August 4, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Adam Thirlwell has been a familiar name to readers of literary fiction since he published his debut novel Politics in 2003 (and was named one of Granta's best young British novelists the same year).
Thirlwell's latest novel, The Escape, is a brilliant farce, a sexual comedy brimming with intelligent prose and knowing nods to the works of both Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.
Milan Kundera wrote of the book:
"A novel where the humor is melancholic, the melancholy mischievous, and the talent startling."
The Escape is the story of a 78 year old Jewish man from North London who doesn’t want to grow up, a catastrophe that involves various women and his more orthodox grandson, and it takes place in a spa town in a place I never name, but which – had I had to offer it a geographical location I would have offered it Slovenia: I would have offered it, I suppose, Lake Bled: and so the playlist for this novel necessarily has two parts – there is the music to make me feel modernly East European, and the music to make me feel 78. Because although I too come from the Jewish bourgeoisie of North London, I am only 31. And then I also included as a gift to the orthodox and initially uncharming grandson the music from my romantic youth, when what I loved – of course, because I wasn’t cool at all, so I wanted cool – was hip hop.
1. Gogol Bordello – "Avenue B"
I loved the glamour of its scratchy opening, and its gypsy sighing; and the lyrics – well the lyrics I adored them: I mean, don’t you? "Sitting in a Russian bathhouse on Avenue B, No matter how much we sweat we just can’t agree." And then there was the other glamour of the song suddenly lifting into Russian: and in fact the glamour of this song is everywhere, because that bathhouse on Avenue B is also literary – in some way I associate it with the scenes where men masculinely sweat together in Saul Bellow’s fiction: and so this song was the ultimate American, the ultimate immerican.
2. Saïan Supa Crew – "Darkness"
This was a different glamour: something about the contrast between the opening, a sample from a version for strings of "Anyone Who Had a Heart," and then the rhythms of the rappers, and their melancholy lyrics, which I could barely understand, being in French: kind of the most melodramatic song ever.
3. Ella Fitzgerald – "Mack the Knife"
Kurt Weill composed the music for this song by Bertolt Brecht: and the song is a masterpiece of wit and savagery but then Ella Fitzgerald’s version does all that and then makes it joyous, because she forgets the words – at the Juan-les-Pins jazz festival, and so just develops a kind of scat, where she continues for verse after verse singins repeats and whatever comes into her head: And then once more, and then once more: yeah it makes me joyous.
4. Artie Shaw – "Nightmare"
I think someone described this as the Guernica of jazz: and well, then – it’s the Guernica of jazz: it destroys your ears.
5. Shantel – "Disko Boy"
This has got electro beats, and over it some guy sings about getting so drunk on vodka he’s like a shaman, and it’s all sung in this deliriously happy way: and well it’s louche, it’s got style, it’s got cool.
6. Oxmo Puccino - "Mourir 1000 fois"
But because in my youth I could never be done with melodrama, especially if it was French, as well as "Darkness" I used to listen to this song, over and over, which is perhaps not a great song, but has some kind of total fatalistic fear that makes me love it: it makes you feel that for a moment everything is terrifying, everything is a responsibility, only death matters. Then you go and shoot pool and the drama subsides.
7. Cole Porter – "Begin the Beguine"
This song is so elegant, and so perfect, and it seems to me a small miracle of structure, because although the song begins by saying that the singer doesn’t want to remember, that Cole doesn’t want to be brought back to the past by suddenly hearing the beguine all over again, at a point which is almost invisible you suddenly realise that in fact Cole is now begging the past to come back, he’s begging the beguine to continue, and the past and the future merge for a moment: and that merging, I think, is heartbreaking.
8. 2Pac – "Life Goes On"
I think this was once my favourite song: this makes me ashamed: I’m kind of amazed that hip hop was allowed to be this kitsch: but I still love it.
9. Mozart – Clarinet Concerto as played by Benny Goodman
I was always amazed by cadenzas in music, where the player was allowed to do whatever he wanted to do: and I love the way Benny Goodman takes this piece of classical music and then submits the cadenzas to a kind of freejazz tone: I love him making it his own. And so because Haffner – the hero of my novel – loves the clarinet, and also loves jazz, I gave him this song: because Haffner is a zany hybrid, too.
Adam Thirlwell and The Escape links:
Financial Times review
Library Journal review
The List review
London Evening Standard review
The New Republic review
New Statesman review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
The Outlet review
Rock's Backpages review
The Sunday Times review
Times Online review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists