PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover design: Marie Lane
... one of the most interesting books I've read this year. I recommend it, as a head-turning sort of philosophical fiction that's rarely done, and even more rarely done so well.
A mystery tale that leaps between a washed-up pianist in London and assorted European intellectual heavyweights, with a pioneering socialist and a clandestine head of esoteric initiates in its background, Andrew Crumey's seventh novel finds the author up to his old tricks. Crumey begins his story in Paris in 1913, a date perhaps chosen for its significance both to modern music (the premiere of The Rite of Spring) and quantum theory (the Bohr model of the atom). A young composer at a peak moment - out at a fair with his fiancee on his arm and his first major work locked away back home - suddenly vanishes, only to pop up again six years later as a political agitator in Scotland. As Crumey's readers will immediately recognize, we have entered one of his mirrored boxes of many worlds. Pierre Klauer, a Schrodinger's cat writ large, is simultaneously dead in Paris and alive on Clydeside.
Crumey specialises in the novel of ideas, which is an unfashionable thing at the moment. This is a pity, because his tale of parallel composers, Pierre Klauer poised on the edge of the First World War, and today's contemporary David Conroy, is more accessible than some may expect, and more gripping and more encompassing, too.
Each section is enjoyable in itself and the level of intellectual discussion is high. I am sure that in some way it all hangs together, but I am hanged if I see quite how. It's a very clever novel, this metaphysical mystery, but one that I fear I am not clever enough to make sense of. The answer may be that you shouldn't try to do so, but instead to surrender to it.
it’s a clever book, and funny, and thought-provoking; it mixes a whodunnit with the intellectual japes of Umberto Eco, and (not surprisingly for Crumey, who’s a highly trained physicist) a bunch of quantum references. It’s the sort of book that has you constantly flipping back through the chapters to check connections and coincidences; that makes you nod furiously once you figure something out. And, by the end, you want to start over again as fast as possible to see if you’ve properly understood it…
The novel represents a perfect match between author and publisher; Crumey’s text occupies the same shadow world of conspiracy and idealism as many of Dedalus’s fin-de-siecle reprints, and hopefully the relationship will be a profitable one for both parties. Fittingly, there are a number of interpretations open to readers, and Crumey resists easy conclusions. It is exciting to see a writer engaging with the likes of Adorno, Benjamin and Barthes in a modern novel, and hopefully this ambition will be embraced by readers. This is a novel with real cult appeal, and looks set to make a big impact as word of mouth spreads.
'The skill with which Crumey not only moves the narrative seamlessly forward from past to present but also recreates periods spanning one-hundred years of history is enviable.'
'Crumey writes with unrelenting intelligence and gusto and even if Klauer's "secret knowledge" turns out to be an unplayable cover for dark dealings, Crumey's Secret Knowledge has a satisfying development and cadence.'
In 1913 Yvette stands in the Paris sunshine, gazing at a fairground wheel and waiting for composer Pierre to greet her with what she hopes will be a marriage proposal – but fears will be something darker. Their rendezvous with Yvette ends with a bang that propels Crumey's seventh novel past Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, civil unrest and war and into the present day, where troubled pianist David Conroy and his student Paige come across the dark symphony Pierre was writing before his tryst with Yvette. Various men – some charming, some threatening, none entirely trustworthy – seek Pierre's notes, and as Conroy retreats into paranoia and Paige dreams of fame, another conflagration looms. With its enthusiasm for secret societies and acts that echo through time, The Secret Knowledge mines the fruitful ground between Cloud Atlas and Foucault's Pendulum, but fails to reach the heights of either. The dialogue can be tooth-wrenchingly annoying ("I thought you believed in destiny" … "I believe in hope"), and it's hard to care too much for the characters, but some scenes – a febrile union meeting, a loaded meeting between rival pianists – are wonderful
Crumey is a writer to be treasured because he is a writer of ferocious ideas. Just don't expect him to provide all the answers:
'... I want you to keep hold of the confusion, don't try to resolve it, because I can tell you now, there won't be an answer, there never is. Art is always inconsistent.'
This book is one full of allusions. There are allusions to literature, to philosophy, to history and to music, a secret melody that the reader must think of while reading to fully understand the book. That said the book is written well enough and there are plenty of pleasant sentences and interesting concepts to grapple with, particularly that of quantum immortality (that old chestnut – ed.), and nothing is as it first appears.
Andrew Crumey writes big fiction about big ideas; his previous novels confidently discuss the work of real-life thinkers such as Schroedinger or Goethe, and his latest is no exception...the book is an extraordinarily clever enterprise that repays close reading.
Whether this qualifies as historical fiction is a moot point: it’s set in multiple pasts, multiverses, spanning the 20th century, from 1913 Paris to 1919 Glasgow, 1924 Capri, 1940 Barcelona, 1941 New York, 1967 West Germany and modern London. However, the past is not there for its own sake. What matters instead are the interlinking strands of events whose effects spin through time and space – only a writer with a PhD in theoretical physics could write so effortlessly, and brilliantly, of these alternate realities, which also feature in Sputnik Caledonia, an earlier award winning work.
The physical object linking the different episodes in Crumey’s latest novel is a musical score, the work of a brilliant pianist, Pierre Klauer, and an arcane book, a code-breaker perhaps, or an initiation to the “secret knowledge”, last owned by Walter Benjamin. Both score and book are pursued by suspicious types, under false names (Carreau, Verrier, Verrine, Oeillet), who are doubles in time and space, as suggested by the radical 19th-century theorist, Auguste Blanqui.
Described as an “intellectual mystery”, the book explores the illusion of progress in history, perhaps also in our individual lives, a tribute to Benjamin’s own theories. Interestingly, the women are the most coherent and linear characters: Yvette and Paige, in particular, but even the historical figure, Hannah Arendt, who appears in the book alongside Theodor Adorno. The two key plots involving Yvette and Paige spiral together, doubles whose strands of DNA intersect only in that the music score is central to both: one has the feeling, at the end, that their stories might easily start all over again. As another of the characters says: “Who can say where anything begins or ends?” Challenging stuff, but fascinating.
.. the author builds the menace and keeps the reader engaed.
New work from Crumey is always a delight, though he makes us wait - 5 years since Sputnik Caledonia. Once again he has evaded expectations with a novel which is less immediately lighthearted than most of his previous books, but just as provocative, containing parallel worlds, ideas on art and mass culture, and guest appearances from Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno.
The Secret Knowledge is almost an epic on the scale of Cloud Atlas and Foucault’s Pendulum, it somehow manages to interweave Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, civil unrest and the discovery of a lost symphony. A singular work of genius? Not quite or maybe. This shake-down of fiction and its possibilities is exactly what the Scottish novel should be doing if it wants to survive this time of change
The message is a simple one. If you’re going to be an artist accept the fact that people may never notice you. Accept the fact that mainstream and popular culture will find its own path, most likely leaving you behind. If you can't accept this, then walk away.
Thankfully Andrew Crumey has never walked away. Even if he doesn't get the plaudits his focus is on the art. I would also love for Crumey's work to be recognised. In the meantime, though, his novels are challenging, vibrant with philosophy and ideas and a unique insight. The Secret Knowledge is no different. The plot never levels out or feels comfortable and familiar, the style and voice changes from chapter to chapter and yet the novel is never anything less than engaging.
Crumey takes on the complex and thorny subjects of parallel universes, Schrödinger’s cat, and the plight of philosopher Walter Benjamin in this intelligent work of speculative fiction. The narrative pivots back and forth among various times and locales, including the present day; Paris in 1913, home of rising composer Pierre Klauer and his fiancé, Yvette; Scotland in 1919; and Spain in 1940. When Pierre is shot and apparently killed, Yvette honors his last wish and, with the help of a stranger, Louis Carreau, reclaims his unpublished score from his parents’ house. Pierre then appears to resurface in Scotland several years later as a factory worker. Whether he lived or died—or both—is the question, as modern-day pianist David Conroy, his career on the wane, ponders if a rediscovered Klauer score might be the answer to all his problems. The philosophical questions the book raises are clever and insightful.