Fiction - It's culture, darling

The Kreutzer

Sonata Margriet de Moor <em>Duckworth, 156pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0715634054

Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" so impressed Tolstoy that he wrote The Kreutzer Sonata - a treatise on romantic love and lust. The story in turn inspired Janacek to write a string quartet. Beyond its arrogance in barging into conversation with these three, it is hard not to be irritated by this Kreutzer Sonata. Not that this is a badly written novella: its quirky structure and confident rhythm carry it through to the end, but the plot and self-consciously musical theme are somehow insipidly rendered. Reading about earnest Netherlanders discussing music is like being buttonholed by a lutenist at a drinks party.

An anonymous narrator takes three flights (read: movements?), provoking three extended memories. Twice he meets the renowned music critic Marius van Vlooten - first en route to Bordeaux and later Salzburg. In Bordeaux a third char-acter (Suzanna Flier) arrives on the scene to begin a romance with van Vlooten which, pace earlier Kreutzer Sonatas, will combust. It is difficult to care, however. There is a striking amount of assumed middle-classness in the setting, which abounds with cultural shibboleths. The reader can experience a warm esoteric glow when the music of Ustvolskaya is discussed, or the avant-gardism of Schubert and Beethoven.

The narrator is the sort of person who quotes himself quoting a "line of Ovid I remembered from my schooldays" to a man he has just met. On the aeroplane, he and van Vlooten "argued about Janacek's first string quartet and exchanged life stories", in between debating Phrygian v Mixolydian modes of music.

Not only is the smugness cloying, the accompanying romance is somehow papery. Van Vlooten first details the circumstances of his botched suicide (and subsequent blinding) following a failed relationship with a woman who is barely described. Later, he exposes to the narrator remarkably intimate parts of his now failed marriage. Yet he remains (as do the other characters) pretty fleshless: more a walking cliche. He is a "patrician" who is "at home in theatres and concert halls", is full of such wearied, penetrating questions as "Have you ever been in love?", and furiously publishes eclectic reviews "in the New York Times one day and the local Zeeuwsche Courant the next". He returns repeatedly to "the problematic theme of love" ("Ah women . . . of course there were women," he tells the narrator).

Suzanna is introduced in a pervy scene when she approaches across a room as the narrator describes her every move to van Vlooten. She is a roster of romantic tropes: beautiful, a supremely talented violinist, wearing a "corn-yellow dress". The seduction takes place mostly off-stage; although "passion" is constantly name-checked as a motive, it is rarely present, and is encountered mostly post-factum. This scarcely allows for interest in the burgeoning love story, whose souring is little prepared for or explained. Consequently, van Vlooten's murderous thoughts seem arbitrary, more plot device than exposition.

Which is very much the problem: de Moor convincingly conjures atmosphere, but as far as the plot goes there is much more form than insight. The (translated) prose is functional and detached: an aeroplane is "this silvery tube, packed with human lives . . . climbing its way diagonally into the sky". Presumably the structure has a musicological underpinning invisible to the layman, but enough to make a geek musikant guffaw into his cardigan. Further onion-peeling might, perhaps, reveal more cleverness, but otherwise this is a bland and relatively humourless dish.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We achieved next to nothing