March 20, 2013
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Ryan McIlvain's debut novel Elders is both intimate and profound, the story of two very different Mormon missionaries in Brazil.
T.C. Boyle wrote of the book:
"A nuanced meditation on faith and commitment that has all the intensity of a stage play. Elders is a powerful and deeply moving debut from a gifted young writer."
Three Pieces for Elders
1. "Rach 3" Sergei Rachmaninoff
Mormon missionaries aren't allowed to listen to much in the way of "worldly" music. I knew a guy who'd got a Bing Crosby Christmas album on the approved list; others listened to church music, classical music, or contraband. When I was a missionary in Brazil, at the cusp of the new millennium, I chose the classical route. Timid, rule-abiding, earnest, I'd left my Radiohead and Brian Setzer and various emo albums at home. Late at night I'd sometimes play Rachmaninoff on a square little tape recorder, plugging in my headphones out of respect for my sleeping missionary companion. Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto, and particularly the cadenza passage that seemed to fall off a continental shelf after the rush of the A section, drifting down into dark, lush water—that was what moved me. I've loved the piece ever since. It was on a mix-tape, the version from the Shine soundtrack—with David Helfgott's soulful playing—and it was the version I stored in my mind and accessed on particularly long late evenings, the cavernous time when it wasn't yet late enough to turn in for the day, but it was too late to knock on strange doors with our message. All that was left to do was look at the stars overhead, newly formed, and conjure a dreamy piano line, and try to float away on it.
2. "Você Vai Ver" Rosa Passos
But the music of the world was everywhere, really; it soaked the air. When Brazil beat Germany in the 2002 World Cup, sound cars clogged the streets blasting samba. That dancing buoyant beat pours verbatim into a scene from my novel, Elders: two Mormon missionaries, an American and a Brazilian, lie in their beds amid all that celebratory noise—there's no use trying to work on the afternoon of a major soccer victory. At one point the American, McLeod, sighs with impatience, unable to sleep. He stage whispers across the room to his companion, "Passos? Hello? You asleep over there?"
"How can you sleep in all this?"
"You get used to it," Passos says. He keeps his eyes closed, but a slow smile spreads across his face. "When you win this many titles . . ."
Samba as birthmark, then, a gift as Brazilian as the jogo bonito itself—samba as heritage, national pride. And you can hear why. It is rhythm as racing heartbeat, pleasure at the breaking point, and when you hear it you can't keep your shoulders still, not even on a Sunday afternoon. It's unstoppable, a rushing river-like pulse that even the quietest splinter streams contain. To see what I mean, try an experiment: take that driving, constant samba beat, cut it in half, and strip away almost everything else, leaving only a woman on stage with a rosewood guitar and a voice like silk. Hell, name her after one of my protagonists (or perhaps, I'm just realizing, it was the other way around?), but anyway, what you get is Rosa Passos, the queen of bossa nova. In "Você Vai Ver," a sad, sad song, but a sad song that masks its sadness with resolve, Passos swears to her lover that this time it's over, this time it's for real, that at some point "goodbye" really means what it means. "You'll see," she sings in the song's refrain. "You'll see."
3. "Pretty Saro" John Doyle
I got back to the States in 2004, kicked around for a few months, wrote some nondescript poems I'm embarrassed of now. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't want to be a Mormon writer—I didn't want to be bound anymore by my accidents of birth. "Well," a friend later said to me, "you shouldn't be writing all the time about Mormons, then! Doubting Mormons are still Mormons." But by then I'd resigned myself to my material, even warmed to it. What I wanted more than to escape a label was to tell a story from the inside out, the way a memory feels in you but not entirely of you. I think "Pretty Saro" helped me do that. It's an old English folk ballad that John Doyle sings with his dignified, minimal tenor—his voice wavers at moments, slightly cracks, the kind of imperfections that Robert Herrick claimed.
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
"Pretty Saro" dates to a few decades after Herrick's death in the late 1600s: a young farmer has a sweetheart who won't marry him, and he sings a bittersweet lament over it.
My love, she won't have me, so I understand.
She wants a freeholder who owns house on land,
I cannot maintain her with riches and gold
Nor all of the fine things that a big house can hold.
In the space of a stanza a world opens up, then closes. Two minds are on the page, two multiply conflicting desires—with society, self, practicality . . . It's always struck me that the poor farmer's anger and hurt are not enough to make him deny his lover her own say, her reported perspective in the first-person telling: she says she wants a husband who owns his land outright, and in the age of Enclosures and summary evictions who can truly fault her for that? Not our farmer. His bitterness is still suffused with a kind of affection, which John Doyle's sweet, minor singing pays full respect to. When I first heard "Pretty Saro," I knew I wanted to make something like it. I hope I have.
Ryan McIlvain and Elders links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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