Sonia Orchard’s extraordinary first novel, The Virtuoso, draws on the life of Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood. Jacinta Halloran, whose debut novel Dissection was featured by Readings (and launched by Helen Garner!) in 2008, spoke to Sonia for Readings’ series on new and emerging Australian authors.
On 5 December 1953, at the height of his fame, the virtuoso Australian pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood, wrote 43 pages of notes to his friends, then mixed himself a cocktail of gin and hydrogen cyanide. He was found dead later that evening in the living room of his west London apartment, next to his Steinway. He was 31 years old.
A true child prodigy, Mewton-Wood made his concerto debut at the Melbourne Town Hall when he was not yet 12. At 14, in the company of his formidable mother, Dulcie, he travelled to London, where he studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music. He was admired and mentored by the music luminaries of the day: his teacher, Artur Schnabel; the legendary conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham; and the composer, Benjamin Britten. The critics raved and audiences loved him. He had a child-like exuberance that endeared him to many. Yet he was troubled by recurrent bouts of depression. Two weeks after his partner of several years, Bill Fedricks, died from appendicitis complications, he took his own life.
Sonia Orchard first read about Mewton-Wood in a magazine article some seven years ago. ‘I found him fascinating,’ she recalls. ‘He was such an adored Australian abroad, almost a household name and considered one of the greatest Australian pianists ever. He was charismatic, flamboyant and lovable, but he also had an enormous vulnerability that came through in his music.’ She listened to one of his recordings and thought, ‘Why isn’t he still famous?’ So she decided to do something about it. The Virtuoso is the result.
An accomplished pianist herself with an Associate Diploma in Music qualification, Orchard was drawn to the idea of writing a novel that centred around music. ‘And I was fascinated by Noel Mewton-Wood’s character type: the quintessential creative genius who teeters on the edge of madness,’ she says. In 2003 she spent two productive months of research in London, visiting music libraries and the archival departments of the various concert halls at which Mewton-Wood performed. She also met John Amis, a respected music broadcaster and writer and a close friend of Mewton-Wood, and through him was introduced to many of Noel’s friends and contemporaries. The brilliant pianist’s life and milieu began to take shape.
Initially intending to write a fictional autobiography, Orchard decided against this during an interview with one of Mewton-Wood’s former lovers. Over petit fours and champagne – at 10 o’clock in the morning – she had her breakthrough. ‘It was the “a-ha” moment when I suppose I knew, in a body-tingling way, how I wanted the story to feel,’ she recalls. ‘The poignancy of that interview, the sense of him looking back over Noel’s brilliant life that had touched him so much, a person whom he loved but never really understood: that’s what I wanted to capture. It seemed to contain so much more pathos than a simple straight-up story of Mewton-Wood’s life, and at the same time seemed to capture best his magic and his effect on those around him.’ However, Orchard stresses that her narrator is not based on this inspiring interviewee: instead she created her own character, a young male pianist, whose love of Noel Mewton-Wood soon becomes an obsession that threatens to unhinge him.
When writing fiction about a real person, the border between fact and fantasy can sometimes become problematic for the novelist. The creation of a fictional narrator relieved Orchard of some of her concerns in this regard. ‘I initially struggled with the notion of how much I should stick to the facts [of Mewton-Wood’s life] but, once I had decided to write from the point of view of a fictional and very unreliable narrator, I felt the problem was solved. I also follow the postmodern idea that there is no one absolute truth and that every viewpoint has its own agenda.’ However, she coloured The Virtuoso with anecdotes from Mewton-Wood’s friends, and stayed true to factual details concerning his concert dates and programming details. ‘These things gave me something to work with.’
The narrator of The Virtuoso is a remarkable creation. Through him, the intriguing life of Mewton-Wood is chronicled with meticulous detail, and yet there is much about Mewton-Wood – his deeper thoughts and feelings about his art and his talent – that the narrator does not know or understand. By creating this obsessed and somewhat deluded narrator, Orchard has intentionally left us with a sense of mystery surrounding Mewton-Wood’s true self. ‘I fell in love with Mewton-Wood during my researching of his life, so I wanted to write about him from the perspective of an obsessed fan or lover. There remains something elusive about him. People I interviewed had contradictory ideas about his personality and no-one really understood why he committed suicide.’
Orchard wrote The Virtuoso over four years, as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University. Her thesis, entitled ‘The Truth Lies Elsewhere’, focused on the novel, Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald. Through the prism of this acclaimed novel, Orchard examined the ability of fiction to contribute to our understanding of history. Of her conclusions, she says, ‘Fiction helps us understand history, but not in an objective, fact-filled way. What novels like Austerlitz do is to aid our understanding of the difficulty in understanding history. The past is a mesh of individuals' experiences and interpretations: Sebald’s fiction helps us understand that unknowable nature of the past.’
Certainly The Virtuoso stands as testament to the idea that fiction can further our understanding of what has been. With her description of the grandeur of Queens Hall in 1940 – on the occasion of Mewton-Wood’s London debut – Orchard beautifully evokes the Londoners’ desire for escape from the grimness of war into the sanctity of music. Sitting next to the radio each night for the wartime broadcasts, the young narrator is stirred by the call to fight ‘the Huns’ but all such ambition drifts away at the sound of his hero playing Debussy over the airwaves:
‘I closed my eyes and imagined Noel playing, his raindrop touch, his intimate knowledge of worlds so beguiling. No one else could hear what I was hearing, really. They just heard sparkling virtuosity, a respite from the war. They couldn’t hear because he was playing for me, for the one person who knew and understood him.’
One of the many wonderful elements to The Virtuoso is the music that flows through almost every page. Orchard’s musical expertise and passion infects the reader with a desire to rush out and buy every recording Mewton-Wood ever made. The narrator’s first meeting with his idol – a birthday party at which they play a piano duet, Schubert’s Rondo in D, together – is superbly drawn. The fiery duet acts as a kind of flirtation as the two young men’s hands move rapidly over the keyboard until, at last, their little fingers touch, ‘ever so lightly, like a gentle grazing of lips’.
Because the narrator is also a music writer, The Virtuoso is peppered with stories about the great composers – Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Chopin. The Schumann anecdotes – in which the narrator tenderly describes the relationship between Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara, a virtuoso pianist in her own right – are particularly beautiful, and reminiscent of Sebald’s melancholic prose. As Robert Schumann, too, attempted suicide (unsuccessfully), these poignant stories also echo the narrator’s love and foreshadow Mewton-Wood’s tragic end.
Through its richly detailed and skilful narrative, The Virtuoso explores the connection between creative brilliance and mental instability. Do these necessarily go hand in hand? ‘I can’t answer this,’ Orchard says, ‘but it’s definitely something I’m fascinated by. I wanted to write about the role of fantasy in our lives; where, on the positive side it leads to productivity and creativity, but on the negative side it slips into delusion. If I had to say this novel was about one thing, it would be fantasy.’