“The spiral is a spiritualised circle,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography Speak, Memory. “In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.” Patterns – their beauty, individuality, ubiquity – lay at the heart of Nabokov’s work, but he was perhaps more interested, obsessed even, by how they could be broken, knocked out of sequence, and in the artistic fruits these ruptures could yield. “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another,” he adds. “This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain.” In simpler terms, experimentation, modification, variation – this is the path to a higher place.
Ecstasy is a word I’d happily associate with Patrick Langley’s lyrical and looping novel The Variations, a work with a similarly thrilling Nabokovian intrigue in the relationship between patterning, form and meaning. This is Langley’s second novel, and like his first, Arkady – a tender, smog-ridden story of two brothers in an apocalyptic Britain – it takes place in a world that looks very much like our own but feels alien and strange, as if brushed by the supernatural. In The Variations, reality is ever so slightly askew.
Narrated in three parts, the story centres on the life and works of Selda Heddle, a revered reclusive composer whose ability to tune into the voices of the dead is passed down to her grandson, Wolf, when she dies. Wolf subsequently visits her remote Cornish home to try to better understand the talent – or curse – he now possesses. To an outsider, this so-called “gift” might seem more like an affliction, a pathology to be remedied. After all, Selda was educated at Agnes’s Hospice for Acoustically Gifted Children, the word “hospice” implying that the gift is associated with sickness, suffering, a closeness to death.
But the gift is also the secret to her genius, the key that allows Selda to tap into the “harmonic intervals” that exist all around us. She doesn’t hear sound, but “something else. Consciousness maybe. Or history. Or even time itself.” What the gift actually is is hard to say, with more definitions offered in the text for what it isn’t. “Not ghosts, but something else,” writes Langley, that “something” simultaneously the most vague and most accurate way to describe that which we don’t fully understand.
The gift was allegedly inherited from a woman named Frau Trauffea, who on a winter’s morning in 16th-century Strasbourg began to sing and couldn’t stop. As more and more people gathered and fell under the spell of this “song plague” (a variation on the real “dancing plague” of 1518), the authorities, embarrassed by the display of public disorder, found a solution by adding an orchestra of drums and lutes that “lent it shape and rhythm, a sense of purpose”. It feels significant that Langley opens the novel with this anecdote; is art, he seems to be asking, mere chaos brought to arbitrary order? Mania, with context?
Langley is most incisive in these moments, writing not just about music and life, but music as life and, by extension, music as death. “Life was noise,” writes Langley, “But a life – that was melody,” an echo of that exquisite phrase in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: “I retrieved them from formlessness with words.” Music, like words, may be a form of limitation, but limits can liberate as well as constrain. Is that not what Selda must do with her cacophony of voices – retrieve them from formlessness, create music from noise? “If music is a form of attention,” writes Langley, “where to focus it? This is an artistic question. But it is also a question of how to live.”
And this is also a book about how to live, particularly how to live with a past that so conspicuously collides and fugues with the present. How to break free from sameness, to turn repetition into variation? The novel’s epigraph – “Variation is among the oldest and most basic devices in music. It originates in an inherent tendency to modify identical recurrence” – is a quote from the American composer Leon Stein, and almost laughably banal when held up against Langley’s humming prose. But its message is clear: it is Nabokov’s magic carpet, that age-old human impulse that – like music – wants to modify, edit, exceed, transcend itself. With The Variations, Langley appears to be weaving a carpet of his own.
• The Variations by Patrick Langley is published by Fitzcarraldo (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.