Premises for novels often sound a bit thin when reduced for publisher’s blurb or the purposes of reviewing. Premises for novels involving real people often sound barmy, if you happen to know anything about them, or elicit a “so what?”, if you don’t. One of the major problems with Martyn Harrison’s Suggestion Diabolique is that the idea driving it will have no significance unless you already know quite a lot about Prokofiev’s life and music; for those with the necessary grounding, it runs the risk of not delivering a sufficient challenge to existing evidence.
At the centre of Suggestion Diabolique are two recording transcripts of Hicks and Prokofiev in conversation (from tapes subsequently smuggled out of the Soviet Union by Sviatoslav Richter, no less). They discuss Prokofiev’s decision to return to a Russia he knew was increasingly hostile to those “tainted” by Western influence, censorious of artists and murderous towards the recalcitrant. Why risk everything for a regime that prevents your works being performed and sticks your wife in a camp? Hicks wants to show that Prokofiev was neither naive, nor fatally sure of his own untouchability.
I say “Hicks wants to show...” and come to the next big problem with the book. In order to airbrush out some of the historical clunkiness, Harrison has the questionable narrative of Lynton Hicks. Its questionability is double-pronged: firstly, is he merely delusional, creating an elaborate fantasy around his own inadequacies, his oblique position as a professor of English among musicologists and his sexual frustration? Secondly, why does he express himself in an extraordinary, headache-inducing prose, with such bizarre use of language that I frequently had to stop and walk about. Bear in mind that at least half the book consists of Hicks going up to Manchester on a train, then hanging around chatting up students. What does “Time, prankish and anvil-footed” mean? I don’t know. I don’t know what “Saturdays can swivel into consideration” means either, or “The train was waiting like accomplishment”, or “the shattering sadness of flies”.
My guess is that Harrison likes Nabokov. A lot. Not only does Hicks recall Nabokov’s displaced academics lurking around campuses, like Humbert and Pnin, he has the same blurry quality found in Invitation to a Beheading (which gets mentioned here) and Despair. I would speculate that Harrison sees parallels between Prokofiev and Nabokov: technical mastery; gleeful subversion; ambiguous relationship with homeland. Unfortunately, whereas Nabokov’s stylistic quirks and narrative duplicity are quite easy to imitate, his use of language and tonal subtleties aren’t.
A lot of this is down to poor editing. Ironically, given that a nameless “Ed.” pops up from time to time in the narrative to point out various references. A good deal of Suggestion Diabolique would benefit from refocusing and rewriting, because a lot of the ideas and writing are good. Unfortunately there are too many red herrings, including Hicks’s incarceration in some shadowy institution full of the toecurlingly-termed “Pyjama Men” and “Psychoreaders”. There are also a lot of typographical errors that don’t make the reading process any smoother. It is noticeable that some of the best writing in Suggestion Diabolique comes when Hicks/Harrison stops trying to make the reader suffer literary motion-sickness and actually talks about Prokofiev. There isn’t nearly enough of this. A more confident engagement with the subject in hand would have improved this book no end. There is also a confusing conceit whereby chapters are given the names of pieces by Prokofiev, but then this comparison seems either ignored, or given a very superficial investigation.
Suggestion Diabolique is ultimately a frustrating read, seemingly too wrapped up in the cleverness of its own execution to give its ideas room to develop or resonate with the reader. That those ideas and, to some extent, that cleverness are obviously there, is perhaps the most frustrating part of it.