The Descent of the Descent of the Lyre

I’m delighted to say that my novel, The Descent of the Lyre, is due to be published this summer by Roman Books. It will be available both in the UK and the US. I’ve just published a trailer for the book over on YouTube, and you can see it in action here.

So, now that the book is so close to being published, I thought I’d write a little bit here about the descent of The Descent of the Lyre (you see, the title of this post was not a typo after all).

A long time ago, a friend asked me to write a story “about the guitarist’s hands”. This must have been some time around 1997 or 1998. I thought it would take a week or so, but soon realised that the story was not going to take shape quickly. The idea rattled round my head for years, and there was one striking image that kept haunting me—the image that appears in the book towards the end, where Ivan, the book’s protagonist is discovered in the theatre. It wasn’t until I first went to Bulgaria in 2005 that I felt as if I had a way in to this story, and that I realised that this story would be a novel.

Bulgaria was not the most obvious choice for a novel about the nineteenth century guitar: there is no tradition of guitar music in Bulgaria in the early nineteenth century; but somehow, this is where the story decided to put down roots, and somehow the figure of a Bulgarian saint emerged, a saint, ‘about whom, ‘the lives of the saints, the hagiographies and concordances, the encyclopaedias and church documents, say nothing’, who moves from his home village of Gela, the legendary birthplace of Orpheus, to a life of banditry, exile and suffering. Very early on, I decided to paint an icon of the saint, with a guitar and bandaged hands. Despite the crudeness of the end-result, this image of Ivan Gelski accompanied me through the long process of writing the book. Even as I write this, Saint Ivan is sitting on the shelf, gazing out at me severely…

The Descent of the Descent of the Lyre

Icon of Ivan Gelski.

For me, writing is never just about writing. It always involves other, unexpected things. So in 2007, I made an extended research trip through Europe to Bulgaria for the novel, thanks to a generous Arts Council grant. How do you ‘research’ a novel? You go somewhere, and you hang out, and you hope stories will fall into your lap, or some sniffing around you, or surprise you in the dark back-streets like muggers. There’s nothing particularly systematic about it. And so, the process of researching this book was one that took me to some interesting places, from small private guitar museums, to shady Bulgarian bars where they did fantastic shopska monasteries and chapels up in the mountains.

If I hadn’t expected that this story about the guitarist’s hands would lead me to painting icons, neither had I expected that it would require me to actually write any music myself; but a few years into writing the book, I found myself needing to think about what kind of music might be written by a gloomy nineteenth century Spanish guitarist living in Paris who, after hearing some strange and unsettling Bulgarian music in an uneven time signature, decides to give up the guitar in favour of the piano (this is the kind of question that you ask yourself when writing stories). I wanted to be able to hear the music, so I took some chord progressions from Fernando Sor and mixed them up with a deliberately uneasy take on Bulgarian dance rhythms (one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three). This resulted in the following lost piano work by Fernando (or Ferdinand) Sor.

The Descent of the Descent of the Lyre

If you are a pianist, give it a go. It is rather difficult to play, and very, very strange (but the supposed author in the novel is in a state of some derangement, so that’s fine), and there’s also a wrong note somewhere in those left hand octaves. The score made its way into the final book; the painting, thank goodness, didn’t.

Somehow, all of this has added up to form the story that is The Descent of the Lyre. Looking back, it is a curious trajectory; and in the end, perhaps, what matters now is the book itself, which is launching itself out into the world, and which—however it is received, whether with cheers or complains or chilly and echoing silence—will separate off from these personal obsessions and strange biographical byways, to make its own way in the world.

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