November 28, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Jay Neugeboren's new novel The Other Side of the World is great in scope, a thoughtful and provocative examination of relationships in all their forms.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Neugeboren presents a meditation on life, love, art and family relationships that’s reminiscent of the best of John Updike."
Although music is at the heart of much of my fiction—the main characters in the title story of my recent collection, You Are My Heart, sing in a gospel choir; a main character in my novel, The Stolen Jew, is a concert violinist; lead characters in other stories are jazz musicians and vaudevillians—music and musicians make few appearances in my new novel, The Other Side of the World. And though music is central to my life, both listening and playing (modestly: piano, chorus, classical and jazz guitar), when I write, I don't listen to music. Nor, as far as I know, did music inspire any of the scenes in this novel. I do hum to myself while I write—snatches of familiar classical and pop standards ("All of Me," "For All We Know," the final ensemble piece from The Marriage of Figaro—"Tutti contenti saremo cosi"), and when I'm done writing, and sometimes while I revise—but at low volume and a distance of about twenty feet, kitchen stereo to office—I listen to music.
The Other Side of the World is, in its structure, a triptych: the first section is set in New England (Western Massachusetts and coastal Maine); the middle and longest section takes place in Singapore and Borneo; and the final section is set in Brooklyn. There's also a Coda (as it were) set, again, in Western Massachusetts, and in the Northampton house where the novel begins. I never re-read my books once published, but if I did re-read The Other Side of the World, and for readers who like to have music playing while they read fiction, here are some recommendations:
Part One. What else for a New England based narrative than Charles Ives's marvelous "Three Places in New England?" This short (18 minutes) three movement (!) symphonic piece, experimental in its time (1914) for its use of tonal clusters, quarter tones, and familiar tunes (hymns, folk songs, patriotic songs), is a marvel of contrasts, and for each of the places—The "St. Gaudens" statue in Boston Common of Colonel Shaw and his Colored Regiment; Putnam's Camp, Redding Connecticut; and The Housatonic at Stockbridge—Ives conjures up a distinct, evocative atmosphere marked by sudden and/or subtle contrasts, and with surprising and delightful fragments from familiar songs floating through ("Old Black Joe," "Marching Through Georgia"). One might find some affinities between the contrasts in locales and atmospheres in this piece about places in New England, composed a hundred years ago, to those I've tried to conjure up in the various locales in New England, 2012.
Part Two. What I imagine listening to while reading about the ultra-modern and business-friendly city of Singapore, and the extraordinarily diverse natural world of Borneo (even as its wonders are being constructed away by palm oil plantations)—is Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Scheherazade was the very first piece of ‘classical' music I ever knew, and it is filled with languorous, gorgeous melodies (eminently hummable), lush harmonies, rich flowing textures, and begs the listener to imagine stories! For Scheherazade is based on the tale of Scheherazade, who to keep a drowsy sultan awake—and to save her life—invents a new story every night for a thousand and one nights, stopping each night just when the sultan longs to know what-happens-next. Then, too, there is Nat ‘King' Cole's warm, breathy voice, in a song of my childhood, "My First and My Last Love," a song based on the main theme of the second (slow) movement from Scheherazade—an unforgettably lovely melody whose words ("I recall all the days of my childhood . . . and the bashful romance that we knew . . . . "), beginning to end, I can still sing.
Part Three. We travel to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where two of the novel's main characters—Seana O'Sullivan, and Max Eisner (father of the novel's narrator, Charlie Eisner)—grew up . . . which is also the place where I grew up. As far as I'm aware, none of the characters or events in this section derive directly from my childhood in Brooklyn. Still, when I am writing about Brooklyn, and about the neighborhood where I was born and raised, I am, like Seana and Max, home too. And being there, and seeing my characters move about on the streets where I once walked and played, I find myself hearing Tony Bennett singing a song I first heard when I was thirteen years old, and he was my favorite singer. The song is "Cold, Cold Heart," and it was # 1 on the Hit Parade that year (1951) for 27 weeks, and I commend it to readers for the sweet, light, trembling vibrato of Bennett's voice, for his lovely phrasings, and for the way they evoke feelings of tenderness, and of loss. And moving from Bennett in 1951—i.e., from Max Eisner's generation (and mine)—to Brooklyn in 2012, why not listen to a version of "Cold, Cold Heart," softly sung by Norah Jones? And consider the differences, not only of time and the passage of time—sixty years!—but of voice quality, musical arrangement, interpretation, etc.. Why not muse, too, on the differences between how a woman feels when trying to melt the cold, cold heart of an ungiving man, and of how a man feels when trying to melt a woman's heart (" . . . the more I seem to care for you, the more we drift apart . . . . "), and to have her love him as he once loved her? (Musical dividends: Perhaps, too, listen to the original version of "Cold, Cold Heart" as sung by the man who wrote it—country music artist Hank Williams. And/or listen to Tony Bennett and Norah Jones singing together—"Sing Low"—on Bennett's new album, Duets 2.)
Coda: Then, returning to Western Massachusetts—Northampton—with Seana and Charlie, my choice of song—love fulfilled, at last?—is another favorite, also from Norah Jones, on her album, Come Away With Me—"The Nearness of You." And, while reading the final pages of the novel, I suggest we consider the ways in which her pauses—she fairly speaks the words—allow us to feel the wonder of love, and of how listening to her sing can make time collapse, fade, and disappear so that all that matters in the moment is the mystery and wonder of how—through love, and literature, and music—we can be transported to realms beyond ordinary reality, and beyond ourselves.
Jay Neugeboren and The Other Side of the World links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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