Are we disappointed in life because our talents are not appreciated, or because our talents are not enough? Are we a genius or a fraud? Andrew Crumey’s The Secret Knowledge concerns two musicians: one, Pierre Klauer, could be both genius and fraud, while the second, David Conroy, has no genius but certainly thinks that he, and the whole world, is a fraud. Though the novel zips between various events in both men’s lives it is fair to say that music is as much a protagonist as either of them. The Secret Knowledge (Le Savior secret) itself is a musical score penned by Klauer, but music, as Conroy says, “if it is of any worth at all, is not the bearer of a discoverable message”. Thus music can be either genius or fraud; we do not look to Beethoven or Wagner as great teachers, it is only ephemeral, clamouring pop music that seeks to impart a message through the impertinence of its lyrics.
The book alternates between sections set in the past concerning Klauer and those people connected, however loosely, to him, and sections in the present relaying Conroy’s misadventures after being given a copy of Klauer’s manuscript. 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; and all is told with the dread urgency of the present tense.
We begin in Paris, 1913, where we find Klauer, novice composer, proposing to his sweetheart, Yvette, as they ride a new mechanical wonder: a ferris wheel (“The modern world makes everything seem small”). After she agrees to marry him, Pierre shoots himself in the head. A man calling himself Klauer then appears in Scotland, 1919, agitating with union organisers and workers. Then the same man – possibly – is seen conversing with poor Walter Benjamin in Capri, 1924. Here Klauer makes a prophetic remark about the eventual fate of the philosopher: “Intellectuals are always the worst victims, too much thinking”. A fate that, it is devilishly hinted, was supplied by one M. Carreau – a friend of Klauer’s who marries Yvette after his ‘death’ – in Portbou, Spain, 1940.
Are these Klauers the same man or part of a conspiracy by intellectual anarchists who disdain “all logic and reason”? In the present, David Conroy becomes obsessed by the latter notion, among many other conspiracies, and is led to a pitiful undoing by Le Savior secret. However, he is a fairly pitiable man to begin with: a jaded, failed pianist, impotently pursuing PR girls, “the prize-winning rising star of three decades ago turned into a disappointed teacher”; according to Paige, one of his students, he is “Not simply artistic or eccentric, but a bit mad.” One wonders if there is truly a difference. Conroy elicits sympathy only through his devotion to music, not looking for answers or resolution because, he tells Paige, “there won’t be an answer, there never is. Art is always inconsistent.” Unfortunately he doesn’t heed his own advice and is driven mad, or perhaps more so, by the mysterious score and its agents. Whether he is delusional or not is for the individual reader to decide, and, this being a mystery of sorts, not all of the clues can be given here.
And thus from Conroy back to Benjamin, for the former certainly fits the latter’s description of envy as “something we feel most strongly, not towards what was or will be, but with regard to what might have been”. Via Benjamin we are transported to New York, 1941, and one of the novel’s most extraordinary gems of a scene wherein Hannah Arendt passes Benjamin’s manuscript, containing ‘On the Concept of History”, to Theodor Adorno and we witness the propensity of intellectuals to get lost on nothing so much as each other. As well as their frailty, ones supposes their humanity, but it is interesting that Crumey has these two cerebral giants perceive each other through physicality and sexuality rather than intellectuality. Arendt on Adorno: “even uglier than she remembers, with his big dark eyes and upper-bourgeois air of entitlement some women supposedly find attractive”. Adorno on Arendt: “a woman whose philosophical career has advanced itself in men’s beds as much as seminar rooms”. Of course, as Crumey reminds us, no fiction writer can ever truly hope to represent a person who actually existed – but any opportunity to denigrate philosophers is a small victory.
The Secret Knowledge – fictional score and physical book – has no message, but it is of value. It is valuable because it is unashamedly intellectual and anyone not afraid of the intellectual’s fate should pick it up, think, and be damned. As we are discussing music and what might have been, let the last word belong to musicologist Alfred Einstein: “If we let our imagination roam, it is difficult to conceive what might not have happened in the realm of music if Mozart had lived beyond the age of thirty-five, or Schubert beyond thirty-one.” The difficulty we are faced with in this novel is conceiving whether or not the world would be improved had Klauer led one life, completed his symphony and wrote more works, or if a man like David Conroy could have been happy, even if he had been granted success.