May 21, 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.
Charles Newman's last novel, In Partial Disgrace is an ambitious and devastatingly original rollercoaster of a book, finely written and equal parts satire, comedy, and philosophy.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn wrote of the book:
"Newman's novel, then, occupies a thematic space blending the comic with the philosophical, with a baroque sensibility rounding it off. As a reader new to Newman's body of work, In Partial Disgrace struck as a bridge between the comic terror found in Flann O'Brien and the intellectual comedy of Robertson Davies."
Charles Newman (1938-2006) was known as the founder of the literary magazine TriQuarterly and an author of darkly funny, cerebral novels akin to the work of David Foster Wallace. His last book, In Partial Disgrace, which he spent more than twenty years writing, is published this spring by Dalkey Archive Press. The Chicago Tribune calls it "a torrent of ideas and stories."
My uncle's book is essentially a simple story: a man wants to buy a dog, but the man he wants he wants to buy the dog from won't let him. Why? Did something happen between them? Is it something the man said or did, or is it simply who he is (an intellectual, a Jew, a person who wants a dog for the wrong reason, namely to serve as a pet)? Somehow nothing less than the origin of civilization and the lurking tug of barbarism are involved, and music naturally plays an important part. Charles Newman was a classical music junkie, the sort of fan who would sit in the front row at Alice Tully five nights in a row when the Borodin Quartet came to town. All his fiction features music to some degree – it's right there in the title with works like White Jazz and The Five Thousandth Baritone – but in this novel it is a frightening and terrible force, deforming both the musician and the audience it is played against. This was nothing less than Charlie's goal as a writer: he wanted you to feel the dehumanizing power of art, or as he himself describes Gubik, the malevolent piano-playing prodigy who is one of the novel's side characters, "Warm hands, cold heart." Rapturous writing, spiritual abyss.
The following is from an as-yet unpublished section of the novel describing its fantastical setting, the Mitteleuropean country of Cannonia, a landlocked nation that is "effectively all border" and usually covered on maps by the compass sign or coat-of-arms.
Vivaldi: Serenata a Tre
In 1728, on Ascension Day, Antonio Vivaldi was summoned to meet Charles VI at Ottemenarche, where he was presented with a gold medal and had a long talk about music. The emperor's ministers noted that Charles spoke more to the composer in two days than he had to them in fifteen years. Vivaldi presented the king with a serenata which would not be performed for more than two centuries. Meanwhile, some thirteen years after his meeting with the emperor, as a broken old man of sixty-two, Vivaldi would take his leave from Venice in search of patronage, but passing once again through Ottemenarche, the scene of his greatest pecuniary triumph, was told by a pretty nun in a white habit with a spray of pomegranate leaves behind her ear, that the king had just perished from a plate of poisonous mushrooms. Ignoring her entreaties to remain and conduct in Cannonia, and selling his scores for nineteen Cannonian imperials, he proceeded to a tense dark Vienna, and busied himself with an invention which he hoped would make his fortune: a three-dimensional score, through which ritornelli and repeats inscribed on cubes could be drawn through or dropped out with a string like a dumbwaiter. When he showed it to a famous music critic, the fellow hawked ein entsetzliches maud ("a disgusting gob") upon it. A month later the composer died in disordered prodigality as the pauper's bells pealed.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major ("Eroica")
Mozart: Serenade No. 10 In B-flat Major
When Mozart first crossed the foggy border four years before his death and two before the French Revolution, his entourage was visaed under the precocious boy's invented names: "I am Punkitititi . . . my wife is Schabla Pumfa, Joseph my servant is Runzifunzi, and Goukerl, my dog, is Schomanntzky." Coming upon the woods owned by the Stradivari family which supplied their cello veneers, and noting that several of the larger trees had keyboards built into them, he reappelated this section of the Marches as "Klavierland," which remains its modern name. It was here that little Wolfgang played upon his first real piano, rather than a souped-up harpsichord of shallow touch and damping — an instrument of local manufacture, labile planks of Cannonian fir and curly maple structured upon an iron frame, which even in its most problematic tuning produced a full, round tone. "The sonority of the future, no doubt," the little genius wrote to his father, though he found the action sluggish in this sluggish land . . . But the composer would write nothing for this instrument; he knew it could only finally serve a more tormented spirit, and that once its dynamics were released from suavity and elegance, only a kind of madness would satisfy. Indeed, the behemoth would not be mastered until a suicidal Beethoven gave a concert wearing dogskin gloves and reduced the instrument to a heap of wire. Wham, wham, two raving chords from the Eroica, and the classical order was thrust aside.
Beethoven claimed to work well in Cannonia, and wrote to the Cannonian girl he should have married of "that certain mood — I hesitate to call it ‘romantic' — the feeling of having no relatives at all, while at the same time feeling related to everybody." In his last shattered years, it was only in Cannonia that he was still permitted to conduct. He stood in the midst of the musicians, confusion written on his face, deaf to all tone, at the pianos creeping under the conductor's desk, and at the fortes leaping high into the air, then looking around himself in affright. Yet despite the fact that he was often a dozen bars ahead or behind the orchestra, there was no laughter in the audience, for Cannonians could recognize a masterpiece even under the most uncertain and grotesque direction. "In Cannonia," he wrote, "nothing but art held my hand."
Chopin: Nocturnes, Op. 48
Liszt: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in A major
Clara Schuman: Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 17
Robert Schumann: Liederkreis, Op. 39
Brahms: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor ("Tragic")
Chopin was astonished at how sound carried across the countryside, protected and concealed by mists. "Music somehow sounds better here. The crescendo is a cataract, the diminuendo a crystal stream, the pianissimo a vernal breath." Liszt invented a portable piano which could be broken into thirds and transported by donkeys, and on which he could play his transcribed Beethoven symphonies for those who would never hear an orchestra. Schubert spent a summer near Bomipid, where he wrote his first poignant song, "No One Wants to Sleep with a Fat Little Lark," and after giving the only public concert of his life on the town bandstand, resolved never again to teach, whatever his circumstances. Rob and Clara Schumann loved to hike in Cannonia and once met Metternich stalking a chamois. "She walks behind me," Robert wrote of his beloved wife, "and gently tugs my coattail each time we approach a rock." Pianoed-out on that trip, the composer foreswore the instrument for a lieder eruption: 140 songs in eight months. Brahms gave his last concert performance in that desperate but not serious city Ottemenarche, and during a walk by the Hron, complained acidly to a twenty-eight-year-old Mahler that the end of classical music was fast approaching. "Look," Gustav said, pointing gaily out on the greenish-grey river, "there goes the last wave."
Charles Newman and In Partial Disgrace links:
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