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Ian Phillips talks to Rosy Moorhead about his debut novel Grosse Fugue
‘Don’t stop playing: play to live, to remember, to tell of what you have seen; don’t falter, play the notes as if they’re your last.'
These are the words of Reuben Mendel, protagonist of Hampstead Garden Suburb author Ian Phillips’ debut novel, Grosse Fugue. Reuben is a virtuoso violinist who survives the Holocaust by playing in the Men’s Orchestra in Auschwitz that played for other prisoners and SS officers.
Ian’s novel interweaves the depravity of the camp with the sublime music of Beethoven, and examines the legacy of genocide, survivor guilt and the redemptive power of great music.
"The novel was a coming together of two of my passions," says Ian, 58, who grew up in Finchley, "the history of the Holocaust, in particular what it means nowadays and how we should behave because of it, and classical music."
The structure of Grosse Fugue mirrors that of the last movement of Beethoven’s string quartet of the same name, Große Fuge in German, with three emotional peaks: the trenches of World War I; the Holocaust; and the struggle to make sense of the senseless and the conflict that emerges with those who would ignore or exploit it.
"Grosse Fugue is my one Desert Island Disc," says Ian, "it’s a furious venting of all Beethoven’s frustrations and anger, it’s just tremendous."
It took Ian 15 years from having the idea to getting it published with independent Whetstone publisher Alliance Publishing Press, writing it in any spare moments he had from his freelance business writing and voluntary job as chairman of the board of governors of Woodhouse School in Finchley, where he was a pupil as a child and where his two sons were college students.
"I did a lot of reading about Auschwitz and my wife and I went there last autumn," says Ian. "We walked around verifying all the details I’d put in the book and also around all of the dead synagogues in the old Jewish Quarter in nearby Krakow. It was the most profound and moving experience of my life."
Grosse Fugue is released by Alliance Publishing Press in Whetstone on Thursday, June 28 and will be available to buy from the publisher, Waterstones and Amazon. Details: www.grossefugue.com, www.alliancepublishignpress.com