Wesley Stace’s dazzling “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer” (Picador, 389 pages, $15) unfolds in England before, during and after World War I and then in the early 1950s. Its title character is a young composer of talent, personal magnetism and dangerous self-indulgence. We learn early on how, on the eve of the 1923 debut of his anticipated opera masterpiece, he died violently—as did his wife and her apparent lover. The rest of the book is a first-person account, by the composer’s close friend and champion, of what led up to those dire events and of what followed them.
This third work by Mr. Stace (who also records music under the name John Wesley Harding) is a bravura chronicle. It starts in an era when English symphonists made pilgrimages to rural villages to “catch” authentic folk songs and ends a generation or two beyond the atonal crossroads. The book is full of marvelous scenes and memorable set pieces, from the country shire to the concert hall and drawing room, and is peopled with individualized types, from silver-voiced farmers to acid-tongued journalists.
Here, for instance, the narrator sketches a great diva: “An immediate vision of the singer in full throttle presented itself to me, her perfect posture, her throat as deep, dark and infinite as the Blackwall Tunnel, upper lip lifted and pursed revealing dazzling teeth, bottom lip loose, quivering, nostrils wide like a Grand National winner.”
Throughout, the prose is itself musical—and rich with erudition and wordplay. (The composer, noting that his gin cocktail is overdiluted, complains that “the tonic is a little dominant.”) “When I tell a story,” the narrator says at one point, “it remains told.” Just so.
– Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal 1.28.10