Ronald Harwood Nigel Williams - Essay

Nigel Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Ronald Harwood's new novel, César and Augusta, it is gentleness that proves a strength. The book is set in the France of the 1870s, and concerns César Franck's sudden, late flowering as a composer. Alone with a shrewish wife …, Franck seems the archetypal teacher until a passionate young woman called Augusta Holmes cons her way into his composition class, posing as a man. Harwood charts the relationship between the dry, nervous old man, and his tempestuous, awkward pupil in a well-structured narrative, and shows how the girl inspired Franck to compose the first of his major works, the Piano Quintet….

The book is never less than readable and often something more. Franck, with his hatred of Wagner ('a touch of German sausage in the chords') and his suppressed sexuality, is a living and attractive central character, not a dummy in historical costume, and Mr Harwood writes well about the experience of listening to music.

It is his obsession with and concern for art that informs the same author's volume of short stories, published in tandem with this novel. One. Interior. Day. deals with the art of the writer adrift in the world of the movies. All the stories are recounted by Edward Lands, a stiff-upper-lip Britisher with high standards and a happy marriage. There could have been an interesting tension between Lands and the Nathanael-West-style weirdos he encounters, but, as in César and Augusta, the characters are fighting their stereotypes, and less successfully than in the novel.

Nigel Williams, "Dreeing the Weirdos," in The Listener, Vol. 99, No. 2553, March 30, 1978, p. 419.∗