One cold, dark January evening in the foothills of the Bourbonnais Mountains in France, Hermin, a young composer, is shocked to find Lenny, his former piano pupil, standing on his doorstep. Ten years earlier, without explanation or saying goodbye, Lenny walked out and disappeared from Hermin’s life. “A teenager had left him; a man had returned.”
After some awkward small talk and fumbling false starts, the pair try to revive their friendship. But both men are guarded and prepared to reveal only so much about their exploits over the past decade.
Hermin is vague about his decision to swap his garret in Paris for his rural retreat; Lenny is modest about his amazing musical success and cagey about the reason for his sudden departure and mysterious reappearance. One thing Lenny does make explicitly clear is that he is canceling his concerts and abandoning his profession.
Despite efforts and offers to work together, each man remains aloof: Hermin spends his days working in his “music pavilion”; Lenny goes off on long solitary walks. But then on a stormy night the past rears its ugly head. Finally the men are forced to replay old arguments, examine still festering jealousies and long simmering resentments and, for the first time, own up to what really drove them apart.
Sarah Léon’s debut novel, “Wanderer,” is an elegant and finely focused winter’s tale. It starts out quietly dramatic and atmospheric but gradually builds and burns, presenting in the end a relationship which manages to be, simultaneously, tightly bound and prone to unraveling at any moment.
Apart from several minor cameos, the book is a neatly staged two-hander. Such a structure allows Léon to home in on her lead men and highlight their anxieties and evasions, their unasked questions and unspoken desires.
This is also an intensely musical novel. The characters are united in their love of Schubert, in particular his “Winterreise” — a composition that has at its heart a lovelorn wanderer not unlike Lenny. This is not the only instance of Schubert’s cycle of lieder informing the novel. Léon borrows his song titles for her chapter titles and sprinkles her narrative with lyrics and a range of references, tonal and thematic.
It is nimbly done — and nicely translated by John Cullen. And yet when Léon expands to pay homage to German Romanticism in general, she is less successful. Lenny’s surname — Wieck — happens to be Clara Schumann’s maiden name; the men arrange to meet at a Café Werther. And so on. After a while, it feels as if Léon is laying things on a bit thick.
Fortunately, she makes up for this in other areas. The flashbacks on practically every page tell another story in beautiful counterpoint. The fiery exchanges and desperate treks through the snowy landscapes prove gripping. And the portrait of two men unable to voice their feelings and in thrall to the “inexpressible force” of music is tender and wise.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Sarah Leon, translated from the French by John Cullen.
Publisher: Other Press, 200 pages, $15.95.