on 16 February 2002
I read Michel Faber's latest, The Courage Consort, this morning after giving up on Peter Carey's workmanlike True History of the Kelly Gang. Yes, it's one of those books you can read at a sitting - or, as I was in bed, a lying. It's an ostensibly comic novella about a group of acapella singers - "possibly the seventh most renowned in the world" - called The Courage Consort. The action, such as it is, centres on their stay in a secluded European chateau to rehearse a larynx-bogglingly complex piece of modern choral music called Partitum Mutante. Cue lots of ker-razy Europeans to laugh at (presumably an in-joke as the Highlands-bound Faber is Dutch by birth).
However, as with Faber's last two books, Under the Skin and The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, the central vein of the story is in the mind of an unhappy woman, this time Catherine Courage, the 47-year-old wife of the founder of the group. The first page finds herself contemplating suicide by jumping out of the window of their apartment, unsure whether four storeys would be enough to kill her. This gives us the fine closing line to the first paragraph: "If she could only drop from a height of a thousand storeys into soft, spongy ground, maybe her body would even bury itself on impact." There's enough like that to dispel any fear that Catherine might be a whingeing Plathette, and Faber manages to keep her sympathetic and likeable throughout.
If retreading the unhappy female territory means he will never suffer Martin Amis's accusations of misogyny, he would do well to his neglect of male characters. In Under the Skin, the men were - literally and figuratively - leering lumps of meat - and in The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps the male was, albeit necessarily, a lantern-jawed hunk with little inner life that we got to see. Here too the men are fairly one-dimensional: from Roger, the unsympathetic husband who constantly asks Catherine if she has "given any more thought to" giving up her anti-depressants, to Julian the pansexual lustbucket; with only Ben, the 20-stone bass, to provide a little light and (ahem) an enormous amount of shade.
The story is simple enough, and like the rest of Faber's books, remains in the head despite its apparently slight construction. As comic novels go, it's not that funny (I laughed once) but it's satisfying and affecting and re-readable and what more, I suppose, could one ask for in 120 pages? Just don't let the fact of a quote on the front cover by Brian Eno put you off.
on 19 September 2005
Michel Faber's The Courage Consort is one of those books where you wish it were longer or part of a collection. A novella of 150 pages it follows the story of a group of singers sent to Belgium for two weeks in order to rehearse a new avant-garde piece for an upcoming event. As they spend more time in each other's company the group falls apart due to personality conflicts and personal problems.
Roger Courage is the founder of the singing group, named The Courage Consort, although the courage in their name comes from their willingness to tackle contemporary pieces in addition to the traditional standards. His wife, Catherine, is a manic depressive who, in preparation for the trip to Belgium, has forgotten her pills. Ben is an overweight bass singer who lives in his own personal world of silence. Julian is a seemingly bisexual vocalist with a love for Bohemian Rhapsody. And Dagmar, a young German, is the opposite of Catherine in her love for life; she has also, for the trip, brought along her newborn child, Axel.
The book begins with Catherine Courage sitting on the window ledge contemplating whether the four storey drop would be enough to kill her as her husband sit in the next room. As it continues the quintet spend the days practising Partitum Mutante, the avant-garde piece of Italian composer Pino Fugazzi, while the nights provide them with an over exposure to each other that leads to constant arguments about the direction the group should take. Their inability to work with each other leads to an incident that eventually breaks up the group, who are "possibly the seventh most renowned in the world", although there is some hope for the group as evidenced by the optimistic ending.
The prose is light, the vocabulary restrained, and the plot simple. There is humour in this book but it's not laugh out loud funny; the Brits' interpretations of European accents, and the way characters communicate with each other. The characters are nicely done although the woman were better drawn than the males, a common occurrence in Faber's work. Catherine, as the main character, is well conceived - her thoughts were realistic, her dialogue seemed right, and her mania added that extra bit of depth.
Faber's novella is a good read, although, like in The Crimson Petal and the White, he leaves a few things unanswered - the source of a recurring noise from the nearby forest being a prime example - but this does provide scope for interpretation. Maybe we can presume that some parts of the story are delusions of Catherine's. The Courage Consort almost succeeds as a standalone book, but I couldn't help but feel that the characters needed a little more to fully appreciate them. That said, the story is still worth appreciating.
Michel Faber is one of the most fascinating writers working today, despite not being a stylist of great note. I think one reason for this is his ability to get under the skin of unusual characters -- alien beings, mystics, prostitutes, and in the case of "The Courage Consort," a group of musicians facing various issues.
The central character, Catherine, enters the novella in a state of clinical depression. It is her progress towards recovery and a renewed sense of self-worth that makes this such a wonderful book. But she is far from the only one with issues; each of the other characters is dealing with demons of his or her own. As with most of Faber's books, we feel that this is a story about Life Itself, though not in an obtrusive, preachy way. Rather, Faber gently explores the challenges we all face, guiding his very diverse characters to victory or defeat along the way, while preserving the mystery of the inner life of each. Each of the characters is memorable, and that is the mark of a master novelist.
This fascinating short book takes no more than four or five hours to read, and is just the thing to take on a plane journey. However, it will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
A note: as with several of Faber's shorter works, the text includes a large taster from his latest novel, The Book Of Strange New Things, which pads it out by around a third. "The Courage Consort" ends at around 67% of the total text.
on 22 January 2003
This book takes no time to read at all. At 120 pages, it's probably best if you read it for yourself, seeing as how there's such mixed reactions to it.
My personal view of this book is that it is rather good, actually. I found it compelling, interesting, very witty, and charming. I must admit that being a music fan but not being learned in the rules of music very much, I was expecting some of the terminology and descriptions to go over my head. The actual result is quite different, with not only the work involved in bringing it to life, but also the piece in question being conjoured up in the reader's mind very well indeed. If you have read Captain Corelli's Mandolin and found the description of the mandolin playing as wonderful as I did, then you will definitely like this.
The piece in question - Pino Fugazzi's Partitum Mutante - is a complex, dischordant, avant garde piece which the group of five singers must learn and perform within a fortnight. They are shipped off to a Belgian mansion, where the five of them spend the days singing and the nights dealing with whatever personal business they have to. Catherine and Roger Consort are husband and wife (he the founding memeber and all-round organiser, she depressive who's forgotten her pills), Julian (pretentious, highly sexed but gifted vocalist), Ben (quiet giant. Keeps himself to himself, and provides the calm end of the group), and Dagmar (young German lady, who brings with her a passion for the physical life, and her babay!). They've known and worked with each other for years, but only get together to perform the occasional piece. As highly acclaimed a quintet as they are, it just takes them being in a house together for one day to remind them why they aren't as functional as would be prefered.
The writing is light and easy, and it's a good job that there are only really five main characters because the story would not be long enough to squeeze in much more detail. You really get to know the characters well for such as small amount of time, especially Catherine, with her neurotic views on virtually everything countered by her soothing appreciation of each of the other members in their own way. Her psychological issues add intruige to the story as well, leaving more than one question unanswered at the end, and leaving the reader wondering if so much of the story was actually just her suicidal imaginings?
Full of metaphores - the struggle and the challenge of the quintet dealing with Mutante being the most obvious - this is a book I'd recommend for fans of Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea), Louis de Bernieres (Captain Corelli's Mandolin), and James Hawes (Long Time Dead).
on 10 February 2002
This book is a fantastic and funny read. A vocal consort group struggle with the latest "masterpiece" by Italian avantguard composer, Pino Fugazza. Fugazza, it turns out, is an absolute horror. Most famous for attacking his wife with a stiletto shoe in the baggage reclaim of Milan airport he also has an unsavoury family background in international arms sales. Equally brilliant are the ghastly Euro festival director and the video wunderkind, Wim Waffels. The central story of the engaging Catherine Courage and her breakdown and recovery is very affecting. The writing is terrific, like 1970s period Muriel Spark: pared down, elegant and powerful. Superb.
The Courage Consort are a group of four vocalists who are building a reputation for singing difficult new music by avant garde composers. They have been invited to perform the Partitum Mutante, a fiendishly complex piece by a new Italian composer, at a prestigious cultural event in the Netherlands and have been given the use of an isolated country house in which to practice and perfect their performance.
We are introduced to the four through the consciousness of Catherine, the wife of the group's leader, Roger Courage; also present are the group's handsome but cocksure baritone, Julian Hind, Ben Lamb, an enormously fat but sublime baritone and the contralto, Dagmar Belotte, young, spiky and recently delivered of a baby, Axel, who comes along too, much to the disgust of Julian. The dynamics of the group barely hold together as events unfold, complicated by Catherine's depressive state of mind as well as the legend of a young woman and her baby who were lost in the forest surrounding the house. These vague elements of menace and misery are not quite followed through, though the ending does have a shock in the tail.
A novella of 121 pages, this is confident and knowledgeable, sometimes funny and sometimes rather creepy and the music references don't in the least leave the non-musical specialist behind. A writer of Dutch descent, Michel Faber never writes, even remotely, the same book twice. His work challenges conventions as well as genres, and ranges from Victorian romance to science fiction. In this book, he adds musicology to his list, but the emphasis is always on the human elements. This is an impressive and entertaining addition to his oeuvre
A group of five a cappella singers go to a large house in the Belgian countryside to rehearse a piece of avant garde music called partitum mutante. They are different personalities and the main character, Catherine Courage, is suicidal. When they settle in for a fortnight of practice Catherine hears a strange wailing in the nearby forest at night and as the temperature rises in the weather, so does the temperature in the house...
The novella has potential given that setup however it was never going to be a rollercoaster ride. It reads very safely, that is like a Radio 4 play. More annoyingly though is the fact that nothing much happens in the novella. The sexual tension is never acted upon and the wailing ghostly cry in the forest is mentioned a few times and never resolved. A few cartoon-like characters make an appearance as eccentric eurotrash but do nothing more. The group bicker for much of the book until the sudden ending and that's it.
Faber's a brilliant writer who knows how to tell a story so the book reads very smoothly despite the lack of anything resembling a plot. However, having read his much better works like "Under the Skin", "The Courage Consort" pales in comparison and is a very weak book that never quite takes off.
on 16 January 2002
One of the finest comic novels I have ever had the pleasure to come across. Despite its brevity and lightness of tone it has a substance and a pathos that I found particularly moving. It's not often I have enough confidence in a book to recommend it unreservedly, but in this case I have no hesitation, enjoy.
I read Under the Skin nearly 10 years ago and had kept Michel Faber in mind because I was impressed by that work. I particularly recall how good some of the characterisation was, how he had a more than averagely keen eye for the texture of speech. And it was a good story too. This is the same Michel but with no story to tell as such and no stand out characters. He seems to have made it an academic exercise to write something satisfying that has no stand out event, bar an almost unnecessary one tacked on towards the end, but his lack of sympathy for some of his own characters betrays him and he doesn't get too deep inside those that he likes. I'll read him again, for sure, but this is a bit below what I expected.
on 26 December 2015
Quirky book, I liked 2 of the 3 stories, the last story being a little boring compared to the other two. Faber is one heck of a story teller, they are all so unique. I usually find people who write short stories struggle to suck in the audience with the story and the characters but Faber really does a great job of grabbing you by the shoulders and throwing you into the tale, you get so absorbed into the characters lives, it's fantastic.