TENTH by MacDonald Harris


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Yet another lightweight, ornamental set of variations upon the theme of connoisseurship--by the author of Screenplay, Herma, and The Treasure of Sainte Foy. Julian Coates, a California music professor of no great distinction, decides to give up teaching during a mid-life crisis, only to be rescued magically by the offer to have him try and complete the sketched-only Tenth Symphony of the modern German composer Leverkuhn. (That's the name, you'll recall, of Thomas Mann's fictional composer in Doctor Faustus--while other allusions suggest Mahler, Bruckner, even Beethoven.) Traveling to London, Coates feels himself the prey of various unexplained pressures coming, variously, from: the English radio producer who suggested the whole project; other would-be muses; and the composer's fusty adult daughter, a wraith-like figure who prophesies doom for Coates if he goes through with the idea. Still, Coates makes some advances--discovering a notebook of further Leverkuhn sketches that's mostly illegible. Then, however, he blithely puts this aside, making Leverkuhn's Tenth Symphony, instead, a stew of his own puerile, Coates-ian compositions--plus a sort of ""pain-music"" dictated to him when he breaks a foot. And all this might have been high satire in a philosophical and aesthetic vein. Unfortunately, however, though some of the ponderings here are interesting (e.g., the relationship between sex and music), musings on pornography and myth go nowhere in particular. The comic touches are weak, especially when centered on the California-sex doings at Coates' beach-house. So, again, the dominant chord is Harris' fey preoccupation with Art, his fluttery prose: ""The chords marched swiftly on one after the other spreading obliquely across the keyboard, carrying with them the plaintive and moving, mysteriously unearthly motif of the oboe lament from the first movement, but here constantly more complicated and embellished. . . ."" Mildly intriguing, finally disappointing work--from a novelist who seems to become less of a genuine storyteller (and more of a cultural doodler) with each annual arrival.

Pub Date: Feb. 23rd, 1983
Publisher: Atheneum