THE GREAT CONCERT OF THE NIGHT
By Jonathan Buckley
The British writer Jonathan Buckley has his doubts about the usefulness of linear narrative. In fact, he’s on record as saying that plot isn’t of overriding importance in his work. So it’s fitting that his latest novel, “The Great Concert of the Night,” is conceived as an episodic journal written by a museum curator named David, who has lost the love of his life to cancer and will soon lose his job. Gradually, over the course of a year, David assembles a picture of his muse, Imogen, an actress whose presence in films consoles him even while her true nature and that of their relationship elude definition. “Words,” as David writes in one entry, “do not preserve the person.”
The concert of the title is the name of one of Imogen’s films, but it also serves as a metaphor for Buckley’s novel: “a constellation of moments” searching for harmony. By the end, we learn more about the narrator than his beloved. Seen as unworldly by his family, David is something of a recluse, a passive witness to life’s concert. He’s the curator of a failing museum that is a cross between a historic house and a collection of medical specimens. He describes it as “an assemblage of objects removed from the flow of time,” and he tries to preserve the memory of Imogen in a similar fashion.
Yet it’s her vocation as an actress that renders her difficult to define; Imogen has described her own “self” as an alias. She inhabits roles as she does life, without revealing herself, and on her deathbed she speaks of playing the bravely dying woman to make her mother proud. Are they really lovers or is the much older David more of a father confessor for Imogen? Characteristically, when she takes him to an orgy, David remains steadfastly a spectator. In the end, we are left with speculation but without the fixative of certainty.
Nevertheless, one reads this beautifully written book because the author provides food for thought with reflections on love, the imagination and death, laced with citations from Marcus Aurelius, Blaise Pascal and the Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen. There is also a drolly comic side to the story, chiefly evident in the narrator’s exchanges with his sister, Emma, who represents a modern, pragmatic point of view. When she ridicules David for carrying a mechanical watch as opposed to a digital one, he tries to explain that the handcrafted mechanism imposes “a structure on the flux of reality.” Emma flatly replies that hers is more accurate, which is the purpose of a watch.
Another recurrent theme concerns the decline in visitor numbers to David’s niche museum following the imposition of an admission charge. Through his journal entries, David chronicles the fall in numbers from 32 to 18 a day as the local council announces a cut in funding. After no private sponsorship can be found, the council decides to close the property in the following year and sell the house to a boutique hotel chain.
The journal ends much as it begins, with David contemplating the second year since Imogen’s death. Alone in his room, he recalls the pleasure of sitting there with her, of their “being solitary together.” With the last tile in place, the picture of Imogen remains as enigmatic as ever. It brings to mind the conclusion of Rilke’s invocation of the image of his father as a young man in a daguerreotype, “oh quickly disappearing photograph in my more slowing disappearing hand.”