Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer—Wesley Stace

The title is lengthy. That was my first thought when I saw this book. I picked it up at Borders when they were going out of business, and it intrigued me with it's music notes and faux-burned cover. It's been said that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I find that some of my favourite books I only read because they had dynamic, aesthetically-pleasing covers.

Set in England around the time of the First World War, this novel tells the story of Charles Jessold, a prodigy-like composer. It is told mostly from the point of view of Leslie Shepherd, who served as Jessold's lyricist for a portion of their relationship. Through his writing, you see that the book is really more about Shepherd's life than Jessold's.

The book starts with a newspaper article on the ending of Jessold's life, and through the first half of the book, Shepherd goes back to describe their meeting, the development of their working partnership, defining moments in Jessold's life, and circles back around to Jessold's last day.

Jessold kills his wife and her lover, and then kills himself, the evening before the opening of his opera. These events mirror the events of said opera; the opera story line, in turn, is filched from a supposedly true story about a composer called Carlo Gesualdo. (Notice that Jessold's own name is an Anglicized version of Gesualdo's.)

After these events, Jessold's name as a composer is tainted. His reputation is further tarnished by a book supposedly about his life events, suggesting that beyond simply being a murderer and a drunk, he was involved in the occult.

The second half of the book I was not expecting, and the last eighty pages or so were a complete shock to me. Without giving anything away, a man who was Jessold's foe took advantage of the lowered opinion of Jessold to write an unauthorized biography of him. Following this, Shepherd is approached by Jessold's son, now grown, to write a factual biography. We see many of the events which were included in the first half of the book, only with all of the information that we didn't have before; most importantly, this is true for the last eighty pages of the book, which focus on Jessold and Shepherd and their relationships.

This was an interesting book. It was quite beautifully written, which I find to be a luxury these days. One of my favourite quotes, which has nothing to do with the plot: "A cheer went up as the curtain finally rose, and we found ourselves once more in the looking-glass world of opera where the protagonists behave more or less normally except for the fact that they are completely unaware they are singing." (363) It's true also of musical theatre, a particular vice of mine, and is a poignant way to describe a hilarious fact.