EVEN today, there seems to be no middle ground for the music of Edward Elgar. The British composer, whose major works were produced in the waning years of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th, continues to inspire either great allegiance or sweeping disparagement. The only disinterested listeners to Elgar may be the generations of high school students who have marched in graduation ceremonies to the stirring strains of Elgar's ``Pomp and Circumstance, No. l.'' Strong tides have tugged at Elgar's reputation, yet he is an unlikely subject for fiction. Despite the cozy British popularity of his compositions, he was not a great musical innovator on the international scene, like Igor Stravinsky or Arnold Sch"onberg.
Elgar appears to have been a sturdy late Victorian, occasionally quite charming, but with moods too crusty and attitudes too haughty for ready rendering as the hero of his own life. Long years of dulling provincial employment soured Elgar, giving him a disposition that even knighthood did not sweeten.
But successful art we know, or should know by now, is not synonymous with scintillating plot or character. Stories with enough turns to make a quarter horse dizzy often wind up as dismissible pot-boilers. And languid tales where nothing very much happens can result in Jane Austen's ``Pride and Prejudice.''
Thus it ought to come as no surprise that a richly imagined fictional fantasy, loosely based on a mysterious sea voyage to Brazil made by Elgar in 1923 at the age of 66, garnered the prestigious Whitbread Prize for first fiction when it was published in Britain in 1989. ``Gerontius,'' titled after Elgar's somber setting of Cardinal Newman's poem, ``The Dream of Gerontius,'' resourcefully speculates on how the composer may have spent his time while traveling from England to the Amazon River port of Manao s.
Those who are set against fictitious historical recreations, like the rendition of Mozart's life given in Milos Forman's 1984 film, ``Amadeus'' or the documentary novels of E.L. Doctorow, are bound to look askance at this effort. For Hamilton-Paterson, Elgar's music was as much a point of departure as the scattered facts of Elgar's life. As he acknowledges in his opening remarks, almost nothing is known about Elgar's six-week trip to the Amazon.
``What he said and thought and did in those weeks are a matter for fancy,'' Hamilton-Paterson asserts. Tongue-in-cheek, he adds: ``I tried to be as factually correct as was interesting.''
Readers willing to indulge the novel its formal conceits will be rewarded with alert and sensitive verbal descriptions that roam with facility over the suggestive configurations of jungle flora and land, with an occasional soft whack on the theatricality of Victorian etiquette.
Every so often, Hamilton-Paterson's language strains for effect. He does not shy from describing how ``a little hummock of bitterness heaped itself momentarily'' into Elgar's consciousness. Yet disruptive surges of high-octane analogy are few. The novel (if we may call it a novel) moves with the steady professional sureness of the RMS Hildebrand, the small, elegant liner bearing Elgar and its diverse collection of imagined passengers and crew across the Atlantic and up the Amazon.
Readers are led to expect that a love interest will develop between the recently widowed Elgar and Molly Air, an independent-minded ``new woman'' of the 20th century, bent on making her fortune by painting Amazonia.
But it is the passionate, though not amorous, reunion of Elgar and his former fianc'ee, Magdalena von Pussels, toward which the book's dynamics build. Now a formidable doyenne of artistic life in Manaos, Lena von Pussels has never forgotten her involvement with the composer. The shelves of the cultural establishment she runs groan with editions of Edgar's works.
The existence of cultural organizations deep in the jungle gives Hamilton-Paterson the pretext to elaborate on the excesses of rival rubber barons in Brazil, who imported tons of B"osendorfer pianos, busts of Beethoven, and stars of the European opera world, like Enrico Caruso and Luisa Tetrazzini, to the dark heart of the jungle.
Civilization, like the crimes committed in its name, had a fierce urgency at the ``edges of a primeval abyss of bites, stings, fevers, poisons, and murderous slavery into which anyone might topple at any time and vanish without a headstone.''
In a finale worthy of an Elgar oratorio, he and Lena retrace the events of their personal lives against the bleak aftermath of World War I. Disillusion hangs heavy in these scenes, especially as Elgar pronounces on the insignificance of his music.
In words that materialize with sudden, swift intensity of a jungle storm, Lena reproves his arrogant narcissism. ``Not content with being Elgar, you still want to be Beethoven,'' she cries. ``An old man's self-pity ... is merely an overweening egoism in disguise.''
As befits a story about memory, ``Gerontius'' sails away from modern, industrial England to the aboriginal Amazon. Hamilton-Paterson uses cultural displacement and exoticism to precipitate action and self-reflection. True to the tenor of the novel, Elgar does not return from the jungle altogether renewed by his encounter with nature and with Lena. But there is a fresh, calm resignation to the possibilities of his stage of life and his career. It seems to have been worth the trip.