February 2011

Music and murder in action

By Wesley Stace
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Good songwriter that he is (under the alias John Wesley Harding), Wesley Stace knows the emotional value of repetition. Just as the melodic “hook” keeps the listener listening, the narrative “hook” keeps the reader reading. The more the composer (or author) varies that same little bit of tuneful (or eventful) stuff, new regions of expression arise out of telling the same story over and over again.

The musical principle of repetition saturates every aspect of Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, from its characterization to its structure. Charles Jessold is introduced to us as a gifted composer and the bright hope of English music in the early 20th century. His more fateful and titular role, however, is to reincarnate Carlo (Charles) Gesualdo (Jessold), the brilliant and infamous 16th century Italian composer, who caught and murdered his wife and her lover in bed. Thanks to Stace’s supple blurring of fact and wild invention, it makes no difference that Gesualdo is “historical” and Jessold “fictional”: both figures take one and the same imaginative shape as avatars (two among so many) of a certain great folk song, in which a Lord kills his Lady and her lover over the course of dozens of heartbreakingly repetitive stanzas.

The novel itself takes shape as a tour de forceof musical redundancy. The music critic Leslie Shepherd—Jessold’s friend and champion—first gives an “exposition” of the facts of the composer’s rise and fall, right up to the horrible night of Jessold’s double murder and suicide, on the eve of his operatic debut. Then, with astonishing fortitude, Shepherd presents a broader “recapitulation” of the entire story, this time told in the darker, more tragic key of Shepherd’s own life, and (even more tellingly) of Shepherd’s own wife. To say any more would betray the abiding spirit of folk song, which demands that we repeat, not reveal. Read this book. I’ll say it again: read this book.

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