by Wesley Stace
Picador Paperback Original, $15.00, 572 pages
“Kensington Triple Tragedy / Composer Kills his Wife, Another, Commits Suicide / Opera Will Not Open”. So begins Wesley Stace’s third novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, a title based on an essay about Carlos Gesualdo, a 16th century Italian prince, composer, and murderer—and real life inspiration for the story. The year is 1923; the place, Kensington, a district of London, England.
The decline of the protagonist, prodigy composer Charles Jessold, is told by a well-regarded music critic and one-time confidant of the tragic figure. Leslie Shepherd, the reluctant narrator, meets Jessold 13 years prior to the fatal incident while on a weekend retreat. The gathering takes place a day after King Edward’s funeral and consists of the usual crowd from the British symphonic elite. As one familiar with this social setting would predict, they spend their time drinking, gossiping, and attempting to impress one another with their musical expertise; but it’s the newcomer with his stirring performance at the piano that captures the attention of the otherwise unflappable critic.
The two men are introduced by a mutual acquaintance and fall into easy conversation sparked by the eerie resemblance between Jessold’s name and Gesualdo’s. The life of Carlos Gesualdo, as the familiar faces are keenly aware, is one of Shepherd’s favorite topics of conversation. With little persuasion Shepherd regales the eager bystanders with the gruesome tale of Gesualdo’s adulterous wife, her lover, and the vengeful nobleman.
As the conversation returns to the mundane, the two men find a common desire to see Britain regain its rightful place on the symphonic stage. Living at the time of Mahler, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky it had become clear that their great empire hadn’t contributed a significant piece in a while and, with World War I on the horizon, nationalism was the growing spirit among many. Shepherd, having liked German music, felt vindicated by shifting public opinion and wanted to seize on the moment. Jessold, less antagonistic towards his foreign counterparts, simply felt he was up to the task.
As fate would have it, while the two are away for a weekend at Shepherd’s cottage they duck into a shed on the side of the road to escape a passing rainstorm. While waiting they meet a poor farmer who’s sharing the dry space. Restless and in need of entertainment, Jessold asks the man to sing. The farmer can think of only one tune, Little Musgrave, an ancient ballad about a lord who goes out hunting. The lyrics speak of a philandering wife who takes the opportunity to meet with her lover. Her husband’s page walks in on the two, runs out into the woods to tell the lord, and as with the story of Gesualdo, the lord returns to kill his wife and her lover; only in this version the husband kills himself as well. Taken by the farmer’s voice and the dramatic story, Little Musgrave becomes the basis for their grand project and for Stace’s novel as well.
Both in music and in literature, variations on a theme can have a gripping effect. Such is the case with Stace’s masterpiece. The elegant prose tells a well-layered tale fleshed out through the inner lives of multifaceted characters. Readers will no doubt give the unpredictable and satisfying end a standing ovation. Wesley will be on tour in Portland at Powell’ Books March 6th and on Live Wire! Radio at the Alberta Rose Theater on March 4th.
Gantzky admires Portland from afar and has fond memories of her visit to the city years ago. Living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan, she pushes books on people for a living–whether they like it or not. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book, Gantzky can be seen wandering the streets listening to a variety of podcasts and taking pictures of wacky things that cross her path.
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