October 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.
James Robertson deftly blends the personal with the political in his engaging novel The Professor of Truth.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Provides the framework for a deeper philosophical treatment of justice and loss and grief, all well served by Robertson’s measured, literary prose. Robertson makes a case for the messy complexity of truth."
The Professor of Truth is a very quiet novel. It starts with one man, an English Literature lecturer at a university in Scotland, working at his computer alone in his house, with snow falling outside. Twenty-one years after he lost his American wife and their daughter in a plane crash caused by a bomb, Alan Tealing is still grieving. He is angry too, because he thinks Khalil Khazar, the man found guilty of the bombing, was not responsible. This means that Alan is living with a sense of two injustices having been perpetrated, the murder of his family and the wrongful conviction of an innocent man.
The novel asks questions about the nature of truth and justice, but is also a meditation on grief. Because of his close engagement – obsession, you might call it – with these matters, much of Alan's life takes place against a backdrop of silence. Music therefore does not appear explicitly anywhere in the narrative, but if there were a soundtrack it might go something like this.
Simon and Garfunkel, 'The Sound of Silence'
Although this is a little obvious, and was used, famously, in The Graduate, actually the opening lines are very appropriate: 'Hello darkness, my old friend / I've come to talk with you again / Because a vision softly creeping / Left its seeds while I was sleeping'. Alan often dreams of his lost loved ones, especially of his daughter, and when he wakes the memory of his dream is almost more real to him than the dark in which he finds himself. He is in a kind of half-world, between waking and sleeping, between life before and life after the bombing. The epigraph to the novel is a poem of Emily Dickinson's, and I think these lyrics carry in them an echo of her way of writing.
The Rolling Stones, 'Miss You'
A song with a different beat and mood entirely, but the words work, and there is another reason why this one might be on the soundtrack: when Alan meets Emily for the first time, at a conference in Philadelphia, it's the late 1970s and although there is no mention of it can imagine the Stones' album Some Girls and this track in particular playing in the 'crummy little bar' she took him to.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony Number 5
Years later, when Alan is bereaved and alone, if he plays any music it will be calming and classical. He certainly used to go to classical concerts when he was an undergraduate student at a university in the north of England. I see him sitting nursing a whisky or a glass of wine, immersed in the gorgeous, deep, string-dominated harmonies of this magnificent symphony.
Shawn Colvin, 'Another Plane Went Down'
I love the strange, dreamlike quality of this song and the haunting words that describe the victim of a plane crash: 'They found her on a hill in Columbia/Intact among the debris'. My novel is loosely based on, and strongly influenced by, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988: when I was doing my research I found the descriptions from contemporary reports of that event, of how and where some of the victims were found, intensely moving.
K.T. Tunstall, 'Other Side of the World'
In the first part of The Professor of Truth, Alan receives a visit from a former U.S. intelligence officer. This man, Ted Nilsen, turns up in the middle of a snowstorm offering a nugget of information that just might help Alan to break through to some kind of resolution of what he calls 'the Case' – all the information he has accumulated over two decades about the bombing, but which has not given him what he most wants, satisfaction that justice has been done and the truth established. Nilsen's information sends Alan, in the second part of the novel, from Scotland to Australia, in search of a witness who, he believes, gave false evidence at Khalil Khazar's trial. K.T. Tunstall's song contains images of ice and fire, the titles of the two sections of the book, and there are other phrases that resonate with Alan's situation. Quite apart from that, though, it's a great piece of music from a fine Scottish songwriter and performer.
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, 'Your Long Journey'
Krauss and Plant's rendition of this Doc and Rosa Lee Watson song is achingly beautiful. In my novel there is a clash of opinions about life after death between Alan Tealing, who has no religious faith, and Ted Nilsen, who does. This song is addressed to someone who has gone on ahead, and the singer is strong in the belief that 'when I come we will walk hand in hand / As one in heaven in the family of God'. But meanwhile there is the loss to contend with: 'Oh my darling, my darling / My heart breaks as you take / Your long journey.'
Karine Polwart, 'We're All Leaving'
Karine Polwart is one of the finest songwriters working in Scotland. Her music is folk-based but transcends all genres. This is simply the most uplifting song about love and loss I know. It's written about Charles Darwin, who was devastated by the death of his daughter Annie when she was ten. Polwart's own words best describe what she has achieved: 'I try to imagine not only the impact of her death upon him as a father, but its resonance for him as a scientist developing the notion of natural selection, and as a thinker questioning the religious mainstream of his times.' It's a heroic song, optimistic in spite of its sadness, and the chorus is as good a summation of our passage through life and death as I've come across: 'We're all leaving / Even the ones who stay behind / We're all leaving / In our own time.'
James Robertson and The Professor of Truth links:
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