In a pleasing nod to Marcel Proust, Eustace, the middle-aged protagonist of Patrick Gale’s new novel, is propelled into memories of his childhood by a piece of music. An online flirtation via Skype with a much younger serving soldier is beginning to consume his thoughts, at least until a health crisis looms. Telling Theo nothing about his cancer diagnosis, Eustace goes for radio-active iodine therapy, having been warned to bring nothing with him that he doesn’t mind throwing away after. Saint-Saens’s ‘The Swan’ drifting through on his MP3 player leads him to relive his boyhood as a devoted cellist, and to reflect which parts of his past can also now be discarded.
While Eustace lies in his hospital suite, the bulk of the novel deals with memories of his musical and sexual awakening. The first comes at the hands of two charismatic teachers, Carla Gold and Jean Curwen; the second via his eccentric schoolfriend Vernon and the array of classic gay texts lent him by Carla’s flatmate. Leather-clad Louis, to the boy’s astonishment, has somehow ‘recognised and greeted his secret self’. But of the two passions, it’s the cello that is most urgent.
Young Eustace lives in an old folks’ home in Weston-super-Mare (downside: silence and the hovering presence of death; upside: cakes every day at 4pm). His mother is undemonstrative and distant, his father unnaturally jolly. Taken on as a pupil by the glamorous cellist Carla Gold, Eustace relishes his access to a place where art counts for everything. The account of Eustace’s journey into the intricacies of playing, up to the terrifying peaks of the mysterious ‘thumb position’, is thoroughly absorbing. He enters an even more rarefied world when he’s accepted on a distinguished residential course. But what sort of player (read: person) will he end up being? Jean’s keenest disapproval is for the performer who ‘does not play well with others’.
Various people Eustace encounters, not just cellists, turn out not to play well with others, while stars are found in surprising places. When finally he’s horrifyingly betrayed, he has the inner resources — and outward alliances — to cope. Funny and heartfelt, Take Nothing With You deserves a place on Louis’s bookshelf, alongside Edmund White, James Baldwin and Genet. But on the jacket the cellist Steven Isserlis calls this ‘a musical novel by a real musician’, which I suspect will please Gale far more than any mere critic’s praise.