to pieces. By page seventy-two she is thinking about how her corpse will be dressed. And then there are the Johns.

Albion rapes her after a consensual beating and she is too inhibited to say no any louder than a whisper for fear of the people in the neighbouring hotel room overhearing. And those people were arguing earlier. Talk about ‘metaphor’.

The signifiers are moved around very well like this, like pawns in the opening moves of Chess. Then occasionally a big piece is moved.

Allegra goes to Greece and is chaperoned by a woman called Eurydice with Medusa icons on her wrap-round shades. They drive into a protest. The police are holding everything up. She gets out, Allegra, and browses a stall selling Nazi tat. ‘Feierliches Stück’ comes on the stereo, a piece of music from Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which the Duchy of Brabant is sliding back into its pagan past, due to the machinations of devious, lurking powers from that past. I see Farage in medieval garb.

The Greek section is fascinating to read just as the leaders of Golden Dawn are sent down for thirteen years. The trouble is that the situation in Lohengrin is solved by a heroic knight sent by god. I don’t see any on the horizon, or a God.

But I do think all of this is ‘critical’ as in critical theory. I think the author has done something quite brutal and clever here. She is a victim, Allegra, eating disorders and self-harm create the elite musician, but the elite musician has been created by a predatory bully.

There’s a moment when Allegra’s old tutor praises his new protégé as lacking feeling, where he used to praise Allegra for possessing it. This man is a cipher for #metoo, he is the cause of her self-abuse. But he is also a road sign along the back lane we’re all now in, and some people call it ‘populism’. It’s a detail that does work at both a story and historical level.

This novel also makes me want the social class it describes removed permanently. This is not to say that I want to do away with people, in some grim totalitarian putsch, but that I want a society in which we have become immune to the celebrity and status disease, as well as the more topical one.

I wish this novel would be able to permanently kill the register it is in – at least in the first half – as well as the need for it to exist. The whiplash tongue of Allegra remains evidence of the kill setting of the financial victors. The jealousy at the younger and equally beautiful asian musician, the self-harm, they are produced in the circuits of a sick system. Post-capitalist schizophrenia breaking in, but at the privileged end.

At the same time, there must be a correlation between those who quip about having as many new labias as husbands and the communities which have had to invent a new feral way of getting by for each movement of capital which closed down whatever economy used to rudely serve it, in whichever historical era.

Their egos are planet-sized, even when suffering. Allegra’s pure hatred of ordinariness overlaps with fascism. She contemplates a Swedish couple and ponders the country’s Nazi past, then in the next sequential thought remembers how she enjoyed the applause at a concert in Sweden.

I am reminded of the end of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ by Kenneth Rexroth many times when reading this novel.

But it all shifts on page one hundred and thirty four. Allegra goes to volunteer at a refugee centre in Athens and considers her self-obsessed nature. All her ironic jokes are lost on the volunteers there. This is the thing about postmodernism, the poor have been sincere for hundreds of years. Ironic double takes have no use where the very floor is uncertain.

But you can only ever go there if you can never come out again, you can never go there as a tourist.

Later, at a dinner party, an elite arts crowd make ‘Earnest but always positive appraisals of the art’ and ‘Earnest and always negative critiques of the political ideologies that financed the aesthetic ideologies that critiqued them.’

This appropriately tautological, stoned-sounding passage diagnoses the opposite pole: The place where postmodernism is an empty space in which meaning has to be generated, like oxygen pumped into an oxygen tent.

Allegra becomes ‘an echo’ here, in these pointless conversations. Nobody is really listening to anyone else, some social is happening, at that frequency Orwell measured; upper middle class noise pitched as high as bat screech.

Only insiders can detect it, and yet Allegra still pictures ‘the sharp edge of a bronze paperweight tearing into what should have been a nose’ on the face of her dinner table neighbour. She files this woman in her phone as ‘shithead’s wife’.

The inhabitants of the enclaves depicted in this novel may be feeling a bit peaky right now, but they are not dying, their power is redoubling. The higher managerial classes within the platform giants are rising. They will take the Georgian houses that are supposedly so fragile they cannot be used for fear of cracking them.

At one point, Britain is described as an amputated or phantom limb. The author couldn’t have known when writing that line how acutely close to the collar it would be as the book came out.

The point is not Britain as antique, but Britain as an antiquity that some people live like Lords in, while others clean the toilets. In this there has been barely any change for hundreds of years.

The book is incredibly well done. Clinical and subtle, but also pulsing with a raciness and heat, which means people will read it. If what we are losing down the cracks as the EU and Britain splits apart is the bunch of people portrayed in this novel then fine. What’s disturbing about the book for me is not that it shows that the populists have arrived, but that it has the potential to briefly turn me into the worst sort of commie there is.

Yet in other ways, we are one: Susan Finlay understands that the contemporary world is a toxic ruin hiding in the light as a utopia. I’m possibly coming at it from the opposite side, in terms of social class, but the feeling is the same. The author keeps it quite poker-faced throughout though, which is great craft.

Everyone knows that it is all fucked and something very different needs to happen at all levels of human existence. The horror lies in the secret knowledge that it won’t, and the even surer, more deeply buried knowledge regarding how it won’t.

As far as I know nobody else is writing this kind of literature at the moment. It suspends you over the real void of Britain, and at the same time manages to do it through a whacking great novel that could and might be adapted for TV.

Horrifyingly brilliant work.

Steve Hanson

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