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Thursday, 12 October 2017

A Flash of Inspiration - That Moment!

life-unfinished, martin-white, book
Image: Martin White
Life Unfinished was published recently, after a gestation of some twelve years. It is a fictionalised biography of the Austrian composer, Franz Schubert, exploring his problematical relationships, his sexuality, the places he visited, and, of course, his music! To many people that would sound esoteric, overly intellectual, a topic hard to sell in today’s cut-throat market. How was it that I chose it as the subject of my first novel?

I’d always hoped that at some point of my life I’d have time to begin writing creatively. Indeed, my parents had planted the seed by telling me, half-jokingly, that they had chosen my name, “Martin White,” because it sounded like a novelist’s. I’m not sure they were right, but the idea stayed with me! As I approached my fifties and a long-planned early retirement, therefore, my thoughts turned to whether I was up to the challenge and what I would write about. In the event, my choice of subject – that eureka moment when I realised what I simply HAD to write about – came easily.

I had always loved the music of Schubert. As a small boy, I remember hearing his music on the Proms and being overwhelmingly intrigued by the idea of an “Unfinished” Symphony. In later life, I collected more and more CDs of his symphonies, quartets, songs, and piano sonatas – so much so, that he became my favourite composer. But what was it that I actually LIKED about that music? A realisation grew that there was something about its very ambiguity which attracted me – how light followed shade, joy was inflected with sadness and vice versa, and how major was so often juxtaposed with minor. On the one hand, there was an avoidance (evasion) of the strict structural rigour of composers like Beethoven and Bach, and yet, on the other, an ability to express great ranges of emotion - sometimes explosively so.

The question posed itself to me, as a gay man – was this “gay music”?

As I read around the subject, it rapidly emerged I was not the only person to wonder about this. In fact, Maynard Solomon and a variety of modern musicologists had analysed Schubert’s life and letters and come to the conclusion that they implied the composer was homosexual. Then I read an article by Susan McClary entitled “Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert’s Music”. One paragraph struck me above all:
“In 1987 I asked my undergraduates at the University of Minnesota to write short critical analyses of the second movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. While I requested that they make a point of some sort in their essays, I was primarily concerned that they demonstrate their ability to deal with keys, themes, and formal structure. A couple of days before the papers were due, a small group of students arrived at my office looking perplexed. They asked shyly if I had been holding back any pertinent information concerning Schubert. When I asked them to elaborate, I was greeted by an embarrassed silence; but finally, a young man (whom I knew to be a gay activist) blurted out: “Was Schubert gay?” Since I was not yet familiar with Maynard Solomon’s work on Schubert, I had no information to offer them. But I did ask why they had reached such a conclusion. Their answer: Schubert’s procedures in this movement diverged so wilfully from what they took to be standard practices and in such particular ways that they could find no other explanation.”
There was the justification for my own speculations! It was a Damascene moment, and from then on I had no doubt at all that Schubert was my mission, the subject of my first novel – the more so, as I became aware that this theory about him had received little general publicity outside the rarified atmosphere of academic debate, and indeed had been vehemently attacked by other academics. My certitude as to my way forward was, therefore, born of a life-long love of Schubert’s music, but a realisation of a deeper emotional connection with both the man and his creations. I felt a crucial identity with the subject.

When Inspiration Strikes...

But I have written a second novel – in fact, published before Life Unfinished, and superficially about an entirely different sort of topic: To Catch the Conscience of the King, which is about the downfall of the fourteenth-century English monarch, Edward II. So, how did this come about?

Again there was a moment of certainty, but one reached even more quickly than my immersion in Schubert’s story. I was, in fact, driving down the M42 from Birmingham to Gloucestershire to visit my mother. Having recently finished the first couple of drafts of Life Unfinished, I was pondering what next to write about. I considered the difficulties which had had to be overcome in writing about Schubert – the need to travel to Austria and even Slovakia to visit places with which he was associated (not necessarily an unwelcome difficulty!), the need to understand the culture of early nineteenth century Austria (lots of reading involved there), and the need to read quite a lot in German (at which I was not very proficient) – and I asked myself whether there was any potential era or area with which I was much more familiar from the outset.

Then the answer presented itself. I was on my way to Gloucestershire, which I had known since I was a child. One of the most famous historical characters associated with the county (and indeed buried in its cathedral) was Edward II, and of course there have never been many attempts to conceal historical doubts about Edward’s sexuality. As Edward’s story was to unfold before me in the first few books I subsequently read about him, it emerged he was associated with other places which I knew well: Hereford, Kenilworth, Corfe, the Abbey of Llanthony Secunda (just outside Gloucester), and, of course, Berkeley Castle.

Forging a Personal Connection

By the end of my car journey, it was clear how I would be spending much of my time over the following couple of years – writing a novel based on all or at least the latter part of Edward’s 20-year reign. Again the personal link had determined this: the feeling that I had a connection with Edward – that for me, at least, he was somehow special. It was that moment again!

So, that’s how it works for me. The personal connection to my subject is all – leading to a flash of inspiration and then an unwavering belief that I can and will write a book precisely on that topic. How much more impressive, you might well say, are the many authors who are seemingly able to write about all or any topic, regardless of personal involvement –the many for whom writing is a craft or a profession rather than a quasi-religious undertaking! Well, maybe the craftsmanship comes with time, when one’s skills have been honed writing about matters of crucial personal significance, and can then be used on whatever topic looks likely to bring commercial success. Time will tell, I suppose!

Martin White was brought up in the West of England and graduated in History (MA) from Cambridge University. He practised as a lawyer and became a partner with his firm in Birmingham, but retired early and is now establishing a second career as a novelist specialising in cultural and historical topics. He is also keen on foreign languages and travel. Life Unfinished is available to buy now.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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