August 1, 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.
Lori Baker's The Glass Ocean is an evocative and transporting debut novel, an impressive work of historical fiction.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Gorgeously written and elegantly evocative, Baker’s prose brings the Dell’oros’ world to life and drives home the tragedy of their fruitless longings."
The protagonist of my novel, The Glass Ocean, is Carlotta Dell'oro, an orphan trying to piece together a sense of who she is by reconstructing a family history – trying to understand her father, Leo, a glass-maker and son of Italian immigrants in Yorkshire, and her mother, the beautiful, mysterious, and self-involved Clotilde Girard. Much of the novel is about Leo's self-destructive obsession with the elusive Clotilde, and how that obsession and the sense of loss it engenders gets channeled into his work as a glassmaker and artist; it is also about how identity (in this case, Carlotta's) is formed or forged in the face of family legacies. The novel is set in mid- 19th century England, and Leo is a scientific glassmaker – he makes glass models of sea creatures discovered on a scientific expedition to the Carribean funded by the British Museum and headed by Clotilde's father, the naturalist Felix Girard. It takes place during a time of expansion, exploration and ferment in the natural sciences – Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859 – so it was also a time of tumult, of humankind questioning where it fit within a newly emerging scientific, social, and natural order. The events of the novel, set against and within this time of tumult, capture, I think, through Carlotta's personal story, the feelings of awe and anxiety that I imagine must have accompanied this era of exciting discoveries and unnerving displacements. Of course, the novel is personal, too – growing up in a small town just outside Boston, I was a constant visitor to Cape Cod and have a strong love of the ocean and its creatures, and in writing The Glass Ocean I hoped to capture some of the child's wonder and awe and sense of discovery that comes with growing up with the ocean as a companion and playmate.
I puzzled over the interesting problem of how to create a playlist for The Glass Ocean, in part because of the book's historical setting. My solution has been to compile a list of some moody pieces with an ocean theme that capture the various tone(s) of the book, from brooding to numinous, along with a few pieces that I was listening to over the long period in which I was writing it, including some that relate to the story in a specific way.
Toru Takemitsu, Toward the Sea 1 – 3 (Night/Moby Dick/Cape Cod)
These spare, beautiful, alternatingly serene and dystonic chamber pieces for flute and perfectly conjure, for me, a rocky coast, fog rolling in, night time silences, soft then suddenly savage cadence of waves.
Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage
This one is all about new beginnings, boats setting sail on a distinctly smiling sea.
Benjamin Britten, Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes #1 (Dawn)
No list of music evocative of the ocean could be complete without the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. I've chosen the first interlude, Dawn, because I particularly like its almost numinous conjuring of sunrise over the ---- coast, waves softly eddying, yet with the dark foreshadowing of something ominous to come…
Echo and the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain
The melancholy ocean journey, "all at sea again," conjures Leo's obsession with Clotilde and the sense (repeated in the text) – "They met at sea, they were at sea, they parted by sea."
The Hagmena song is a traditional folk song sung on Christmas or New Year's Eve in northern England and Scotland; in some areas, children would wander the streets on New Year's eve, singing and going from house to house in masquerade, begging for sweets. In The Glass Ocean, Carlotta along with other children takes part in this tradition, wandering the streets and alleys of Whitby. There are various versions of the Hagmena song, and I am by no means an expert on these or on the origin of this folk tradition; however, many of the versions of the song that I came across in my research begin with the line "Tonight it is the New Year's night, to-morrow is the day/And we are come for our right and for our ray/As we used to do in old King Henry's Day." The meaning of the term Hagmena is unclear; some sources say it derives from Norman French meaning to the misletoe this new year; others that it is a corruption of a Greek term referring to the holy month.
Kate Bush, Watching You Without Me
A song about a sort of haunting, this captures for me the sense of Carlotta's grief after her mother Clotilde's disappearance, the acute sensation of an absence so painful that it becomes a presence (in The Glass Ocean, the ghost of a living person, Clotilde, who has irrevocably left the scene).
Mozart, The Magic Flute
Clotilde sings snatches from this during the "Voyage of the Narcissus" section of the novel – as the ship lists for days, essentially stalled on a hot, windless sea.
Glenn Gould playing Bach – Goldberg Variations
I listened to Glenn Gould's recordings of The Goldberg Variations, 1955 and 1981, frequently while writing this book. For me, the gorgeous, almost obsessive precision, both of the composition and of the performance, relate to and possibly even in some way inspired my conception of Leo Dell'oro's work as a glassmaker and artist – secretive (even hermetic), obsessive, perfectionistic.
Lori Baker and The Glass Ocean links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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