All is Song by Samantha Harvey

‘Surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance’, writes Plato in The Apology, ‘to believe that one knows what one does not know’. Plato, of course, does not present these words as his own but as those of his mentor, Socrates; The Apology claims to be a faithful transcription of Socrates’ own defence at his trial, where he was indicted for his sinister ‘innovations in religious matters’ and for ‘corrupting the young’. Plato’s Socrates eloquently dismantles these allegations, tracing his behaviour and rigorous mode of philosophical enquiry back to a singular, fundamental wisdom – to the resolve that (in his words) ‘I do not think I know what I do not know’.

The affinities between the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues and William Deppling, the questioning, charismatic and stubbornly idealistic figure at the centre of Samantha Harvey’s quietly compelling second novel, All is Song, though never explicitly acknowledged in the text, are both immediately plain and subtly educed. Echoing Socrates’ disavowal of the role of teacher and of conventional wisdom, William, who is in his fifties and living in twenty-first century London with his wife and three sons, has left his job as a university lecturer and now runs voluntary youth groups which have earned him a distinctly Socratic reputation for ‘talking to the kids about the wrong things. Or inappropriate things, anyway’. Finally, one of his young ‘followers’ commits and implicates William in a very public crime, and it is on this event and its rippling effects – adumbrated with characteristic precision and elegance in the following scene from early in the novel – that Harvey’s narrative turns:

The view showed smoke not more than half a mile away to the east. It was pushing the night apart with a strange, muscular solidity.

Observing this elementally shifting outlook is William’s younger brother, Leonard, who soon finds himself helplessly entangled in William’s situation and in the ethical vexations that it entails. Unlike William, who, echoing Socrates’ ‘divine or spiritual sign’ – a ‘voice’ that he claimed began guiding him in childhood – has apparently always ‘heard the voice of the Lord’ in the form of a ubiquitous ‘sonic and subsonic [. . .] song’, Leonard is an atheistic religious studies teacher, recently returned to London from Scotland where he has been tending to their dying father. William, we learn, did not even attend the funeral:

‘Scotland was difficult,’ Leonard said, in answer to the unasked  questions. How was your trip? How have you been? He knew William would  never ask. ‘I wish you’d been there, William, at least for a visit.’

All is Song by Samantha Harvey review
All is Song
by Samantha Harvey
288pp, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Like Harvey’s first novel, The Wilderness, which movingly yet unsentimentally configures the history and experience of a man with Alzheimer’s, All is Song is brilliantly and absorbingly attuned to these kinds of human contradictions and inconsistencies, absences and silences. Both novels, which Harvey has previously revealed, ‘in a very profound way’ share ‘a relationship’, seem fundamentally and self-consciously to appeal to the inescapable reality that (as Leonard suggests in All is Song) ‘a human being is a complex thing and we are not all the same, we are not all concerned by the same things’. As a consequence of this, both novels also persistently raise and explore the issue of whether we can ever really understand or truly know another person, even those people who are closest to us. In The Wilderness this sense of epistemological partiality becomes indistinguishable from the reeling, unreliable remembrances of an ailing mind; while in All is Song Harvey writes:

He [Leonard] saw the man perching upright into his own fate with determined indifference, and he realised something that was always true – that the very act of even looking at his brother was one of reconciliation between these two opposite  views of love and frustration, love and anger, and most often love and incomprehension.

Perhaps this concern was, in part, what attracted Harvey to the historical figure of Socrates. Fatally misunderstood in his own lifetime – he took a dose of poison while awaiting execution in prison – Socrates also never wrote down any of his thoughts or experiences, so that everything that we know about him is derived from others’, particularly Plato’s, accounts. All is Song lends this so-called ‘Socratic Problem’ a tangible, modern, everyday resonance, all the time encouraging us to look anew at what we think we know about the world.