Every novelist gets asked, “How long did it take to write your book?” And for many – including me – it’s always a difficult question to answer. There isn’t some particular day when I sit down at my desk, open a calfbound notebook and inscribe “Chapter 1” in neat copperplate, then start making things up. Nor do I spend months working out an entire plot in my mind before eventually switching on the computer to turn it into words. If I knew beforehand what was going to happen in my novels there would be no point writing them. I write in order to find out.
Beethoven and I go back a long way, which again is not unusual – he’s hard to avoid, whether it’s as a cartoon caricature, film soundtrack or meme. For me the Fifth Symphony might have been ELO’s cover of “Roll Over Beethoven”. My introduction to the Sixth was an advert for Tweed by Lentheric (“Everything you wear says something about the kind of woman you are.”) My working-class parents had left school at 14 and were classical music lovers only to the extent that among their pop, rock and jazz LPs were a small, seemingly random assortment of earlier hits: Strauss waltzes, The 1812 Overture, Sheherazade and so on.
We never had a dog or cat, or even anything mammalian in the council house where I grew up. Instead it was a succession of caged budgies, and then an exotic novelty – a red-cheeked cockatiel, proudly crested and with a jaunty swagger as he waddled along his perch. My wisecracking father first called him Johann, after Strauss, but that didn’t last long. Instead he became Beethoven, decades before the dog in a film. Beethoven’s regular flights around the living room were exercise for his wings and entertainment for my sister and me – until one Saturday afternoon a door was left open and he flew out of the house. Dad rushed after him, spotted him on our roof and vainly beckoned him to come down. Across the road was a parade of shops and a bus stop, whose queue watched a man standing in his small front garden and calling up to the sky: “Beethoven! Beethoven!”
Is that where Beethoven’s Assassins started? Maybe, or else a few years later, at secondary school where my English teacher was Mr McLanachan, a flamboyant figure of the kind described in those days as a “confirmed bachelor”, close to retirement age and in my eyes very old, though with a youthful impishness and an awareness of intellectual culture that made him seem to me like a living encyclopaedia. My ambition was to be the next Einstein – science was my priority. Mr McLanachan advised on the artistic appreciation necessary for any future epoch-maker’s fully rounded education. The Late Quartets, I learned, were a pinnacle of human achievement, and clearly something I ought to listen to. I started with Opus 130 – a succession of attractive tunes, to my ears. It was only the Grosse Fuge that seemed as tortuously difficult as tensor geometry.
I slowly taught myself keyboard playing – though because my parents felt about pianos the same as they did about pets, I had to start with a wheezy little three-octave electric organ. It was only when I went to university that I was able to spend hours in the music department’s practice rooms, tackling Beethoven pieces that I loved but were far too difficult.
At school I’d told Mr McLanachan I planned to be a physicist until I was thirty, then a novelist. He said there were already too many novelists in the world and I should stick to physics. Yet things really did work out as I’d predicted, if not exactly in the way I’d planned. It turned out I was not after all the next Einstein, though a research trip to Poland inspired what became my first novel, Music, in a Foreign Language, published by Dedalus in 1994. The hero, Charles King, was older than me, more successful with women, a better physicist and better pianist, fond of Beethoven and Bach. The novel, set in an alternative communist Britain, was musically inspired in its structure, drawing a parallel between the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations and the endless variations of history. The book won a prize, was translated into several languages, and set me on my way as an author, though I worked as a schoolteacher while writing my next two.
By 2004 I was a newspaper literary editor with five novels in print and a sixth – Sputnik Caledonia – under way. Beethoven was still stalking me as an idea, the classical structures of symphony and sonata still underpinned my writing aesthetic, but I hadn’t yet found a way to address Beethoven directly in fiction. I read the major biographies and came upon Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an orientalist who offered Beethoven some texts to set and also wrote a history (or pseudo-history) of the Ismaili sect known to the west as the Assassins. Here was the germ of an idea – a lost opera project among the many that Beethoven is known to have started then abandoned. If Beethoven’s Assassins started anywhere, it was with the title. In that case it took me about twenty years to finish it.
Beethoven’s Assassins became my main project after Sputnik Caledonia was published in 2008. I won’t try to summarise the next 10 years – so much of which I’ve forgotten – except to say that the project branched and morphed, sprouting two quite separate books – The Secret Knowledge and The Great Chain of Unbeing. In 2018 I started again on Beethoven’s Assassins, and at last felt I could really get it done, though something was still missing.
What happened next was the pandemic, horrible for everyone in different ways. In my case it was the loss of both my parents, then clearing and selling the house where I grew up. I said farewell to many things. Material objects are easy to part with – other stuff is harder. Yet quite unexpectedly it gave me the focus I needed for the novel – the core that would hold everything together and make sense of it.
If art is to be worth anything at all, it has to be a process of discovery as well as communication. What is communicated is not the discovery itself, but an invitation for others to make discoveries of their own. Really, it doesn’t matter how long it took me to write Beethoven’s Assassins – what counts for me is that I finished it. Whatever its fate, now it’s out in the world and out of my hands, I’m proud of it.