February 11, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Andre Aciman has a a poet's eye for lyrical precision. His second novel, Eight White Nights, is set in a handful of blocks in Manhattan, but delivers an entire world in its pages, one filled with an unforgettable exploration of love.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"Aciman has never failed to be original. Nor is he a stranger to questions of love and alienation. His first book, "Out of Egypt," was a beautifully wrought memoir of his childhood in Alexandria, Egypt. His novel "Call Me by Your Name" was a delicately nuanced, erotic coming-of-age story about a boy's homosexual affair in Italy. With "Eight White Nights," he moves into new territory, probing a rarefied urban culture that seldom has been explored in quite the same way. "
Excerpts and music from Eight White Nights
"Would someone like me know this music?"
"Someone like you—" She repeated my phrase as though it were a strange fruit whose unusual taste she was still mulling before passing judgment, which is why she said, "We're so sharp, so clever. Why, am I already supposed to guess who someone like you is?"
Right through me. She'd caught my trick question even before I had—my attempt to bring us closer, get her to say something about me.
I am Clara. Nice try.
"I'm sure you've heard Folías before, though you may not know it."
And suddenly there it was again, her voice rising above the din in the crowded library, singing the somber opening bars of Handel's famous sarabande. I, who had never understood why men love women to sing for them, saw the cobwebs clear before me.
Eventually we came down the spiral stairs together to find the party in full swing, the crowded living room huddled around the pianist with the throaty voice who'd probably taken a long break and was now back to his old spot singing exactly the same song he'd been singing hours earlier. There was the Christmas tree. There the same old bowl of punch. There the spot where Clara said I looked lost. There, Clara and someone whom she introduced as the Mankiewicz asked everyone to be quiet, stood on two stools, and began singing an aria by Monteverdi. It lasted two minutes. But it would change my life, my way of seeing so many, many things, as the snow and the beam and the empty snowed-in park had already changed me as well. Minutes later, the singer with the throaty voice took over again.
And as I listened to the Adagio by Mozart, which always appears in this theater as soon as the intermission lights come on, I remembered that no more than three winters ago I had done the very same with someone else's coat while she had gone to buy sodas at the concession stand. I'd pretended we had broken up or that she had never even existed, only to be surprised when she returned and pushed down the seat next to mine. Afterward, we had left the movie theater and had bought the Sunday paper and ambled home in the snow, speaking of Maud and of Chloé, improvising dinner somewhere after visiting a bookstore. It seemed so long ago. And I thought back to a much younger I who had come to this very theater alone one Saturday night and, while looking for a seat without disturbing too many people, had overheard a man ask a woman, "Do you like Mozart?" The woman, who had let her coat hang on the backrest of her seat, slouched over it, and, turning to him, had replied something like "Yes, very much, but this piano concerto I hate." They were, even I could tell, on their first date.
That night I'd hurled a hopeful and mystified glance to the future, asking who would the woman be in my life who'd sit next to me and listen to this piece by Mozart and say, "Yes, but this piano concerto I hate." They knew so little about each other that the man needed to ask
whether she liked Mozart. It had never occurred to me until now that all he was trying to do was make conversation.
Mozart, Concerto No. 23 in A Major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 488, Adagio
She removed the Handel.
"Bach?" she said, as if to ask whether I minded Bach.
"Bach is good."
She slipped the CD in. We listened to the piano. "We'll be hearing this very piece again when we get there, so get ready."
Bach, Prelude in E minor, BWV 855 (Richter)
"Well, even if he knows the prelude, this is something you've never heard in your life. Never. Nor will you ever hear it played this way. First you'll hear him play the Bach prelude on the pianola and then Siloti's transposition of that Bach prelude. Then you'll hear it as I've had two students from one of the colleges nearby remaster it. And if you behave, and you don't interrupt too many times, and eat your soup, I'll let you listen to Leo's Handel. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Leo Czernowicz, just a few years before the Germans found him and took him away and didn't know what to do with him, so they killed him. And there it was. At first a very faint drone, then the sound of a gasp, like air sputtering and hissing its way through a congested windpipe, and then it came, the prelude I'd heard who knows how many times before, but never once like this: hasty, tentative, and ever so deliberate. Then we heard the Siloti.
"This is when memory rescued me: I decided to count and name every woman I'd slept with, year by year, including those who brought me so little pleasure in bed that I've often wondered why they parted the Red Sea if they had no manna to give and certainly wanted none of mine. This, to say nothing of those who wouldn't take off their clothes, or would do this but certainly not that, or who always had engine trouble, so in the end, though you might have been in bed together, and even fallen asleep, it was never clear whether you had scaled the summit. In any event, I counted them and they added up to—"
"One thousand and three!" exclaimed Clara, referring to the number of Don Giovanni's mistresses in Spain.
At which we all clapped.
"Or was it ninety- one?" asked Clara, the Don's mistresses in Turkey.
"Six hundred and forty," added Margo, referring to those in Italy.
"Two hundred and thirty- one, and not a woman more!" thundered Max, the Don's mistresses in Germany.
"Madamina . . ." I began, deepening my voice till it growled with comic gravity the way Leporello catalogues the number of Don Giovanni's mistresses around the world.
"Let's hear the Handel, then," she said.
We walked into the living room. She turned on the CD player, then lowered herself to the floor and sat on her knees on the rug. She was already wearing her winter coat. I sat across from her on a chair against the wall. In the same room, saying nothing. And then it started. I couldn't understand what it was about this sarabande that had made us come all the way up here to hear it. Perhaps because I had never heard it before. "Isn't it played a bit too slowly?" I finally ventured to say, trying to suggest that I too could tell it could use some mechanical acceleration. She shook her head once and said nothing, dismissing my comment for the simple, intrusive thing it was. Then, for no reason, or for a reason I couldn't begin to fathom, she raised her eyes and began to stare straight at me, but in a vague, lifeless manner, which made me suspect that though she was looking at me and wasn't looking away, she wasn't really looking at me either. There was no doubt, though; she was staring. I stared back with the same seemingly unfocused gaze, but she didn't register my gaze, or didn't register me, and I thought, This is what happens to people who are entirely rapt by music, whereas I am almost just pretending, the way I almost just pretend to be rapt by food, wine, scenery, art, love. When others listened to music, they became one with music and just stared at you, past you, through you, and expected no reciprocity, no implicit eyebrow signal, because they were already one with things. Were we just going to stare at each other for however long it took to hear the music? So it seemed. So I left my chair and, all the while continuing to stare at her—she was still following me with her gaze—kneeled down right next to her on the rug, my heart racing, neither of us taking our eyes off each other, I not knowing whether I was breaking some tacit understanding I hadn't altogether agreed to, she not knowing what I was up to—except that suddenly I caught her nether lip give a tremor, her chin seemed to cramp ever so slightly, and, before I knew what was happening, her eyes were filled with tears and she began crying. I envied her even this freedom.
"[The Beethoven Quartet] is about a simple handful of notes, plus a sustained, overextended hymn in the Lydian mode, which it loves and doesn't wish to see end, because it likes repeating questions and deferring answers, because all answers are easy, because it's not answers and clarity, or even ambiguity, that Beethoven wants. What he's after is deferral and distended time,
a grace period that never expires and that comes like memory, but isn't memory, all cadence and no chaos. And he'll keep repeating and extending the process until he's left with five notes, three notes, one note, no note, no breath. Maybe art is just that, life without death. Life in the Lydian mode."
And before I can answer, a Champagne flute is handed to me. I recognize the wrist, your wrist, your wrist, your sweet, blessed, God-given I-worship-your wrist. "Ist ein traum, This is a dream," she says, "and the new year's just begun."
Andre Aciman and Eight White Nights links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists