August 18, 2014
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.
Vanessa Manko's novel The Invention of Exile is epic in scope and brilliant in execution, a profound and remarkable debut.
The Boston Globe wrote of the book:
"Rich in history and far-reaching in scope, The Invention of Exile is an achingly painful and all too relevant meditation on what can happen to identity when human beings are crammed inside an unforgiving container of politics, bureaucracy, and fear."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The Invention of Exile follows the fate of Austin Voronkov, a Russian immigrant who is accused of anarchy and deported from the U.S. during the first wave of the Red Scare. After returning to Russia with his American bride Julia, Austin has to flee once again, eventually ending up in Mexico where he and Julia, with young children now in tow, struggle to enter the U.S. as a unified family. When only Julia and the children are allowed to return, Austin is left living in exile in Mexico City and the novel recounts his efforts to reunite with his family. As such, it is a story filled with a sense of longing and so some of the songs here convey the mood of nostalgia and melancholy that I was attempting to depict throughout the book, particularly in passages focusing on Austin or Julia's memories of each other and all their travels together. While set in 1948 Mexico City, the book moves back and forth in time and place—from the U.S. in the 1920s during the height of the Red Scare, to Russia during the Civil War and finally to Mexico in the 1930s and 40s. I've chosen music that is representative of each section of the book. Mexican ranchera and danzón music, for instance, are part of Austin's days in Mexico City where he cobbles together an existence as a repairman hoping that his inventions will bring him to the U.S. Here, he befriends Anarose, a Mexican woman who offers him a glimmer of hope and love and this music underscores their fragile, tentative relationship. The chants of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian folk songs that include the balalaika were in mind when writing about Julia and Austin's return to Russia, and, in other sections of the book, they helped me connect Austin, a deeply Russian character, to his lost country and culture. Finally, some of the music here I listened to while writing and when working on the overall structure of the novel.
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
This revolutionary piece of music by the Russian composer caused a riot at its first performance in 1913, and it is a work that heralded modernity. It's filled with foreboding, pulsating passages conjuring the threat of sacrifice as the "chosen one" is selected and dances herself to death. The dissonance of the music prefigured the broken state of the modern world since the early-twentieth century would soon face both the Russian Revolution and WWI and its aftermath. Because the novel is set during this time period and because it's structure is fractured, juxtaposing time and place on the page, Stravinsky's use of dissonance was influential. Also, I had this piece in mind when writing the Russian section of the novel, in particular, the scenes when Julia and Austin return to the Village of Varvarovkva in the Ukraine. They stay here through the Russian spring and are living a relatively peaceful life until the Bolsheviks ransack their home and belongings and take Austin to the commissar. In these scenes, I wanted to depict a calm, tranquil countryside and village life, while lending a sense of foreboding throughout; this is something Stravinsky does to great effect in this work.
Bach, The Goldberg Variations
I've long loved The Goldberg Variations. These 30 pieces composed for piano are distinct, but as variations, they share motifs and themes and so offer a pleasing symmetry that I enjoy when writing or when on a walk. In general, they help me to imagine structure and to create a certain mood or tone for particular passages. In the case of this novel, they were particularly important when trying to keep the disparate sections of the book connected through leitmotifs.
Vincente Fernández, "Volver, Volver"
This Mexican ranchera song translates as "Going Back, Going Back." Fernández sings of lost, unrequited love and pleads for his love to return to him. I imagine Austin on his walks in Mexico City or in the various cantinas he frequents with these kinds of ranchera songs playing in the background, his mind on Julia and his children.
K.D. Lang, "Helpless"
I love this song's elegiac mood and its regard for memory, and the lyric: "And in my mind I still need a place to go, All my changes were there." For me, the song suggests Austin's preoccupation with the past and his predilection for reverie.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, "Bagdad Café, I'm Calling You "
The haunting, yearning voice of Lorraine Hunt evokes Julia's sense of longing when living separated from Austin. For me, it also represents how Julia, her memory, voice and presence, reigns over Austin's days living in exile in both the Sonoran copper mines and later in Mexico City.
Keren Ann, "Lay Your Head Down"
I discovered Keran Ann while writing the novel. This reflective and melancholy song captures the tone and feel of the peaceful, loving times Julia and Austin share, whether it's during their first days of courtship or while they are living in the lighthouse in Mazatlan.
U2, "Moment of Surrender"
I listened to this song while on long runs during writing breaks. It's complex and filled with paradox. Something about the searching, desperate quality of the voice here reminded me of Austin's attempts to rebuild his identity amidst his life of complete and utter alienation.
The danzón, a type of music and dance, was popular in the Mexico City dance halls of the 1930s and 40s. A kind of bolero originally from Cuba, the music includes horns and guitars or drums and the songs are passionate, bittersweet stories of love and loss. The dance itself is a classic box step and dancers perform half and full turns, pivots and side steps as they travel around the dance floor. It can be a slow, sensual dance that increases in pace as the music reaches a crescendo with dancers incorporating more and more turns and intricate variations on the box step. Austin and Anarose dance to this music during one of their scenes at the outdoor dance hall. Some classic danzón music includes Teléfono de Larga Distancia, Como Fué, Besame Mucho.
Russian Orthodox Church chants and hymns
The chants sung by the choirs of the Russian Orthodox Church, sonorous and repetitive, with deep bass voices full of gravitas and reverence, captures for me the essence of the Russian soul, which is characterized by hard work, a visceral connection to the land (both the actual soil and the country's sheer size) and a capacity for great suffering and great joy. "Selected Chants of the Russian Orthodox Church" by the Monks Choir of Kiev Pechersk Monastery is a particularly beautiful compilation.
Russian balalaika music
The lilting, gentle strumming of the balalaika, the Russian folk guitar, evokes pastoral scenes of a Russian village and makes me think of the idyllic farm life Julia and Austin had hoped to build in his home village of Varvarovka. Some classic Russian folk songs that incorporate the balalaika are Krassnyi Sarafan (The Red Sarafan), Poscholej (Have Mercy), Karobuschka (Little Basket).
Vanessa Manko and The Invention of Exile links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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