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James Hamilton-Paterson: Gerontius

In 1920 Sir Edward Elgar‘s beloved wife died and he was lonely. He wrote little music after that time and felt that time had passed him by. In November 1923, aged sixty-six, he set out on a cruise to the Amazon. We know little about that cruise. This novel is Hamilton-Paterson’s fictional telling of that voyage. The journey lasts six weeks and we follow Elgar from his train journey to Liverpool, where he takes the steamer Hildebrand, to Manaus, home of the famous opera house which, we know, Elgar did admire. We follow Elgar’s innermost thoughts and, in particular, how he considers himself a failure, having neither attained the glory or financial success he sought nor having received the acclaim he felt he deserved. As well as ruminating on his past and his life, he also meets fellow passengers, including the two seemingly innocent old ladies at his table who are actually card sharks, the artist Molly Air who wants to paint the Amazon in a new way and the explorer Fortescue, who wants to map the Amazon from the air. In particular, when he gets there, he meet a former love, Lena von Pussels, now married to a wealthy rubber magnate. She represents one of Hamilton-Paterson’s key themes – the conflict between civilisation and the wilderness, as seen not only in the Amazon but in Molly Air’s art and the strange sights that Elgar sees on his journey.

It is Hamilton-Paterson’s skill to give us not just a missing piece in the life of a great composer and the story of the composer’s struggles with his life and art, but also a picture of a wild part of the world being encroached on by civilisation and a view of both the wildness but the beauty of nature, that we will see in his other novels and, indeed, his non-fiction work. It’s a pity that it is out of print.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Macmillan