August 30, 2008

Dear Students,

Welcome back! I'm sure we're all looking forward to a lively and intellectually stimulating term together. Here are some tips about getting off on the right foot with me. I'm guessing that they'll work with your other professors too.
  1. Just because you can e-mail me doesn't mean you should. Sure, there's only one of you in particular, but overall there are a lot of you, and I can't realistically attend to each of you individually. If you remain determined to try the personal approach, take a look at these excellent tips on how to e-mail your professors. Are you sure that you want me to know you as ''?
  2. Still on the subject of e-mail, do your homework first. You'd be surprised how much information is online about almost everything you are planning to e-mail me about...and if you were really as dedicated to taking my particular course as you claim, you'd probably have found that out already. E-mails that begin "Dear Sir" are a dead give-away.
  3. Surprise: I know the degree requirements for our programs! I helped draft them! I voted on them! That means I also know whether my course is "absolutely necessary" for you to graduate. I appreciate your apparent interest in getting into it, but let's not start out lying to each other.
  4. If you think I'm grouchy, try this site. Or this one. Or, worst of all, this one. When I'm not jet-lagged, I'm actually pretty cheerful and accommodating. And so far, I have answered every one of your messages, usually within 24 hours. I hope that if you do take my course, you'll be prompt and courteous too.
See you soon!

August 22, 2008

Blogging Breather

This is just in case my regular readers (both of them...) wonder why things are quiet around here.

I'm in beautiful Vancouver for my little brother's wedding (OK, he's not so little anymore). Though I hope to get in some book shopping, I doubt I'll do much steady reading, novel or otherwise, and I don't expect to do much blogging either. Soon it will be September, however, so I should be posting again regularly. I'm thinking about doing a new season of 'This Week in My Classes'--though I might try a slightly different approach, if I can think it through.

In the meantime, it seems as if lots of other bloggers are back from their breaks, so if you scan my blog list (on the left), I'm sure you'll find something interesting to read.

August 17, 2008

Weekend Miscellany: P. D. James, Persephone Books, James Wood

Some articles and reviews of interest:

At The Times, there's an interesting interview with P. D. James, who has a new Adam Dalgleish novel coming out. James has often remarked that she sees herself working in the tradition of 19th-century domestic realism as much as the detective novel; her interest in the Victorians shows up again here, as does her conviction that writing mystery fiction frees up an author to focus on character and theme:
“There’s huge fascination in examining the human personality under the trauma of a murder investigation. All of us present a carapace to the world that conceals things we wish to keep to ourselves. In a murder investigation, these defences are often torn down.” This gives a novelist “a huge opportunity”, one particularly valued by this writer, who, besides filling notebooks with “plotting and planning”, sets store by knowing her characters intimately. “I move in with them. I sympathise with the view Trollope expressed that you have to get up with your characters and live with them all day.” (read the rest here)
Also at The Times, there's a piece on Persephone Books:

There can be little doubt that Persephone, which reprints lost or forgotten women's classics, has filled a gap left by the bigger Virago. Quieter, more interior and less obviously feminist than the latter, it celebrates its first decade as the champion of the kind of book trendy that literati like to dismiss as dull and domestic.

Virago's founder, Carmen Callil, when recently describing how her team chose whether or not to reissue a particular author, would dismiss rejects as “below the Whipple line”, referring to what she called, with withering dismissal, “a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us”. Persephone, as it happens, has Dorothy Whipple as one of its star authors, alongside Virginia Woolf, Mollie Panter-Downes and classic children's authors such as Noel Streatfeild and Richmal Crompton, whose adult novels have long been out of print.

“I think Dorothy Whipple is compulsively readable and perceptive, and the 20th-century Mrs Gaskell,” Beauman says. “I'm passionate about her work.”

So, indeed are Persephone's customers, who have fallen upon its 78 reissued novels with joy and ensure sales of between 3,000 and 10,000 a book. As the shop - which sells Persephone mugs, dressing gowns and cards behind a window dressed with a felt cloche hat and an old typewriter - suggests, being a Persephone reader is almost a lifestyle choice for intelligent women who want to settle down with what has been described as “a hot-water-bottle novel”.

Yet alongside bestselling nostalgia collections such as Kay Smallshaw's How to Run Your Home Without Help are darker tales, such as Penelope Mortimer's Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, and wholly enchanting adult fairytales such as The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

These are the kind of tremendously English books often enjoyed (and parodied) by the heroines in Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons. They do, however, have a serious readership, and Persephone's list of those who have written prefaces for the reissues include Penelope Fitzgerald, P.D. James and Valerie Grove. (read the whole story here)

I don't remember seeing any Persephone titles in bookstores here, but now I'll have my eyes open. And if they don't have Canadian distribution, there's always the excellent Book Depository (free international shipping!).

Better late than never: the New York Times weighs in on James Wood's How Fiction Works:
The grosser elements of fiction — story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy master­works as “Huckleberry Finn,” “On the Road” and Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” — intrude not at all on Wood’s presentation, which proceeds in the steady, dark-gowned, unruffled manner of a high-court judge. Wood seems firm in his conviction that accounting for How Fiction Works needn’t involve bewildering digressions into Why Writers Write or Why Readers Read. For him, that matter seems settled. They do it to perfect the union of Wood’s vaunted “artifice and verisimilitude,” two virtues he treats as though carved on a stone tablet, and thereby to promote the cause of civilization; not, as is so frequently the case outside the leathery environs of the private library, to escape the constrictions of civilization, redraw its boundaries, decalcify its customs, or revive the writer’s or reader’s own spirits by dancing on its debris. (read the whole review here)
This review (which concludes with blog-worthy snarkiness, "there is one question this volume answers conclusively: Why Readers Nap") is not nearly as favorable as Frank Kermode's in The New Republic a little while back. How Fiction Works has certainly received a great deal of attention, in print and on blogs: here are a few more links, in case you just can't get enough criticism of criticism. You have to give the man credit for getting a lot of people talking about what makes good literary criticism.

August 16, 2008

Sue Grafton, T is for Trespass

Well, that was OK. I appreciate that Grafton is experimenting with different forms, here the alternation between Kinsey's first-person narration and third-person narration from the perspective of the "chilling sociopath" Kinsey ends up in a sort of cat-and-mouth game with.* The effect is to switch genres, from mystery to suspense. I think the strategy would have been more interesting and exciting if there had been more ambiguity in the second narrative: knowing she's evil, we're just waiting for Kinsey to catch on, and knowing Kinsey is a series character, we're pretty confident she's not going to get taken out, so the suspense is always constrained. I did appreciate what may be our first outside look at Kinsey: before this, did we know she has green eyes? The book ends on an oddly didactic note; perhaps taking a cue from Sara Paretsky's fondness of taking on current social issues in her mysteries, Grafton has taken on elder-abuse here, but she has kept her series so carefully in the past that it's not obviously appropriate or logical for Kinsey, back in 1989 or whatever, to urge us to "make a difference." The back-dating does let Grafton have a little fun remembering a time when computers were expensive and rare. The writing is competent, but I don't see why she gives us quite so much detail. Do we need to know what Kinsey does down to specified 15-minute intervals?

The back jacket quotes Patrick Anderson of The Washington Post Book World claiming that the "Millhone books are among the five or six best series any American has ever written." Maybe he doesn't read much?

*The phrase "chilling sociopath" is from the inside jacket, which has to be one of the worst-written book blurbs I've ever read ("The true horror of this novel builds with excruciating tension as the reader foresees the awfulness that lies ahead.").

August 14, 2008

Ricardian Fiction: A (Reading) Trip Down Memory Lane

I've been reading Steve Donoghue's series on Tudor fiction at Open Letters with pleasure and nostalgia. I haven't read a lot of historical fiction in recent years, but there was a time when I read and reread everything by Jean Plaidy, especially the Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots ones, as well as everything by Margaret Campbell Barnes. I purged most of these books from my collection at some point in my evolution into a professional critic--no doubt in a fit of pseudo-sophistication. I have often regretted it since, a little because I have occasionally thought of rereading them, and a lot because much of the history they represent is actually my own. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out recently that some of their titles are back in print--in fact, my very favourite, My Lady of Cleves, is just coming out this September. I'd guess that Philippa Gregory's success with similar material must be part of the impetus for these reissues. If nothing else, my youthful devotion to these books made me quite an expert on the British royal succession (very useful, it turns out, when explaining the back story for a novel such as Waverley.)

Anyway, reading about all this Tudor fiction also brought to mind my collection of novels about Richard III, most of which I have kept. These too are historical not just in their subjects but as objects, relics of my personal history, which involves a stint as a member of the Richard III Society of Canada (they still exist and they have a website!). Yes, it started because I read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time; I was in 6th grade. It ended up launching my career as a teacher, as my Richard III obsession got me an invitation to do a guest lecture in my older sister's History 12 class a few years later (she must have loved that). Some years after that, I won a prize at UBC for the best first-year history essay with an analysis of Richard III's reign from a Machiavellian perspective. Also, I still choose Richard III whenever I have an opportunity to teach a Shakespeare play. That way all the time I spent studying that genealogy (in which nearly everyone is named Edward or Henry) doesn't go to waste. The reproduction of his portrait that my grandmother had framed for me long ago now hangs in my office. Anyone who has seen it there and thought "what on earth?" now has an explanation, if not an excuse.

Here's the list of other Ricardian fiction I've got, only lightly annotated because it has been, well, decades since I read most of these.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951). Of course. In case anyone who is still reading at this point doesn't know about this novel, it's a mystery novel of sorts: Tey's detective, hospitalized and bored, is presented with a selection of portraits of famous criminals, including Richard III. Convinced that the face does not match the story, he begins a research project that leads him to the conclusion that Richard has been misunderstood and misrepresented. Obviously, in 6th grade I found it thoroughly compelling. My judgment was not singular; right there on the cover, the New York Times is quoted calling it "one of the best mysteries of all time."

Barbara Willard, The Sprig of Broom (1971). This is what today would be called a Young Adult book, part of Willard's great Mantlemass series that begins with The Lark and the Laurel.

Marian Palmer, The White Boar (1968). I remember finding this novel, which focuses on two of Richard's men, Philip and Francis Lovell, wholly engrossing and believable. I think it would bear up well in a rereading because it avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre, namely excessive sentimentality and intrusively artificial archaic language. In about 1983, during a brief fling with journalism, I was taking a night school course on interviewing and in need of a subject. Noticing that the author bio on the book jacket said that Marian Palmer lived in "Vancouver, Canada" (the phrasing proves the book was published in the U.S.), I tracked her down and interviewed her. She was extremely gracious and seemed genuinely pleased that I liked her novel so much.

Rosemary Hawley Jarman, We Speak No Treason (1971). Another great favourite during my youthful obsession. This novel would, I'm sure, have been one of my earliest experiences with multiple narrators: the maiden, the fool, the man of keen sight. Each of its parts has an epigraph from a contemporary ballad--I still like that touch. Like much historical fiction today, its closest cousin is the romance novel, not the realist novel, which differentiates it from its major 19th-century predecessors. I don't think there's anything in Scott like this, for instance:
Next to the Earl of Warwick he stood, but apart from him. He was solitary, young, and slender, of less than medium stature. His face had the fragile pallor of one who has fought sickness for a long time, yet in its high fine bones there was strength , and in the thin lips, resolution. His hair was dark, which made him paler still. He was alone with his thoughts. Ceaselessly he toyed with the hilt of his dagger, or twisted the ring on one finger as if he wearied of indolence and longed for action. Then he turned; I saw his eyes. Dark depths of eyes, which in one moment of changing light carried the gleam of something dangerous, and in the next, utter melancholy. And kindness too . . . compassion. They were like no other eyes in the world. Like stone I stood, and loved.
It's interesting how Jarman, like Tey, starts with a close reading of the portrait, trying to motivate its details.
Rhoda Edwards, Fortune's Wheel and The Broken Sword. The first one I never thought that much of, but I was very fond of The Broken Sword and excited when I found a copy at a library discard sale (obviously it wasn't popular with many besides me). It's another multiple narrator one, but this time it presumes to go right inside the experience of the central historical personages; much of it is from the perspective of Richard's queen, Anne Neville.

Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour (1982). Penman has gone on from this blockbuster success (one of the few on my list that is still in print) to write a number of other historical novels, also apparently very popular, but I never cherished this as much as some of my others. The "Sunne" in the title is indicative of a much more laboured style that tries too hard to feel or sound like the olden days, especially in the dialogue: "'Well, you're bedraggled enough, in truth! But be you hurt?'" Well, even the greats falter when trying to capture the idiom of a previous time--though George Eliot's worst moments in Romola (in many ways a marvellous novel) are also the result of trying to translate Italian idiom into English.

Juliet Dymoke, The Sun in Splendour (1980); Valerie Annand, Crown of Roses (1989). The thing about collecting things is you can't be choosy. But neither of these seems worth special remark, at least in my recollection of them. I also used to have Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Dynasty I: The Founding but I can't seem to find it. And finally, I have one more mystery, Elizabeth Peters's The Murders of Richard III (1974).

Now, that might seem like quite enough, but the fascinating thing about historical fiction is that those of us who read it apparently don't tire of variations on a theme. (Surely this illustrates the historiographical principle that the 'facts' don't really tell us anything until shaped into a narrative, and there is never just one narrative to be told. Readers of genre fiction never needed Hayden White to point this out to them.) Peering around on Amazon I see that my collection is missing at least these more recent contributions (and no doubt more that have already lapsed into oblivion): Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown (2006) and Sandra Worth, The Rose of York (2003, just one in a whole War of the Roses trilogy). Do you know of others I have missed? If I read them, I promise to write them up! All I really need is an excuse and I can reread the whole batch. Is there an article in here somewhere?

August 11, 2008

Adam Bede at The Valve: The Final Post


The final installment of our Adam Bede reading project is up at The Valve. If you've been reading along, do come over and leave a comment! Here's my 'starter' post:

First, in case anyone is inspired to go back and read through the posts and comments in sequence, here they are:
Was Adam Bede the best choice for a project like this? I don't know, but clearly some people enjoyed it, or at least persevered with it, and probably we all know things we didn't know before, whether about George Eliot, Dutch painting, fanfic, or just ourselves as readers. I don't have any sense of how many people were reading along but not commenting. If there are any of you still lurking out there, I hope you'll take this opportunity to say a few words about you and your experience of reading Adam Bede this summer. I'm sure the people who have been commenting all along don't need any special prompting from me to add their own last words!

A thumbnail version of my own reaction on this rereading of the novel is that it's an extraordinary first book. (I know: Scenes of Clerical Life was her first published fiction, but it's a different kind of thing.) My initial inability to read it without making mental connections and comparisons to her later work came to confirm for me that she learned how to do, better, many of the things she is trying to do here, novelistically and artistically as well as philosophically and dramatically. But she could already do remarkable things in all of these categories, from passages of memorable wisdom and poignancy in the intrusive narration to scenes of striking pathos and suspense, such as Hetty's forlorn pilgrimage. If Adam is a bit of a stump (though arguably better, as a hunk, than Felix Holt a couple of novels later), he is excellent practice for Caleb Garth; Mr Irwine fumbles the ball Mr Farebrother will pick up and run with; Dorothea is a thoroughly secularized saint--but Mrs Poyser is as good as a Dickens character, and I mean that without irony, someone who livens up your imagination from having lived in it for a while. The overall structure seems beautifully balanced, better than The Mill on the Floss (heavily weighted, GE admitted, towards the childhood scenes and so rushed through to the end), and the set pieces such as the birthday feast work better for me for my having considered them (like the harvest supper at the end) in light of the painterly analogies explored in Yeazell's book. But here my own limitations and preoccupations are showing: I'm thinking about the novel in the context of GE's other novels, and there are lots of other ways we could go.

In closing, then, here's my favourite passage from the last section of the novel. I think it captures something that really struck me this time about the underlying tone of the story, in which nostalgia for the past is charged with mourning (it's the past, after all, and not to be recovered) but at the same time counteracted with energy for a new life richer with meaning and sympathy because of that history, just as Adam's love for Dinah is stronger, not weaker, because of their shared memories of Hetty. We can't really long for the past because we are no longer the same people:
It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it--if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy--the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love.

And, a bit later on,
The growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of faculty, bringing with it a sense of added strength: we can no more wish to return to a narrower sympathy, than a painter or musician can wish to return to his cruder manner, or a philosopher to his less complete formula.

As someone who has a few times this summer felt strongly inclined to "hide her eyes in selfish complaining" (Middlemarch Ch. 80), I can at least aspire to this condition of mental growth and "added strength." It's not what everyone reads for (not me either, not all the time), but it's one good thing to take away an idea about how the bad and the good in one's life might come together to make one a more sympathetic person.

August 8, 2008

Summer Re-Run: Joanna Trollope, Anne Tyler, and Renunciation

(originally posted June 15, 2007)

Since writing this post I haven't read any more Joanna Trollope, but I have read Anne Tyler's Digging to America and basically enjoyed it--though not as much as some of my old favourites. And I have continued to worry about the problem of reconciling duty to self with duty to others, certainly one of the central difficulties of George Eliot's novels. (Is this a particularly female theme, I wonder?)

When I decided to take a break from more "serious" reading with Joanna Trollope's A Village Affair, I wasn't really expecting the novel to reach towards the serious itself. I had read it before, but what I had retained was admiration for the clarity with which Trollope gives us the people she has devised: many (though not all) of her novels that I have read have struck me as achieving an enviable quality in their characters: they are enormously specific and individual and often intensely, even poignantly, believable. Here, Alice's father-in-law, Richard, seems especially well conceived. Everything he says communicates to us who he is and how he has lived, particularly in his marriage to a woman he persists in loving but who cannot, in her turn, recognize in him someone as complex and fully human as she is. He lives this hampered life in full knowledge of its limits, neither tragic nor stoic. Alice's discontent is the stuff of cliches; her affair seems contrived (by the author) to break up the seemingly calm surface, the routines and compromises of daily life. In fact, this is how Trollope's plots generally work: the ordinary people, the change or revelation, the repercussions. For me, it's the repercussions she does really well. Having set up her experiment in life, she works out plausibly how it will play out, and she does not sentimentalize--as, in this case, Alice's "coming alive" through a new and different experience of love creates more problems than it solves.

In this case, as in another of her novels that I think is very smart, Marrying the Mistress, Trollope sets her characters up to confront what is a central dilemma in many 19th-century novels as well, namely how to resolve the conflict between, or how to decide between, duty to self and duty to others. That she is aware of her predecessors in this investigation is indicated by the quotation from Adam Bede recited (OK, improbably) by one of the characters in A Village Affair. As that quotation forcefully indicates, George Eliot placed a high value on renunciation and on accepting (as gracefully as possible) the burden of duty: resignation to less than you want, or less than you can imagine, is a constant refrain, and this with no promise of rapturous happiness. Hence the melancholic tinge at the end of Romola, for instance, or Daniel Deronda, or, for all its lightning flashes of romantic fulfilment, Middlemarch. (Of course, famously, it is her heroines who must resign or, like Maggie Tulliver, die.)

Although much has changed socially and politically since George Eliot found it unrealistic to give Romola, Maggie, or Dorothea uncompromised happy endings, the struggle between what we want for ourselves and what is expected or demanded of us by others continues to be a staple of fiction. Though Trollope's scenario is much more contemporary, she too accepts that one's individual desire cannot (or not easily, or not ethically) be one's guiding principle, because of the "visible and invisible relations beyond any of which our present or prospective self is the centre" (Adam Bede). So Trollope, with admirable restraint, refuses a fairy tale ending for her protagonist, though, with a different kind of insistence that perhaps George Eliot would respect, she also pushes her out of the unsatisfactory life that was her reality before, and into what, given this context, seems like a narrative limbo, or a waiting room. This is not to say that Alice's single life is an incomplete one, but she herself acknowledges that it is not, in fact, what she really wanted--only what she was capable of achieving.

I think this novel makes an interesting comparison to another quiet novel about a woman reconsidering her life, Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, which I have always admired. But Tyler, though far from offering simplistic fairy tales, offers her own version of the resignation narrative. In Ladder of Years, as in Back When We Were Grownups, it proves mistaken for the heroine to try to start a new life, however much she is, or believes she is, following the promptings of her innermost self. Again, the "visible and invisible relations" exert a powerful pressure, like the entangling webs of family and society in Middlemarch but perceived, overall, as more kindly, less petty and destructive. The plain litte room Delia takes and uses as a staging ground to reinvent her life is a room of her own, but her story is not rightly understood as being just about her own life ("was she alone," Dorothea asks herself). In these novels Tyler's women learn to appreciate the value of what they tried to leave, to see their own identities as having become inseparable from those of the others whose demands and complications hamper their desires. The vision seems starker in Trollope's novel ("Aga saga" though it certainly is).

August 4, 2008

Weekend Miscellany: Mr Whicher, James Wood, Reader Online Poll

It's 'Halifax Natal Day' here (also known as 'we want an extra day off in August too') and thus still in some sense the weekend, so here's my semi-regular round-up of interesting things:

At The Little Professor, there's a typically thoughtful review of Kate Summerscale's much-discussed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the story of the infamous Road Hill murder case and its lead investigator:
Summerscale's project wears a number of intellectual hats: it aspires to be, simultaneously, a popular microhistory of a scandalous murder case, a literary history of modern detective fiction, and a sort of detective "faction" in its own right. Summerscale's story doesn't just analyze the Road Hill case, but actually tries to be the kind of narrative the murder inspired; the reader is invited to watch as new forms of story-telling coalesce into recognizable genre conventions.
LP isn't entirely sold on the project: for her reasons, read the rest here.
Open Letters Monthly features Daniel Green's review of James Wood's How Fiction Works. Not surprisingly, given the differences between their critical agendas and the resulting history of contention between Green and Wood, the review is not particularly enthusiastic:
Wood is currently the most well-regarded generalist literary critic in the English-speaking literary world, and it is discouraging to say the least that such a figure uses his influence to conduct a rearguard action against the forces of change in literary practice, against those who, like William Gass (Wood’s bĂȘte noire in this book), want to transform our perception of fiction as the effort to depict “people” and “life” to one that can encompass that goal (with many provisos) but can also capture the reader’s attention in other ways, ways more responsive to the possibilities of fiction as imaginative manipulation of language and form. Wood makes his case for realism always within a context in which it is endangered by postmodernists and other stylistically immoderate writers who don’t appreciate its subtleties and are tearing fiction away from its proper relationship to “the world." . . . .

Ultimately the most disconcerting thing about How Fiction Works, and about James Wood’s criticism in general, is that while Wood on the one hand expresses near-reverence for the virtues of fiction, the terms in which he judges the value of fiction as a literary form implicitly disparages it. He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to instead be respectful of “life.” (read the whole review here)
I find it interesting that Green repeatedly faults Wood for an over-zealous commitment to realism while my own reading of How Fiction Works expressed frustration rather at his tendency to emphasize aesthetics and form over plot, character, and "moral instruction," and to universalize this priority and talk as if the novel really began with Flaubert.

At The Reader Online, they have a winner in their poll to select a classic novel to recommend for the Richard and Judy book club, which I gather has something of the force across the pond that Oprah's book club has here. Their favored selection is Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a recommendation I would certainly second. In retrospect, I actually wonder if it wouldn't have been a better choice for our summer reading project at The Valve: though I've certainly been pleased overall at the discussion we've had of Adam Bede, something a bit sexier might have kept more people engaged once summer really arrived.

August 1, 2008

Summer Re-Run: Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

(originally posted June 5, 2007)

2008 Update: An Equal Music was definitely one of my favourite reads of 2007. I did get the soundtrack, too, and have listened to it many times, though I have yet to reread the novel with it playing on my iPod. I have some other favourite books that also entwine their plots and characters closely with music. One, which I would like to write up soon as part of a thread about books that stand now as old friends, is Lynne Sharon Schwartz's wonderful Disturbances in the Field; another, brilliantly and darkly comic, is Angela Huth's Easy Silence (which sadly seems to be unavailable everywhere I checked); and another is Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. (I did find while reading Bel Canto that many of its 'tracks' were on my iPod, and it definitely took the reading experience to another level to coordinate the words and the sounds. In fact, it occurs to me that these books would lend themselves well to multimedia editions, for just that reason.) Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading names several more musical books in this post from last February, many of which sound extremely interesting.

What an extraordinary, intense, poignant book. The central love story is compelling as a romance but would be conventional, perhaps even trite, if it weren't entangled with another story about a different kind of love--for music. Michael's desire for Julia, which borders on the obsessive, is itself a musical passion, aroused by and motivated by her playing, or their playing together. But his desire for his violin comes to seem like a purer form of desire, for something that transcends the impurities of human relationships or even human characters, with their flaws and imbalances. People (alas!) cannot be tuned to accommodate different needs, to make new or different combinations, new beauties. How utopian chamber music comes to seem here, as the members of the quartet ease away from their messy lives through the simplicity of a scale played in unison, until they are ready and generous enough to take their turns, to share the work and the pleasure of the music. But though I felt it this way, the novel itself is never sentimental.

In his "Author's Note" Seth remarks that he felt "gripped with anxiety" at the thought of writing about music, to him "dearer even than speech." Perhaps as a result, he uses a spare but high-pressure style, relentlessly paced, never indulgent; the moments of grace appear as just that, moments in a turbulent, complicated world, themselves achieved by hard work, constant rehearsal, trial and error. Even the risky conceit of Julia's hearing loss is handled coolly; like Michael, we shy away from pity even as we wonder how and why she can continue to make music she can hear fully only in her head. Beethoven too, we know, of course made music even after he could not hear it himself. In Julia's case (she's a fictional character, after all) we might ask if there is a metaphorical or symbolic dimension. Characters lose their sight in order to gain insight; is music here also a state of mind or perception from which sensory experience is a distraction? "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter"? But in the end it does seem to be the "heard melodies" that matter here, outweighing and outlasting every other desire, met or unmet, every painful, joyful love:
Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music--not too much, or the soul could not sustain it--from time to time.
Some love stories leave us longing (no doubt in vain) for that "happily ever after" ending, the miraculously harmonious human relationship. This one has left me longing for Bach and Schubert.

Follow-up: To my joy, it turns out there is a companion CD for this novel. I eagerly await its arrival and, eventually, a second reading of the novel complete with soundtrack.