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Andrew Crumey: Beethoven’s Assassins

I was reading the TLS just before reading this and it had a review of a biography of Schubert. It seemed to me that biographies of well-known classical composers are fairly common but so are novels featuiring composers . Crumey himself gives us a list on his website. I have not only not read any of them I have not even heard of them. I note that I have quite a few books on this website where Beethoven is mentioned but nothing that is even vaguely biographical. I mention this in passing but would point out that the book under review is not especially biographical,though we do get a fair amount of excerpts from Beethoven’s life, some of which may be true, some of which may have been accurately reported from sources which may themselves may not have been true and some of which may be entirely fictitious.

As we might expect from Crumey, remembering what Jonathan Coe said of him : a writer more interested in inheriting the mantle of Perec and Kundera than Amis and Drabble, this not straightforward biography, nor is it a fictional story, a story about connections with the real life of the narrator(s), speculation and rumination about various topics, but all of these and much more.

The first section recounts Beethoven’s death as seen from the perspective of Therese, his sister-in-law, née Obermayer, married to his brother Johann. This is not the only section that might be called biographical; however Crumey imagines what Frau Beethoven might have said and thought and what we know of the biographical facts is distorted and indeed changed (such as who was present when he died and his last words. (Allegedly he said Pity, pity—too late! in reference to some bottles of wine sent by his publisher but Crumey’s possibly partially fictionalised Frau Beethoven improves on that. Beethoven and his sister-in-law did not get on and, indeed, Beethoven tried to stop the marriage so a lot of her thoughts are critical of her brother-in-law. Not only is it distinctly possible that Frau Beethove’s musings are imaginary, invented by Crumey, but, as we learn later, it is possible that Frau Beethoven, real or imaginary, did not say any of this. Yes, as with a lot oi this book, things are not what they seem. In any case we will continue to see (Crumey’s verson) of Frau Beethoven further on in the book as, of course, things happen after he dies.

The next section sees us introduced to a Scottish philosopher, Robert Coyle, seemingly based, at least in part, on Crumey himself. Coyle is to write about Beethoven’s philosophy for a collection of articles celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven and, foolishly, as it turns out, planned for publication during the covid pandemic. What philosophy? you may well ask, as does our Scottish philosopher. However he does introduce to us to one of those fascinating people who lurk around in British literature (other literatures, of course have them), of whom most of us have not heard or know little about. He is John William Navin Sullivan. He was one of the first British people to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, was in love with Katherine Mansfield and wrote a book on Beethoven. Our philosopher tells us about Sullivan and about the theory of knowledge (Art must rank with science and philosophy as a way of communicating knowledge about reality). Sullivan will play a major role in this book, by no means all Beethoven-related.

While Coyle does get into Beethoven and Sullivan, he also has another issue – ageing parents, including a father who is deaf and has dementia and there is a certain comparison made between the ageing father and the ageing Beethoven. Indeed, he makes a list of parallels between his own life and Beethoven’s: A troubled childhood, short on parental affection, leading to withdrawal and difficulty forming friendships. Parallels of this sort occur throughout the book. He will return to this theme more than once.

Both Coyle and Sullivan spend time at the Hyle Centre near Berwick-upon-Tweed. When Sullivan went there, it was a sort of treatment centre for the mentally unstable and we meet one patient and, of course, find her connection to Beethoven. We also learn more about Sullivan’s circle and find he knows or has connection with people like Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, Peter Warlock and other historical contemporaries, some I had heard of and some I had not. We will spend time in this house on three occasions, each approximately one hundred years apart and, of course, with each one there is a Beethoven connection.

In the modern period, when Coyle goes there, it seems to be a place for “artists, scientists and intellectuals as well as social activists, policy makers, innovators. We mainly follow Adam Crouch who has had a hit sit-com but whose writing career seems to be on the wane and, now is considering writing a novel on which he makes little progress,. Of course, there are more strange goings-on.

You may be saying that the book is called Beethoven’s Assassins. Who are these assassins? Well it seems that Beethoven wrote an opera called The Assassins. No, you will respond, he only wrote one opera called Fidelio née Leonore. Yes and no. He only completed one opera which was indeed called Fidelio but he apparently (as Crumey is happy to tell us) started/considered/proposed several other operas. And then there is The Assassins.

A key book (there are others in this book) is Joseph von Hammer‘s Die Geschichte der Assassinen aus morgenländischen Quellen. It has been translated into English (as The History of the Assassins) and the translation is readily available online from the usual sources for a paltry sum. However, more importantly, it seems it influenced Beethoven in writing his quite probably non-existent opera. Loyal Assassins gave their lives in expectation of Paradise while their leader, the Old Man of the Mountain, followed the wicked dictum: nothing is true and everything is allowed, the latter phrase being key to this book. The assassins do pop up in strange places in this book and are one of the many interesting but not always fully explained themes.

I have mentioned some of the themes and scenarios of this book but to cover them all would take up far more space than I normally allow myself so let me just cover a few points.

Key ideas in this book

Nothing is as it seems
Lots of things/themes/characters are linked in strange ways. Interconnectedness, or to, use a term that is used in modern physics (Crumey studied physics) complementarity is important .
The real life of ordinary people may find a reflection in the life of the more famous. Robert Coyle makes this point more than once.
As in physics, many seemingly different things are actually two sides of the same coin. Science and art are just one example: Science organises fact, art organises experience. Science explains phenomena, art expresses values. We get other examples, including from modern physics. Taking it further. Robert Coyle comments : Quantum physics asks us to imagine forms of matter existing simultaneously in contradictory states. One need only look at human affairs to see such things in effect. Also one can also see it in this book. One self-deprecating comment may be apposite: I should have become a criminal had I not chosen art. The two vocations are, after all, essentially equivalent, comments one character.
As we know from modern physics, time is a dimension.
Parallel universes.
The Theory of Everything.
Everything is allowed.

Observations on the characters

Quite a few of the characters are divorced.
Quite a few of the characters drink too much.
Quite a few of the characters die. This may or may not be connected with the two preceding comments.
As far as I can recall, none of the major characters have minor children
Quite a few of the characters really existed, though I suspect that they would not all concur with what Crumey writes about them.
Quite a few are novelists or would-be novelists.
There are characters that appear in his previous books putting in an appearance here.

Observations on the plot

Plot? There are loads of plots. They generally seem to connect with others but the connection may not always be obvious, though, of course, somewhere, somehow, Beethoven will be involved.
There is a lot about what we might call crank science/pseudo-science/alternative philosophy/New Age, depending on your point of view. They include reincarnation, past life regression, channelling the dead, ghosts/spiritualism , parapsychology and much more.
There are quite a few conspiracy theories. We all love a good conspiracy theory and clearly Crumey does. He even has one of my favourites: did Viscount Castlereaghkill himself or was he murdered? (Interestingly Crumey refers to him (quite correctly) as the Marquess of Londonderry. However, as Byron and Shelley will both confirm, he is more usually known as Viscount Castlereagh.)

Advice to follow based on this book

If you receive an unsolicited and unexpected invitation to go to a remote country house, be very careful.
In particular, if it has a small secret library, do not go there.

If this review is somewhat chaotic, it us because the book under review is chaotic. This is meant as a compliment, not a criticism. Yes, it is about Beethoven but even if he pops up everywhere, somehow or other, this book, as I hope I have shown, is about a lot more. Crumey mixes in a whole host of ideas, a slew of fascinating stories with plots which are sometimes resolved but often not, a range of historical characters, many of whom most of us will have known little about and a lot more about Beethoven, some of which might be true and some might not. In short this novel is aiming to be an everything novel, a novel which aims to cover a whole range of seemingly unrelated or only tangentially related topics while telling its story. From my side, it is a first-class novel and essential reading for anyone interested in the modern novel.

Publishing history

First published in 2023 by Dedalus