“Hans Keller and Internment” by Alison Garnham

Garnham’s book ‘tells’ (see below for more on how) the story of the Austrian émigré musician, writer and broadcaster Hans Keller from his beginnings in pre-War Vienna to his bursting onto the British musical scene in the late 40s. She cleverly and successfully shapes this linear story of Keller’s finding his voice by framing the kernel of her material – a series of his letters from British internment camps – within Keller’s own writings: beforehand the gripping and upsetting account of his escape from the Gestapo, and afterwards his first writings on music. She presents her material (as in her other writing) by letting other voices speak alongside hers; she contextualises, nudges our memories, and draws out threads of truth which make sense of her sources. The form tells the same story as the content: the finding of a writer’s ‘voice’ finds its correlative in the way Garnham’s structure eases the birth of this voice: after her introduction of the painful dislocation of leaving Vienna, and strong scaffolding around the repetitive and frustrated letters from captivity, she gives him a push with an original explanation of how three epiphanies, all experienced after arriving in Britain, effected what is the book’s dramatic conclusion: Keller’s synthesis of his hitherto separate intellectual worlds of words and music, by writing about music. She then lets go of the bicycle. Keller’s voice is then free: we are given four essays, and finally a transcript of an interview in which the now dead Keller is remembered by colleagues. The voice lives on after death, truly brought to life.

For me there are echoes of katabasis, or at least the return from such a descent: there’s certainly in the final interview, despite the fact that the participants are discussing Keller after his death, a feeling of a glorious coming-into-life: his voice is Garnham’s true protagonist.

Above all the book, a work of scholarly and archival biography, nevertheless, by this weaving of many voices, achieves an effect which is firstly literary.

New words: lettre de cachet; cathexis; characterologically

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