Cath Barton reviews Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, Nigel Jarrett’s collection of short stories which combine fact and fiction, spanning centuries and continents.
Here’s a scenario for a short story: imagine two writers, who are also music lovers, though their tastes are quite different. They both write, now and then, for the same well-respected publication. But although they have lived in the same town for twenty years, and know – from photographs – what the other looks like, they have never sought to meet one another. Until something outside their control brings them together.
Here’s the disclaimer: some of the above is true. Nigel Jarrett and I both write, now and then, for Wales Arts Review. We also live in the same town and have never met. But the scenario could very well be the starting-point for one of Jarrett’s short stories, perhaps transported to a rendez-vous in a faded concert-hall in a small Eastern European town!
What I find fascinating about Nigel Jarrett’s stories in Who Killed Emil Kreisler? is the way in which he plays with the marriage of fact and fiction. Had Google not been able to turn up any reference to a musical instrument called an osculaphone I would have believed it to exist, so convincingly does Jarrett write about it in ‘Rhapsodie’, the story which lies at the heart of this second collection of his shorter fiction. This story tells of Ellen, a woman who wants to commission a piece for the osculaphone from the (fictitious!) composer Gerard Duvivier, and of amorous complications and deceptions along the way. The story is largely in the form of letters between Ellen’s brother Joe and his friend Teddy, who writes to Joe thus about his forthcoming novel:
“Needless to say, it bears no relation to real incidents or to people living or dead, and that it sets sail confidently in seas as familiar as they are unendingly mysterious, which, few would argue, might be a description of Life itself.”
What is true and what is not, what one person and another believe to be true, and where fiction appropriately or otherwise draws upon reality is at the heart of this story. The epistolary form is perfect for conveying Teddy’s musings and Joe’s outrage. This material could become cloying were it not leavened with Jarrett’s ever-present wry humour. He is, thankfully, always willing to laugh at himself, all the more so in ‘With the Greatest of Ease’, the convolutions of which deal with a story within a story:
“It was as if Timmy were turning my story into a conceit, and I don’t care for them in literature. Too contrived.”
Jarrett describes himself over-modestly as a “former newspaperman”. Clearly his working life took him into many corners of the human experience, rich pickings for the world of fiction, which he has exploited to the full in this collection. ‘The Brazzaville Express’, which was a finalist in the 2011 Rhys Davies Awards for short stories, is a vivid and poignant snapshot of the consequences of war for the children who take the school bus, “Ten children, but only twenty-five limbs.” In ‘A Colder War’, Jarrett again draws on his musical experience and knowledge to portray, beautifully, characters from an orchestra from some part of the former Soviet Union on a miserable tour of middle England with a ballet company over Christmas, “blowing and scraping and banging” to entertain Brits who “know nothing about ballet and even less about how to keep their brats quiet.” Images from ‘The Floating World’ ventures into the world of the erotic to consider an adolescent boy’s sexual awakening against a background of an English country house in which his grandfather keeps a collection of Japanese shunga and a retainer called Diggory is not as benign as it at first appears. ‘Blakemore’s Folly’ is a brief dash of a story about a man’s hubris in having a high tower built.
I’ve picked out those four stories to give a glimpse of the variety in this collection. It is not just the contrasts in content which are striking; Jarrett is a chameleon in his use of the English language and changes his style to suit his subject. His fluency and adaptability are remarkable. His stories are sometimes a little overladen with characters – ‘A Weissman Girl’ is one such – but where it works characterisation is his forte. In ‘Mandalay’ a lonely hearts column brings people together for a while and then they part. It is not a story of romance but that rarer and more valuable thing, an insight into how little we get to know of one another.
In ‘Mandalay’ two of the characters visit a zoo, where a wise old gorilla serves to emphasise differences between human tribes. Jarrett also uses the zoo as a location in ‘Old Roffe’, and a wildlife park in ‘Fauna’. Such locations certainly serve to highlight the misunderstandings and complexities of relationships in the wider human zoo.
The title story, ‘Who Killed Emil Kreisler?’ was mysterious to me until I read Jarrett’s account of it having been inspired by the story of the death of the Austrian composer Anton Webern, who was supposedly shot and killed by an American soldier. There is a clue in the dedication of the book in memory of Raymond Norwood Bell, the man who (if that story is indeed true) pulled the trigger. Whatever the facts, Jarrett’s story is a re-imagining of the event, and one which is as powerful in its short trajectory as a gun shot. I particularly like the energy of the very short story, what we are now wont to call flash fiction. Another example of this is ‘Ziggurat’, an ironic title for such a tiny piece. And yet it is a story the implications of which reverberate after you read it.
It is difficult to pigeon-hole Nigel Jarrett’s writing, and that is all to the good. Sometimes he reminds me of Somerset Maugham, a wonderful storyteller, albeit one who some now regard as old-fashioned. My favourite story in this collection is “Wish You Were Here”. I love its sense of mystery. What is the narrator’s line of work? Who sent him the postcards that had gone missing from his neighbour’s collection after her death? What is the significance of the pictures? And what about the fifth postcard? That’s the great thing about a good story like this one – it makes the reader into a collaborator and it is for each one of us to make our own sense of it. Great stuff.