As someone who has worked with books (to a greater or lesser degree) for the past 13 years, sometimes I find it depressing to visit a bookstore and look at all the new fiction. Not because so much of it is bad, but rather because so much of it is good. How can one ever keep on top of the thousands of new titles published every year?
Which is why I'm so happy to have discovered Norman Lebrecht's The Song of Names, released this week in paperback after winning the UK's coveted Whitbread First Novel Award in hardcover. Lebrecht, a well-known music journalist by trade, is a writer's writer -- the kind of craftsman who clearly savors the language, tasting it and rolling it over the tongue before committing it to the page. His voice is channeled through the protagonist, Martin Simmonds -- an aging executive about to embark on an unlikely adventure. It's not hard to picture Anthony Hopkins in the imaginary motion picture adaptation, all quiet resignation and crisply truncated vowels. Martin is the sort of man who finds refuge in his normalcy, but whose memories veer uncomfortably close to the "clotted edge of irreparable loss." Despite such heavy territory, however, Martin is at times comically pretentious; his arch observations bring to mind a few of Roald Dahl's more hilariously adult phrasings in My Uncle Oswald.
The Song of Names is essentially a "where is he?" mystery -- Martin's adventure is a long overdue search for his childhood friend, the musical prodigy Dovidl Eli Rapoport. Dovidl and Martin are friends and musical peers from the moment Dovidl enters the Simmonds home (first as a guest and then as family when his own parents are lost in the Holocaust). But on the day of his official debut, Dovidl disappears without a trace. And now, more than 40 years later, Martin finally feels compelled to solve the mystery of what happened, even though it involves touching the raw nerve of his own ruined musical ambitions.
Lebrecht explores the darker recesses of genius and envy while navigating both his classical milieu and pre-war London with virtuosic certainty. If the book has any flaw, it might be that the backstory sections go on a bit long and belabor the obvious. But with Lebrecht's artful, ultimately compassionate voice as a guide, even these sections are fascinating to read. The Song of Names is a delightful new literary find.