John Wesley Harding, considered as a novelist
Blame it on poor planning and the tyranny of the storage unit. Undue optimism. The boxes of unread books I might wish to plunder during these months of exile, awaiting completion of the house into which they will be unpacked, those boxes lurk somewhere in an over-filled storage unit and cannot be retrieved.
And so upstairs at the family store to shelves where advance readers copies sit, pawed over again and again until desperate eyes lit on Wesley Stace’s third novel, Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer. Recognition, for his nom d’guitar is John Wesley Harding, author of 15 albums, many of which sit still in their own box, ignored. Though, in truth (and with no disrespect meant), I cannot remember a single song of John Wesley Harding’s. (One can attend to only so many things, and he was somebody Peter followed, so I wasn’t obliged to listen carefully.) I knew him by reputation to be charming, British, well-born, handsome. A resident of Seattle for a time, after I left. His adopted name, with its evocation of Dylan and the American West seems just now like the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, an affectation of stagecraft.
Well, the name was familiar, and nothing else lept to hand, and, anyway, only a moment’s respite was hoped for. To Wesley Stace, then, his third novel. About music, written from the perspective of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century British music critic named Leslie Shepherd, and a forgotten composer named Charles Jessold.
It is a book told in two parts, the second part unpacking the first, and so retelling the thing is a dodgy business. Shepherd is a critic at a London daily, a man of independent means married to the publisher’s daughter. He encounters Jessold, sees promise in the young composer, seeks to nourish that promise and some of his own dreams, all culminating in the drawn-out creation of a new English opera, the opera based on a folk song Jessold and Shepherd collected in the countryside. The folk song, a version of “Black Jack David,” best I can tell, involves the cuckholding of a lord while out hunting. This is layered upon the (true) story of the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, who killed his wife and her lover and went on to compose sublime (we are told) and forgotten music. To simplify.
Like a shorter-winded version of Dan Simmons’ Droog, Mr. Stace paints a splendid portrait of the social milieu surrounding both sides of World War I, which his Jessold sits out in a noncombatant prison camp. And like Mr. Simmons’ Droog (the novelist Wilkie Collins recounting the last years of the novelist Charles Dickens), we find ourselves in the hands of a not entirely reliable narrator who is not entirely likeable.
For a time Shepherd’s tinnitus seems a musician’s unkind cut to a critic, but one must trust to Stace’s almost algebraic balancing of plot. (Though the source of his tinitus might be up for debate, were one to unpack so much of the plot as to spoil the whole thing.) In the end we are confronted with a pair of painfully well-rendered people who live surprisingly unconventional lives, each step carefully measured so as not to appear so (not counting the reprobate artiste).
Mr. Stace, to my chagrin (a writer’s ego, y’know), writes beautifully. Carefully, elegantly, wisely. The last bits, written in Shepherd’s old age, very much mirror the brief and passionate attention spans I associate with the old people around me. Jessold is, yes, a kind of mystery, but more a portrait. It is a fine book, an exemplary book, due on shelves this February. I would encourage you to purchase Jessold from your local independent bookstore, and note, too, that if you must buy it from Amazon, please hit the link here on the ND page as there’s a small kickback the site could use from those transactions.