Imagine if Ludwig van Beethoven visited the U.S, namely Boston’s Handel and Hadyn society ? (at the time he had a huge following) imagine if it was for an surprise oratorio based on the book of Job. Now imagine that everyone who is connected is nervous because they have no idea about this work.
This is the main plot of Paul Griffiths’ Mr. Beethoven but there’s a lot more. This is not just a re-imagined tale about a composer going from state to state. Instead this is a twisty story filled with numerous digressions,mostly from the people hosting Beethoven and the members of the choir and orchestra, lots of trivia, and mixed media. Yet there’s some form of a linear timeline for the book starts off with Beethoven on a ship to the U.S. and ends with the performance of the oratorio.
Mr. Beethoven is not an easy book to describe due to the sheer variety of it’s contents. In a way it is not dissimilar to Sebald’s Austerlitz as that book also has informative digressions and forms of mixed media in the text. In a way it’s also like Rachel Cusk’s Outline which is a book stemmed from a series of conversations. At one point in Mr. Beethoven there’s an interlude of sorts which reveal that the book is just a chat of sorts between two friends. This is hinted at in some early chapters as some of the digressions mention the 21st century.
What struck me about the book is the use of details. We all know that Beethoven was deaf (in fact he couldn’t participate in his concerts, just organise them), a child prodigy and was easily irritated. This is all brought out, mostly to comedic effect. There are allusions that Beethoven is like the Job of his oratorio, a person who is being tested for his faith – The Satan also makes a symbolic appearance.
Despite all the experimentation Mr. Beethoven is a playful novel. I was reminded of some type of ride that compels you to join from the get go. It’s innovative, clever and has surprises at every chapter. This is a ‘what if’ tale like no other.
Many thanks to The Henningham Family Press for providing a copy of Mr. Beethoven.