The Well-Tempered Clavier is a first novel by William Coles. As I mentioned in a previous post - it is set in a landscape I knew pretty well when I was 17 myself – I too have lazed on the playing fields of Eton in the balmy heat of summer! No, I wasn’t at the College – I was an everso 'umble Grammar School Girl.
But my school was graciously given permission to rehearse and perform major choral works in the ornate Eton School Hall. This was in the late 1970s, so it’s just possible that a very young Master Coles was already scurrying around the place in his over-sized tailcoat when I was a sixth-form First Alto in my disastrously unbecoming blue blouse and grey skirt. Some years previously, my first date with my first serious boyfriend had been a day out in Windsor. So before I even started reading, I knew that there would be a certain personal frisson – and I had a feeling that I was going to enjoy this.
And I did. One of the joys of this book is how well – and instantly - it whizzes one back in time to those almost unbearably hormonal years of late adolescence. It’s no give-away to reveal that the story centres on 17-year-old Kim – an average Eton boy of no outstanding academic brilliance, personal beauty or even musical talent – who falls for his 23-year-old piano teacher, India, and she for him. We know of the affair - and that it's a 'doomed' one - from the outset. Indeed, it’s a stylistic device of the book – a very journalistic one (of which I began to tire slightly after a while) – constantly to prod the reader forward with a little taste of what’s to come. ‘Little did I know it then, but my life was about to change completely’, ‘It was perfect, but it wouldn’t be for much longer’ – or words to that effect – just like the short interjected paragraphs in bold type in a sensationalised account in The Sun. (Quelle surprise.) It works, up to a point, in that this is certainly a page-turner – but I think it’s a little overdone. And quite unnecessary. In fact the narrative drives itself and the reader on very nicely without these additional authorial nudges.
It’s a great love story, but it’s never cloying and it won’t, I sincerely hope, be considered for any Bad Sex award nominations, because the sex – and there’s loads of it, and rather frequently in an outdoor setting – is finely judged and rather beautifully done. We’re offered the benefit of the narrator’s hindsight in places, but on the whole what is good about this tale is how it evokes the dizzying newness of Kim’s love and lust and all-consuming passion for India.
There’s plenty of wry humour and a few moments of pure schoolboy farce, but the essential seriousness of the affair and the profundity of its impact on Kim and India is central, and it is underlined by the interweaving of the story with its eponymous music – Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
The Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of music for solo keyboard, with Preludes and Fugues in each of the 24 major and minor keys, which Bach composed ‘for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study’.
In Coles’ book, each chapter takes the title of one of the Preludes, and though it sounds a bit weird, I would seriously recommend listening to the pieces in question before, during or after reading the book. It’s not essential - this is a novel, not an interactive multimedia installation - but it undoubtedly adds to the experience if you can hear, either literally or in your mind's ear, the ‘background music’ the author has quite deliberately selected for each chapter. In fact, on the first page, he exhorts us to do so:
It’s the Prelude 17, in A-flat Major.
When I write it like that, it sounds so stark.
But you should hear it. Hear all 90 seconds of it. Even first time round, right off the gun, you’d think it quite charming. Delightful.
Second time it’s even better.
If you don’t already know Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, and want to get a feel for it, you can listen to clips of every prelude and fugue on Amazon.
I will probably be unable to restrain myself from waffling on at greater length about Bach in general and TW-TC in particular, but I’ll put that in another Musing soon.
Back to Mr Coles’ novel.
I enjoyed it very much. The publishers, Legend Press, have done an excellent job in promoting it– their advance publicity certainly worked on me, and I was not disappointed. You can see Coles’ pre-publication interview here.
Wearing my pernickity editorial hat (you knew it was coming . . . ), I’m afraid I have to say that the book deserves to have been more closely proofread. Stiff collars don’t ‘chaff’, they ‘chafe’, for example; there are some strange and unnecessary hyphenated words; and personally I’d have jumped on careless changes of tense within a sentence: ‘He guffawed, the F-tits scattering as he strides through them’, and also some instances where we can clock the author as journalist (particularly the use of ‘for’ instead of ‘because’ – pure newspaper style, and it jars, for me at least, in a ‘serious’ novel).
And why are some of the chapter titles all in upper case while others are in a mixture of upper and lower case? – it doesn’t make a jot of difference to the enjoyment of the book, obviously, but it’s careless and a bit of a shame. And as a fortysomething whose long-term memory still functions pretty well (wish I could say the same about my short-term . . . thingamabob), I fretted over a couple of possible anachronisms, but these probably blur into insignificance given the time-hopping narrative, so I’ll say no more. One doesn't wish to be [too much of] an edit-bore.
Oh, but the cover! What can I say? The truth, I suppose: I absolutely hated it! I can see what it’s trying to do but, goodness me, it fails. It’s horrible. If I hadn’t seen and read the publisher’s excellent pre-publicity, I’d never have picked it up in a bookshop in a zillion years.
You want evocative, poignant, wistful?
Go see, for example, the latest Anita Shreve UK covers, and learn.
Less is more.
But, happily, I’m not going to judge this book by its cover (though I truly fear that many will). It’s a good read, and I do hope that, having told this story, which he has apparently been ‘mulching’ for many years, William Coles will find that the others he has been storing up will soon come tumbling out, demanding - and deserving - to be published.