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Debut novel School of Velocity is classical music's Brokeback Mountain

Robert Rowat

"I wish I knew how to quit you," said Jack Twist, now famously, to Ennis Del Mar in Annie Proulx's novella Brokeback Mountain.

It's a line that could also belong to classical pianist Jan de Vries, the central character in Eric Beck Rubin's engrossing debut novel, School of Velocity, published in August by Random House Canada. Replace sheep-wrangling in the Wyoming foothills with playing Schubert at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, and Jan's situation is not that far removed from Jack's.

Jan, the most promising graduate of the Maastricht Conservatory, sets out on an exciting career as a concert and collaborative pianist. Soon, though, he's afflicted by auditory hallucinations — a building chaos of noise in his head that makes performing increasingly difficult.

Although he seeks help from leading neurologists, we're led to suspect Jan's trouble is actually psychological, stemming from his high-school relationship with Dirk Noosen, the theatrical, Svengali-like classmate whose friendship swept Jan off his feet. Their separation at graduation would open a gulf of unspoken feelings and haunt them for years to come.

School of Velocity raises questions about repression, sexuality and the artistic process, and is a compelling story, especially for anyone interested in the performing arts in general, and classical music in particular.

We reached Beck Rubin via email to find out more about his new novel.

What's your own history/experience with classical music?

When I was young, my father used to entice me to come to TSO concerts by promising to stop at the Windsor Arms on the way home, for dessert. Over time I got more interested in the music than the sweets.

Why did you choose a classical musician for your main character?

There are two characters in the book: Jan, the narrator, and Dirk, his best friend. As Dirk is vivid, rowdy, daring, Jan is reserved, careful and timid. And just as Dirk precedes Jan in almost every way in the story, he was also the first of the two characters to come to life. So it was because Dirk was an actor, who loved funk and soul, and whose idea of a good night out was to be part of a small riot, that Jan was envisaged as a classical musician, whose musical tastes could be described as refined, and who aspired to spend as much time as he could alone at the piano, practising. At least, until he met Dirk.

Is Jan's character based on a real-life musician?

I once had the chance to visit a green room after a performance. It was in London, at Wigmore Hall. Two pianos, four hands. The program was Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals. The lead pianist during the performance was actually a career accompanist, so that day was a big deal — a rare moment in the sun. I watched him backstage, as he got the attention that’s usually reserved for the soloist. I didn’t know him personally, so I couldn’t tell if he was acting in or out of character, but the unusual situation started me thinking about the person who later became Jan.

Pianists will recognize the title of your novel as the name of a collection of technical studies by Carl Czerny. What's the connection?

The exercises are used to warm up the fingers before performance. Most of them are played at high speeds, mixing repetition and variation. These are all parts of the plot and structure of School of Velocity. When I was coming up, I never used Czerny — I played Hanons. It was a Herman Melville lookalike, hanging around a bar in Brooklyn, who overheard my agent explain the plot of the still title-less novel to a friend, and broke into the conversation to say: he had the perfect title. “It’s from this book of technical studies by Carl Czerny....”

What is it about Dirk and Jan's leader/follower dynamic that you find interesting?

On the surface, this dynamic is clearly defined, and people fall easily into their roles. Scratch a little at that surface, though, and what you see is often extraordinarily complicated. It takes just a few small changes in circumstance to release these subterranean emotions and motivations, and to threaten the dynamic. It’s at this point that we get to see whether the leader actually liked his or her friend, or just liked being the leader.

Do you think classical musicians are especially susceptible to the kind of psychological difficulties experienced by de Vries?

Some arts are lonelier than others. Practising and performing music, even onstage before thousands, can be the loneliest. Any existing frailties — physical or psychological — will only be exacerbated by such isolation. That’s definitely what happens to Jan.

Jan's approach to practising piano seems to be directly related to his current emotional state. (In his case, daytime versus nighttime.) Do you think this metaphor is based in reality?

There are a few great artists and thinkers who worked best after midnight, or while inebriated, or both, but there are many, many more who wake up at ungodly hours and keep CEO habits. Jan’s doing better, at least in material terms, when he thinks of the practice room as his office, rather than his confessional.

Are the best classical musicians the ones who are emotionally free?

The best artists are able to be in two places at once — within themselves, and at a distance from themselves. They will use the range of their emotions while keeping tight control on the effects produced by these emotions. I don’t know if that’s freedom, but that’s certainly what makes for excellence.

What did you enjoy about writing this novel?

One of the pleasures of writing this novel was re-acquainting myself with my classical music collection and memories, which led me to include a range of music in the story, and drop some hints along the way. To give two examples: "M. O. Pallett" in the novel is a slightly disguised Owen Pallett, who began his musical career performing classical violin at the University of Toronto. Mentions of Vaughan Williams and Philippe Honoré are a nod to Vikram Seth, who wrote the wonderful novel An Equal Music, a love story about a violinist in a string quartet. Not that you need to be a classical music expert to enjoy School of Velocity. As with An Equal Music, there’s a soundtrack that goes with the story, and you can hear Jan’s music (and Dirk’s, for that matter), here.

School of Velocity is available in bookstores and can be ordered on Amazon. The author will do a reading at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library on Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. He'll also make an appearance at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 29 at 8 p.m.

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