A Novel Wesley Stace
Once upon a time, he was a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Cambridge. Then, he became a folk-rock singer and a songwriter. He took a stage name. For years, he recorded great albums--lots of them. One day, he got an idea from a song he'd written a long time ago. He wrote a novel based on it. A really, really good novel. He'd reinvented himself again, this time using his own name. Meet Wesley Stace.
You may know him as John Wesley Harding.
Wesley Stace's story of transformation is, of course, much richer and more complex than the little fable above. However, that this acclaimed and prolific musician has turned his considerable talent to writing fiction shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, in his songs he's shown himself to be a consummate storyteller, with a sardonic and literary sensibility. Still, many musicians try to turn their songwriting abilities into novels, few with near the kind of success Wesley Stace has enjoyed with his first book, Misfortune.
The story (set in Victorian England) of a discarded baby boy, found by the rich noble, Geoffroy Loveall, and raised as a girl, Misfortune tells of the adventures and, more to the point, the deep personal transformation of the lead character, Rose. It was an idea with the perfect, built-in plot device: if Rose is a boy being raised as a girl, what will happen when he hits puberty? The question haunts the whole first part of the book, the period of Rose's childhood, without ever really being explored before the time comes. It's part of what makes Misfortune such a page-turner from the outset.
The novel has elements of Dickensian darkness and morbidity, as well as a brittle humor of which the Victorian serialist would have approved. It is, though, on the whole a more gentle and loving book than terms such as "pot-boiler" (as it's been referred to) would imply. As can be imagined, there are scenes of intense and conflicted sexuality, as well as violence, both psychological and manifest. Yet the overarching theme of Misfortune is love--varied and mysterious, familial, sexual, platonic, intellectual and, not least, self love. The coat of arms of the family in which Rose is raised, the Loveall (being both singular and plural), includes the phrase Amor Vincit Omnis, "Love Conquers All."
Stace paints his characters in both bold and fine strokes. Rose is a richly developed persona with all the attendant complexities his upbringing and situation demand. Other characters, however, such as certain extended family members, are deliciously one-dimensional in their greed and malice. They act as an effective foil to the more intricate and tortuous aspects of the plot and the more subtle characterizations of the main characters. In an adventure story, albeit a psychologically nuanced one, it's nice to have someone to hate.
The language of Misfortune is musical and accessible, never in danger of becoming either precious or turgid in a quest for authenticity. It's the language of a man who is comfortable telling interesting stories in 3 minutes and 10 seconds--except that Misfortune is over 500 pages. That Stace manages to carry the pace and appeal over that long a span is a testament to his keen ear for rhythm and knack for catchy narrative.
The story unfolds in many layers of questions and mystery shrouding the truth of Rose's birth. At the heart of Misfortune lie a myth and a song. One, the Greek myth of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis, who become one being, both male and female, is inextricably linked with Rose's quest for self-discovery or self-annihilation. The other, a song written by a young street urchin-balladeer named Pharoah, becomes the central revelation, the thread that binds all the loose ends together. To say more would spoil the fun of the story. It's not surprising, though, that songs play a central role in a songsmith's novel (at one point, an ill and confused Rose even speaks in lyrics)--what is satisfying is how seamlessly the idea of songs, as well as the songs themselves, intertwine with the narrative.
With such a song-saturated story and a songwriter at its helm, could a related CD be far behind? On the heels of Misfortune's publication, John Wesley Harding put out a disc of songs, almost all of which appear in some guise in the text of the novel. He gathered three other singers (his favorite female vocalist Kelly Hogan, as well as Nora O'Connor and Brian Lohmann) and went to a spectacular venue in upstate NY to record Songs of Misfortune as the newly-formed Love Hall Tryst.
Songs of Misfortune is steeped in English folk tradition, drawing heavily on old songs and/or melodies. Even those cuts that are pure invention (one from Harding's pen, one from Leonard Cohen) fit squarely in the idiom Songs of Misfortune references. Like the novel, the CD is a successful marriage of period and contemporary sensibilities. These modern voices don't exactly transport us to a different time, yet they deliver the old songs with purity and attention to emotional detail. As most of the songs are a cappella, or nearly so, such dynamics, along with the consistently interesting harmonies, are front and center. The Love Hall Tryst never forget that these are stories (and, in the good old folk tradition, reasonably bloody ones), and as such, demand a proper and vivid telling.
Many of these old melodies are haunting--served well by the mix of Harding and Lohmann's earthy voices with the ethereal timbres of Hogan and O'Connor. "Do Not Fear The Dark," an old melody to which Harding set a story from the novel, and "Female Rambling Sailor," which Hogan and O'Connor sing as a duet, are particularly stirring. In a total departure from the spare spirit of Songs of Misfortune, Harding includes alternate versions of two of the songs, "Do Not Fear The Dark" and "Lord Bateman," performed by his Fairport Convention-reminiscent electric band, The Minstrel in the Galleries. Perhaps because Harding is credible both as a folk singer and as a rocker, the inclusion works--a rousing bonus, as opposed to a jarring distraction.
While Songs of Misfortune stands on its own--a lovely listen and an interesting foray into the British folk tradition--the real fun is putting the book and the CD together. I remember, for the most part, where the songs come up in Misfortune (Harding helps with that in the liner notes of the CD by including the passages where they appear), but I can't wait to go back and read the novel again. This time around I'll have the entwining voices of the Love Hall Tryst weaving through the story, singing in my ear. Judith Edelman
read our interview with Wesley Stace here
buy the novel Misfortune here
our review of John Wesley Harding's 2005 CD
and Wes says a bit more about his book here