It is inevitable that any book where a pupil and teacher have a dalliance will be compared to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. William Coles’ novel The Well-Tempered Clavier wouldn’t suffer in such a comparison – but it is rather more. Notes on a Scandal meets Othello, if you will. Let me explain.
Set in the most famous school in England, Eton (which the author attended as a pupil), The Well-Tempered Clavier sees seventeen-year-old Kim fall in love with his piano teacher, India. This simple love story is the central thread through an engaging and revealing narrative of Eton life – the customs and vocabularly; the friendships between boys and the near absence of girls (I didn’t realise before that masters’ daughters were allowed to attend). Oddly, something which really impressed me in Coles’ writing was how he gave the impression of heat – the stifling temperatures, especially under the layers of Eton uniform, was described so evocatively that I needed to fan myself while reading… But The Well-Tempered Clavier is never less than compelling. Documenting the Eton life from within, as it were, gives those of us who attended their local comprehensive a fascinating glimpse, without treating the boys like zoo animals. Having been to Oxford, goodness knows I understand what it’s like to have my home and place of work treated as a tourist attraction… but nothing like Eton. Personally, I can’t think of anything crueler than sending a child to boarding school, especially from the age of six, and can’t think of any situation, other than an orphan’s, where it could be thought the best option. I wonder whether any of you attended one? Or, even if not, what you think?
Anyway, that’s an aside. So why the title to Coles’ novel? Kim first hears India while she is playing from Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’, a selection of Preludes and Fugues for piano which range from approachable to impossible. Each chapter of the novel is subtitled by one of the Preludes, and in some way relates to it – usually Kim is playing it, or hears India playing. Since I have a copy of the piano music, I thought I’d play along with the chapters, which is a nice way to do it. If you can’t play the piano, try playing a CD or something, while reading the appropriate chapters. I was just very grateful that Coles hadn’t used Fugues for chapter headings… much more difficult.
Comparisons with Notes on a Scandal aren’t really just. There is nothing needy or sordid or demoralising about the nature of Kim and India’s relationship. It is a beautiful romance, in the true sense of the word ‘romance’, which takes only a frisson from the fact that they’re pupil/teacher. More sex than you might like in a book, but it is certainly secondary to the romance and genuine love. Sadly, this is where Othello steps in. The comparison is made quite overtly – Kim’s class are reading Othello, and Kim has more than a little in common with The Moor of Venice himself. An ineluctable jealousy stalks him – even his self-awareness cannot prevent it corrupting his relationships, and it looks as though it might infect even his reciprocated love for India…
The Well-Tempered Clavier is a beautiful book, managing to use a simple narrative voice without a consequently bland style – honesty, beauty, and passion pervade the novel, but so do humour, youthfulness and energy. Do go and get a copy, and pick up a Bach CD while you’re there.