Theme and Variations

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Sometimes a secondary character in a novel is so alluring that the hero is completely upstaged. Thus, though the story is ostensibly about King Christian IV of Denmark and a beautiful young lutenist in his court orchestra, the character of Kirsten Munk takes over Rose Tremain's Music and Silence, which recently won Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize for the year's best novel. Kirsten Munk was the 17th century King's second wife, whose outrageous behavior scandalized the court and brought about her banishment. She bore the King 12 children before throwing herself into an affair with a German count which led to a further pregnancy and disgrace. In Tremain's hands Kirsten becomes a monster of selfishness--amoral, sexually insatiable, totally self-absorbed--and utterly magnificent.

Smitten from her first appearance, the reader longs for Kirsten to return. Her colorful diary entries record loathing of her husband, sado-masochistic encounters with her lover, treatment of her servants--she never bothers to learn their names, and merely refers to them by the tasks they perform--and dislike of children in general, her own in particular. Her one almost redeeming emotion is a fondness for an innocent country girl, Emilia, who comes to court to serve Kirsten, becomes her confidante and falls in love with the King's lutenist.

Music and Silence is a novel of opposites: of light and dark, of desire and guilt. It ponders the importance of art in life and the failure of reality to live up to imagination. Christian is sadly aware of his failings but struggles to be a good and wise King. In his despair over the failures of his efforts to make the country rich or to entice his errant wife to love him again his solace is music. In a separate story line music brings destruction for another character, an Irish earl, who dreams a beautiful melody but falls into madness and death in his efforts to recreate it.

It was during a journey from Copenhagen to Elsinore in 1991 that Tremain began to think that there might be a story in the history of Christian IV's court. Her traveling companions told her of the King's orchestra, assembled from Europe's finest musicians, and how they performed in a dark, dank cellar from which the sublime music they produced carried to the elegant salon upstairs through a series of pipes. Christian loved to intrigue visitors with his ethereal music--but at a whim he could, and would, cut it off by dropping a trap door. "I liked the metaphorical possibilities," Tremain remembers. "I imagined that when the trap came down their rather fragile illumination, their candles, would be put out. So they'd not only be cold but they'd also be in the darkness."

The more Tremain researched Christian IV's life, "the more fantastical things I found," she says. Although Christian led Denmark into two unsuccessful wars against Sweden and into the Thirty Years' War, he was much loved by his people. He was a great builder of palaces and even cities--Oslo, when Norway was part of Denmark, was originally named Kristiania--but often bogged himself down with the minutiae of his creations. As she wrote about the King and his consort Tremain kept postcard images of them pinned over her desk. "Christian," she says, "had this rather bruised-looking, lumpy face while Kirsten's face is almost beautiful but not quite, and has this really wicked light in her eye."

For Tremain, Music and Silence is a return to the historical novel. Her 1989 Restoration, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize that year, told the story of the rise, fall and rise again of a courtier in 17th century England and established her reputation in the forefront of British writers. In between the two books she produced several collections of short stories, radio plays and two outstanding modern-day novels, Sacred Country and The Way I Found Her, dealing with feelings of separateness. In Sacred Country the protagonist, Mary, decides at the age of 6 that she is really male and is determined to become Martin. In The Way I Found Her 13-year-old Lewis tells of a stay in Paris where he explores the city and his adolescent emotions while his mother translates a book by a flamboyant Russian emigre writer. For Tremain, the connecting thread among her novels is the idea of exclusion. She explores "the individual feeling excluded and yearning to arrive somewhere where he or she feels included," she says.

While her subjects explore the familiar--adolescence--and the unfamiliar--the Danish court--her vivid imagery is conveyed with dexterity, humor and grace. She sees her audience as readers who "long to encounter a world which presents a kind of elsewhere, an alternative to scuffing the leaves of contemporary culture." In Music and Silence she achieves that goal in a composition that is almost orchestral in its themes and variations, its love duets and its virtuoso solo by the splendid Kirsten.