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November 28, 2007

Book Notes - Anne Landsman ("The Rowing Lesson")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

I remember picking up Anne Landsman's debut novel, The Devil's Chimney, way back in 1999 and being so transfixed by her ease of storytelling that I made a mental note to read as much of her writing as possible. Since then, she has teased with the occasional published essay or short fiction, and I have relished every tidbit. Landsman's second novel, The Rowing Lesson, was published this month and its lyrical prose makes it a book I cannot stop recommending.

Of the book, author J.M. Coetzee wrote:

“An elegy for a lost father and a beloved world on the point of disappearing. Rarely in South African writing will we encounter language of such fire and passion."

Many thanks to Anne Landsman for writing one of my favorite Book Notes essays yet...


In her own words, here is Anne Landsman's Book Notes essay for her novel, The Rowing Lesson:


Most of the music I listen to when I work is the sound the words make, the space around them and the space inside them, the dance between consonants and vowels, the clatter of g’s and the sweet singing of s’s, the swirling elasticity of the vowels, as they twist and bend and reshape themselves a thousand different ways. Real music brings in the heavy guns, a tsunami bending my palms, blowing the words out of the water, stranding them upland somewhere, a sentence caught in the rafters, a word dangling upside down from a power-line, another one caught on a broken window.

When I was writing The Rowing Lesson, I had to garden with perfect care, as the music on the pages was loud, elegiac, filled with a man’s long, dying breath, and his daughter’s lyric desperation as she watched him. I couldn’t write too much of this each day, and after a few hours, I was spent, folded back into my other life which included my husband, our children, a dog, a tortoise, and a dynasty of hamsters who lived and died during the course of writing the novel.

And it was there that I listened to songs that filled me, caught me, taught me, and took me swirling back into the world of my thoughts, my blank old words, spiny and stark after the popping beating blood-red velvet blues, the gamma golds. In the comings and goings, I heard Beirut’s Elephant Gun, and it took me everywhere – to Paris, to the Balkans, to the Jewish immigrants bobbing on boats taking them to the U.S. and yes, to South Africa. The sound of boardwalk brass, as they changed into their bathing-suits in beach huts blue, yellow, red and green and bobbled down the beach into the sea.

Beirut’s ukelele shot an arrow all the way across to the other side of the world, to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ‘Ulili E, and now I’m not in a boat but in a car, driving to Longnook Beach in Cape Cod, summer of 2003. Carola Luther – friend from Cape Town days now living outside of Leeds – called me up and said, “I listened to this Hawaiian singer on the radio in Yorkshire and he sings like an angel.” We listened to IZ over and over again that summer, kids’ sticky feet caked with sand, the road to Longnook lush and curving, ukelele anticipation for the crisp Atlantic water, IZ’s voice like the ice cream we ate at Highland Creamery, our favorite flavor, Pamet River Mud. On the same CD (alone in IZ World), he sings “Over the Rainbow” yes, like a Hawaiian Hollywood angel and there’s a whole track titled “IZ talks about oxygen” because he was dying then, and my character Harry Klein was too…

Fast forward – or is it backwards – to the beach at LentjiesKlip, and it’s always that stretch of sand and sky I come back to, not far from the Kaaimans River mouth, with the rickety railway bridge and the steam train coming across it. Now it’s South Africa I’m listening to, and it’s Tweede Nuwejaar, the day after New Year, hot and blazing in the Southern Hemisphere. In Cape Town, it’s the time of the annual Minstrel Carnival, and South Africans of mixed race dress up in glittering satin suits and white face, and sing – in Afrikaans - about a Civil War ship, the Alabama, “Daar kom die Alibama.” The sound is ribald, lush, New Orleans in guttural, raucous Afrikaans.

But I can’t stop thinking of Harry Klein, my main man, who is still dying, because as long as I’m writing he’s not dead yet. His favorite song is “Al di La,” sung by Emilio Pericoli, from the film “Rome Adventure” (1962) with Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donohue. I listen to this and weep for Harry’s lost youth, and how this song would make him swoon.

But Africa always wins. Dollar Brand picks up where Tweede Nuwejaar left off, and there are no words now, and in comes “The Wedding,” followed by “Homecoming Song.” This is where I go back to the very beginning, to my hometown Worcester, where a local boy David (Swee’ Pea) Kramer plays his guitar at local events. He grows up and goes to Leeds to study textile design, but comes back and keeps playing his guitar. He writes South African small town blues. His first album, Bakgat (1981) is banned by the SABC because, as they tell him, “Jy mors met Die Taal” (You mess with The Language.) But he keeps messing and messing with the language, singing about rugby players and check-out girls and the wide, empty streets of Worcester and the cars lined up on the side of the national road, just watching other cars go by. He sings about the world of apartheid, the screams and the dogs barking in the night, and the violence threaded through everyday life. He makes it big and then the country changes and he goes into Namaqualand and the Great Karoo, looking for musicians who play an almost forgotten folk music, what he calls ‘Karoo blues.’ And this becomes “Karoo Kitaar Blues.”

Luister. Listen. When you hear the piano accordion (trekklavier), it’s Beirut, and the ladies still bobble on the beach, except it’s Coney Island now, and I’m on the other end of the subway-line, perched near the Hudson, wrapping up the last minutes of Harry Klein’s life. Follow the kayaks and the sailboats and the coastguard, past the Little Red Lighthouse, under the G.W. Bridge all the way up to Lake-Tear-in-The-Clouds, where the river begins.


Anne Landsman and The Rowing Lesson links:

the author's official site
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at its publisher

Curled Up with a Good Book review
Los Angeles Times review

the author applies the "Page 99 Test" to the novel
the author's articles at the Believer
the author's posts at the Huffington Post
the author's article at Persephone Speaks


also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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