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Pieces of a Family

img  Tobias

Rock stars are making it at Hollywood and actors are trying to sing – in a world like this, noone should be surprised, if a classical instrumentalist announces he has written a novel. Especially so, if this particular instrumentalist turns out to be Daniel Hope, the young British violinist whom many consider one of the singular musical personalities of his generation.

On top of that, Hope had a far better motivation for his literary adventure than merely cashing in on his blossoming popularity: With a background marked by constant intersections between Irish, British, Southafrican, and German blood as well as between Christian influences and a Jewish heritage, he felt a deep desire to finally find out where he belongs. “Familienstücke” (“Pieces of a family”), a book he has written with author Susanne Schädlich, documents his search for identity.

Not a linear story
Daniel Hope begins his quest with a jaded photograph and an unwanted visit. The picture shows the garden of a luxurious mansion in Berlin and carries the signature of his grandfather Wilhelm Valentin: “In memory of May 11th, 1928”. It is at this house that Hope longs for answers to his questions and where the rude words of an occupant make him aware of the sensitivity of his past: “Go away!” a woman yells at him from above, slamming the window shut. Daniel Hope is shocked and hurt, but knows he has hit a spot. He also knows this is nothing but a first piece of evidence in a case which will take more than just a little googling to complete.

“Familenstücke” (written entirely in German, by the way) is not a linear story. It opens with 150 pages of genealogy, then dives into an account of Hope’s CV, only to come full circle at the end. Strictly speaking, it is not a novel either. Daniel mentions how he was offered to write his memoires after an in-depth TV interview and how he at first declined the offer, only to backtrack later with the idea of turning his biography into a sketch of his entire family. In between these two poles, he explains his artistic motivations in poignant intermezzos.

Consequently, the reader is constantly thrown from one stylistic extreme to the other and from one genre to the next: While his biography is a lively account of his many different activities (which include duties as a festival organisor, touching Ravi Shankar’s feet and recording music), the description of the history of the Hopes is rather analytical and hard to read without the family tree kindly added at the inner cover of the book.

So much to tell
Even though this may not be the intoxiacting narrative some might like to see in it, “Familienstücke” is a book with a persuasive pull. There’s just so much to tell. Daniel Hope introduces us to Justus Valentin, who teamed up with Emil Rathenau in one of the most remarkable success stories of pre-war Germany. He presents James McKenna, his Irish grand-grandfather who was sent to South Africa as a little boy, because there was not enough black bread and black tea to feed all of the children. There are anecdotes of how he first convinced his parents to allow him to become a pupil at Yehudi Menuhin’s school of music and then didn’t want to go; of how we spent months reading comic books while randomly playing his violin to pretend as though he were practising. And there’s the story of how he stumbled into the world of showbiz and almost ended up with Mia Farrow having to play Beethoven in one of his performances (she settled for his housekeeper in the end).

Even though all of this makes for a worthwhile read, “Familienstücke” reaches its emotional climax in the chapters when Daniel Hope speaks about his passion for music and in the resolution of the mystery of that house in Berlin. As Daniel Hope uncovers, it first served as a home to his family, was then rented to a Jewish school when his grandmother Margarete Marx had to escape the Nazis in the 1930s only to finally be brutally diverted from its intended purpose when a divison of the secret service set up camp.

Many reasons to like this book
Hope’s disgust and outrage at this sad and sarcastic twist of fate is his strongest and most intimate moment in a biography, which otherwhise does not often cross the distance dictated by the typical black hole of information the inquisitive genalogist falls into again and again. “Familenstücke” is less of a cleansing or an exorcism than a gentle reconsiliation with the demons of his past. It doesn’t pretend to know everything, but instead allows its audience to share in its confusion. Can it satisfyingly explain why its author feels he has found his place in the end? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean his efforts have been in vain.

Certainly, Daniel Hope’s story is not a unique one and he has not made closing all the gaps his declared goal. But it is one which many potential readers will be able to appreciate for the most diverse reasons: The historically interested for its insightful and detailed depictations of some fascinating 19th and 20th century personalities. The musically interested for a look into the mind of an exciting performer. And me, as a German born in the Netherlands and now writing for an English WebZine, for finding someone with the same nagging questions. And to be honest, I am glad Daniel Hope has decided to answer them with a book, instead of a Rock song or a Hollywood drama.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Daniel Hope
Homepage: Rowohlt Publications

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