February 22, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Teju Cole's debut novel Open City is both understated and powerful. Cole has earned comparisons to W.. Sebald and J.M. Coetzee with this book, but his intelligent prose and engaging narrative stand on their own in this engrossing story of a Nigerian immigrant in New York City.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Possibly the only negative thing to say about Cole's intelligent and panoramic first novel is that it is a more generous account of the recent past than the era deserves. America's standing in the world is never far from the restless thoughts of psychiatry resident Julius, a Nigerian immigrant who wanders Manhattan, pondering everything from Goya and the novels of J.M. Coetzee to the bankruptcy of Tower Records and the rise of the bedbug epidemic. In other words, it is an ongoing reverie in the tradition of W.G. Sebald or Nicholson Baker, but with the welcome interruptions of the friends and strangers Julius meets as he wanders Penn Station, the Upper West Side, and Brussels during a short holiday, and amid discussions of Alexander Hamilton, black identity, and the far left--a truly American novel emerges. Julius pines over a recent ex, mourns the death of a friend, goes to movies, concerts, and museums, but above all he ruminates, and the picture of a mind that emerges in lieu of a plot is fascinating, as it is engaged with the world in a rare and refreshing way."
Open City owes more to music than it does to other books. Julius, the narrator, spends a lot of time talking about Gustav Mahler. And it is Mahler, particularly in his late work, who provides the mood for the book: elegiac, restless, emotionally complicated, bitter in parts. But a greater influence on me in terms of compositional structure was Mahler's great rival in the 20th century symphony, Jean Sibelius.
When they met in Finland in 1907, Mahler told Sibelius that, "A symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything." Sibelius disagreed, and said he was more interested in a profound logic that created "an inner connection between all motifs." In reality, Mahler's own symphonies evince a sophisticated inner logic, of course, but Sibelius fascinates me because he uses very few motifs to build up something intricate, and he relies less on traditional devices like fugue and sonata-form to achieve it.
Sibelius' inspiration was the Finnish landscape, the broad sweep of it, the migration of birds, the rustling of leaves, the rushing of brooks, and the ominous shifting of glaciers. There are almost always busy small motifs being played against larger themes, but what makes this interesting is that the small motifs and the large ones are often the same, with one slowed down or played louder, given to a different group of instruments or inverted, so that the relationship to the original motif is not immediately obvious.
There's something fractal going on in all of Sibelius' mature symphonies, from the Symphony No. 2 onward. Big forms and small forms are intimately related: listening to the violins scurry away on a theme, one becomes aware that the basses are ambling along in a pattern that unexpectedly fits.
The logic at work in Sibelius is as simple to describe and as hard to predict as the growth of a tree. That was the moving target I was chasing all the way through the writing of Open City: how could I get one sentence to open up to another in a way that was organic but not predictable?
I spent a long time thinking about the very beautiful end of the first movement of the Symphony No. 3 in particular. I wondered how to use that kind of ending in a prose work: not merely a quiet ending, but an ending that sounds like conversation between three motifs, none of them loud.
By the time Sibelius wrote the Symphony No. 7, a single 22-minute movement, he had brought his talent for organic form to an astonishing level of synthesis. There are lots of small motifs in that symphony, which was his last. They appear to be lost, trying to find their way, these broken fragments of melody that are like a scattered flock of birds. Then suddenly, but not so suddenly, everything falls into place and a heroic theme emerges; it really is like seeing a dozen geese flying by in strict formation, owning the sky. Then, as in nature, and contrary to what most other composers would do, he lets it dissolve again.
What Sibelius achieves is not mere tone-painting, but rather a kind of composition that seems to just move and flow, the way a river might, complex but steady. I think of him not only with awe but with love.
Gustav Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer (1967).
Jean Sibelius, Symphonies 6 & 7, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (1996).
Jean Sibelius, Symphony 3 & 5, London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis (1994).
Teju Cole and Open City links:
As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) review
The Daily Beast review
It's Mike Ettner's Blog review
New York Daily News review
New Yorker review
The Outlet review
A Reading Odyssey review
Wall Street Journal 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