Andrew Crumey (for a pronunciation mnemonic, try “Andrew Crumey: his imagination is roomy“) is one of those writers who seems painfully underappreciated by those who admire him. This is no doubt because those admirers tend to really love his stuff, and to have the experience with him that Martin Amis did with John Updike: “having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes.” Certainly he is enough of a hero to this blog that he was the first author I interviewed. That was on publication of his last novel, Sputnik Caledonia, which marked a change in Crumey’s style, away from a cycling of separate but ultimately harmonizing narratives, and towards a straighter story: or as straight as a story of alternate worlds can be.
The Secret Knowledge returns to the structure of the earlier books, sort of, but it takes an odd turn, and leaves the reader feeling more sober, sombre even, than the likes of Mr Mee or Mobius Dick (the latter is, for me, the must-read for those new to Crumey). Here, instead of three cycling stories, we have two. The first begins in Paris in 1913 with composer Pierre Klauer and his lover Yvette. Pierre is a revolutionary: he believes that art should be about “progress and modernity, even if that means sacrificing old laws of taste.” And not just art: “there has to be a change in the whole of human affairs, a modulation into a new key.” He has just composed a new piece, The Secret Knowledge, and he is intrigued by the new laws of science: relativity, quantum theory. This short chapter, when reread in retrospect, has the germ of the whole novel in it, though it is shaped like a simple romance. About to take a significant step (though not the one the reader initially sees), Pierre observes that “every moment is a decision.”
The second story is David Conroy’s: he is a pianist and music teacher in the present day, whose career in middle age hasn’t come out where he expected. Once upon a time he was one of Britain’s brightest young musical talents: “he won a few prizes and thought, this is how it will always be, like this, forever, because this is what I deserve.” But he must acknowledge that “it is the innate impulse of all things to be forgotten,” and that he will join Pierre Klauer, whose Secret Knowledge he has just been told about, in obscurity. “We are the unknown, [Klauer] says, and you will join us.”
The Secret Knowledge is one of those books about which it is best to say very little if new readers are going to get the best from it. But how, then, to persuade them of its value? Existing readers of Crumey will need no persuading, and will recognise some of the names in the book from his earlier works: Jean-Bernard Rosier, for example, whose encyclopaedia was so keenly sought by the eponymous Mr Mee; or Minard, one of Rousseau’s copyists from the same book. Perhaps I can hint at the developments. After disaster strikes Pierre and Yvette, she reflects that Pierre “was like a comet that visits Earth briefly, gloriously, then flies to another sphere. Wait long enough, she thinks, and the comet may return.” I might also add that The Secret Knowledge for much of its plot exemplifies Crumey’s stated desire that his fiction should exemplify a sort of negative capability, “holding two completely opposite and contradictory views in mind simultaneously.” It is a book where people appear to disappear, and not just from celebrity into obscurity. (“How could she erase herself so quickly?”) It is, in other words, intellectually provocative and stimulating, and not superficially so. This quality is present too in the music of Klauer’s The Secret Knowledge: Conroy’s pupil Paige finds it to be “an object on which she can’t sustain any view, its shape constantly altering.” All this, naturally, has wider application within the book, and even to the book itself.
Klauer’s music is challenging (“progress and modernity”), and The Secret Knowledge – the book – is full of chiming references, such as to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Kreisleriana, a book which features “a musician completely opposed to false reputation, the shallowness of mass taste and received opinion; a person living for art in a world that recognises only commercial value, therefore considered mad.” Crumey might have some sympathy, acknowledging in the interview above that the only way his backlist might earn his publishers – and him – more money would be to “if I were to win some high-profile prize that might make me a more marketable commodity.” Yet, for all the rarity of Crumey’s literary intelligence, there is nothing wilfully obscure about his work. The Secret Knowledge has a strong plot – it seems to have several, at times – and even takes us ultimately into a new-fashioned tale of evil corporations and lust for power.
Between the tantalising opening chapters, where alternating stories feed on and inform one another, and the end, where Crumey tilts it almost into a thriller, comes a surprising switch midway through. Crumey introduces real people as characters: Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. This suits the purpose of the book, as not only does Benjamin become a crucial pivot in the plot, but Adorno’s thinking on mass culture fits with Crumey’s themes and his characters’ obsessions – and his assessment of the banality of popular entertainment makes an uneasy fit with Arendt’s most famous phrase, itself reduced by popular culture to a soundbite. The chapters with these three, however, clash with Crumey’s seductive style elsewhere, and if Crumey writes, as he says, philosophical novels, in these sections there is more philosophy than novel. However this seems to be anticipated by him: reduction of ideas to their essence can seem jarring, even intimidating. Adorno, accused of obscurity and jargon (“the very things he opposes”) reflects that “when the world is discussed in the clearest possible terms it becomes infinitely opaque,” and comments later on “the limitation of fiction in relation to philosophy.” When I began to think that The Secret Knowledge would merit a reread to peer more closely into its thickets, I found another relevant thought of Adorno’s, on the commodification of music: “Mass culture replaces critical appreciation with mere recognition: to hear anything often enough is equivalent to liking it.” This idea will not be strange to anyone who has found their resistance to some chart-molesting atrocity gradually diminished to grudging acceptance or even Stockholm-like fondness, but it also made me think that sometimes mysteries, confusions and challenges are best allowed to remain unsoftened, without their hard edges worn down by the friction of repetition.
So The Secret Knowledge is not a traditional novel, though it has enough of the elements of one to tease the unwary. One element of the traditional novel is emotional engagement. Here, this is provided first by the longings and regrets of Pierre’s lover Yvette, and more significantly by a returning traumatic memory for the young pianist Paige. Neither of these elements, however, really hits the solar plexus. For me, The Secret Knowledge‘s appeal is what it does to your head, rather than your heart. It’s a novel which appeals in strange ways and, despite its being one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, I am finding it difficult to express that appeal. Perhaps it is enough to cite arch-modernist Pierre Klauer’s response when Yvette asks him if he doesn’t like something: “The categories of like and dislike are outmoded.”