The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 2013, 234 p.

The Secret Knowledge cover

In The Secret Knowledge Andrew Crumey has done something out of the ordinary. He has illustrated a corollary of the Schrödinger’s cat scenario – the possibility of multiple worlds – in a piece of fiction written in realistic terms. His characters discuss the possibilities but in the text it is never really spelled out that different scenes take place in different worlds. We must infer it from the narrative. Utilising the concepts of quantum physics in a literary form has always been one of Crumey’s concerns, though, and here he also returns to another of his familiar themes, music.

The chapters alternate between the historical and the present day starting in Paris in 1913 where composer Pierre Klauer has just completed a piano piece (entitled Le Savoir Secret, hence – in part – our novel’s title,) has also just proposed to his girlfriend Yvette but kills himself (off-stage) moments later. In our time, Paige, a student of piano, has just been assigned the tutelage of part-time concert performer David Conroy after giving up a course in English because she loves music more. Conroy gives to her to play a manuscript that has just come into his possession. A manuscript written by an unknown French composer and entitled The Secret Knowledge.

We then go back to 1919 just prior to the “Battle of George Square” in Glasgow where a newly arrived young French man befriends socialist John Quinn outside an Engineering Works. The Frenchman stirs up a meeting and is of course named Pierre Klauer. So. Did Klauer actually die in 1913, or not? (According to one Schrödinger outcome it can be both – or neither.) There follows a narrative which skips between the doings of Conroy and Paige, Yvette (who marries Klauer’s friend Louis Carreau) – to 1924 where Theodor Adorno meets a man who introduces himself as Klauer, Spain in 1940 where Carreau – who had stolen Klauer’s manuscript for Yvette has an encounter with the philosopher Walter Benjamin who then kills himself in the belief he will be returned to France and the Nazis, 1941 where Adorno meets Hannah Arendt. During these the same scene may be returned to but is shown to be subtly different.

But as Conroy says, “Art is always inconsistent,” and, “Truth is not something we discover consciously; it discovers us.” He also muses on his disappeared wife, “It’s only when they surprise you that you find out your ignorance. We expect continuity, not paradox.” About a part of Le Savoir Secret he feels, “this section is the dream of how things might otherwise have been, a path denied.”

In a passage which could be all about the writer’s art we have, “‘A performer knows all about the tricks of persuasion. Yes, the game was rigged, you were always meant to lose, but go on, take a card, see what you get.’” One of the characters conceives a future project, “a book of fragments, epigrammatic, or even surreal in character, apparent irrelevancies serving to create new, unintended meaning,” a book which, presumably, Crumey intended us to be reading in The Secret Knowledge.

Other notable pieces of dialogue include, “Lenin has” (succeeded) “in Russia. Make everyone think it’s a popular revolution when really it’s a coup: that’s genius.” Mention is made too of Louis Auguste Blanqui and the Mechanical Turk – which has seemed to crop up a lot recently in the books I have read.

Not the simplest of narratives then but immensely readable just the same. The actual secret of Klauer’s manuscript is not quite the tremendous revelation we might have hoped for though. Crumey here hasn’t quite achieved the heights he did in previous novels but The Secret Knowledge is still a remarkable rendering of quantum physics in the form of an accessible piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- “he no longer tours, or records” (nor records,) Louis’ (Louis’s,) “the roll of a dice” (one of them is a die.) “The family she saw are gliding over the top” (the family is gliding.) Crumey is a serial offender here – “the family were” (the family was,) “around its upper balcony stand a crowd” (stands a crowd,) “a young couple huddle in one corner” (a couple huddles.)

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