In a challenging introduction to On The Overgrown Path , John Clute lets it be known that the novella's main character, an elderly Czech composer enjoying belated recognition in 1920's Europe who is referred to throughout simply as J----- or Maestro, is real-life composer Leoš Janá?ek. Janá?ek was noted for incorporating the pitch, tone and rhythm of everyday speech and sound in his compositions, and it is this rather charming idiosyncrasy which has particularly caught Herter's imagination, and around which he has built a beguiling story of magic and obsession. This compelling little curio of a story stubbornly refuses to fit neatly into any category, but its pervading sense of other-worldliness will most likely land it in the fantasy section of your local book emporium from which, with a couple of caveats, I am going to recommend you pluck a copy.
En route to visit his publisher in Prague, a snowstorm forces J-----'s train to make an unscheduled stop in a remote, isolated village which, as far as he can tell, is somewhere in the mountains near Slovakia, although its precise location is left tantalisingly vague. A man of vitality as far as his years will allow, J----- resolves to explore, notating such sounds as appeal to his composer's ear in a notebook he carries with him for that very purpose, hastily scribbling the five bars of the stave at the caw of a crow, the chiming of a bell, a conversation in an unfamiliar language, capturing them "as cleanly as a lepidopterist pinning a specimen to a corkboard" (p.76). (These little notations appear throughout the novella, presumably for the edification of those of us who can read music, although their reproduction makes for a nicely decorative touch either way. )
It is in pursuit of one such sound—a woman's song—that J----- is lured to the edge of the small town. The song's words are meaningless but mesmerising, a "melismatic melody of leaps and turns" (p.16) whose hypnotic notes are more than once referred to, in a poetic turn of phrase which typifies the narrative, as "swirls of blood" (p.16). Unable to locate the singer, J----- returns to the station, only to find the track has been cleared of snow and the train has left without him. Resigned to an unscheduled stay of several days in the little town, J----- resolves to find the singer, a journey which takes him into the woods surrounding the village. There he finds the body of a young woman, dead of a brutal chest wound, a faint smile on her face. The following days will see J----- alternating between the roles of unwelcome guest, amateur detective, and possible murder suspect ... and will find him questioning the wisdom of plucking sounds from the air in a place where traces of magic may linger.
Herter has created a memorable character in J-----; however much he might or might not resemble his flesh-and-blood counterpart (a pity we can't ask his wife Zdenka, or perhaps Kamila, the young married woman with whom Janá?ek was reputably obsessed; both women hover wraithlike in the background of the narrative, generally voiceless), Herter's version of him makes for a intriguing protagonist, a man who, like the novella itself, defies easy categorisation. His creative energy, geniality, and his compassion for the dead girl are traits at once endearing and unsettlingly relentless. Witness the fact that most of J-----'s speech concludes with an exclamation mark, friendly exuberance perhaps bordering on mania in the same way that his endless notation could be seen as scrutiny bordering on obsession. As a fictional character these are all points in his favour, lending him the quality of a flawed hero.
The prose is pared down to its essence, its present-tense sentences notable for their abruptness. This bullet-point brevity might have become wearying in a heftier tome but works well in Herter's sliver of a story, often giving rise to imagery all the more striking for its immediacy:
Snow has been trampled by many footsteps. And paw prints. Dogs. The smell of charred wood. Nearby—a voice, singing. (p.16)
The walks through the woods. The pine, like arching cathedrals of limbs and light, the needled path. (p.24)
Succulent, evocative passages like this abound, often blurring sensory description or anthropomorphising aspects of J-----'s world, so that we find "white china humming by the window" (p.29), or "mountains staring back in surprise" (p.24). This pervasive sense of the unreal, the magical, is perhaps the novella's strongest note, and makes the never-quite-answered question of whether we are in a realm of literal magic almost irrelevant.
All of which is just as well, since the actual story is often a little too cryptic for its own good. Yes, J----- is a well-realised, compelling character, but you'll have a hell of a time piecing together the references to his personal life without some prior knowledge of the man or without doing a little research between chapters. Moreover, J-----'s motivations become nebulous toward the end, his actions increasingly harder to fathom. The ending doesn't quite satisfy, utilising a rather old-fashioned twist which may, perhaps, suffuse you with a pleasing sense of nostalgia, but is just as apt to annoy. In the above-mentioned introduction, Clute observes that "...The novella ends will all options open" (p. viii). The story would have been stronger if a few of those options had been closed.
But if Herter's bite-size piece of poetic fantasy is sometimes obtuse in terms of its plot, this is not a huge problem when the language so easily picks up that slack. Style over content is fine when the style is as good as this.
Finn Dempster lives in Bristol, England. He is usually to be found in his local library, pub, or bookstore, and will get around to doing a PhD one of these days.
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