January 20, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Garth Greenwell's novel What Belongs to You is a brilliant debut, lyrical, evocative, and precise in its language.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"What Belongs to You whispers like an incantation of desire. But even as Garth Greenwell's novel sweats with lust, his prose keeps that heat contained in the crucible of remorse. . . In Greenwell's poetic sentences, emotional fearlessness is mated with extraordinary sensitivity to the tremors of regret. . . This is a novel of aggressive introspection, but Greenwell writes with such candor and psychological precision that the effect is oddly propulsive. The sustained tension between the narrator and Mitko will remind some readers of Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, which was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. But that novel's tone was more mannered and its style so self-consciously profound. With a similarly subtle plot charged with erotic energy, Greenwell provides a richer experience, and his constantly burrowing sentences are polished to a deep lustre. . . In the end, a novel like this can't offer any resolution except its perfect articulation of despair that anyone with a heart will hear."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I was a musician before I was a writer, and classical singing was my first training in art. I don’t sing anymore, but music is central to how I think about writing. I read everything I write aloud, and I work hard to make the best use I can of the musical properties of language. I think one reason I’m drawn to a certain kind of expansive syntax is that so much of the emotional effect of singing is generated through the suspension of language in time. My sense of scene and dramatic structure comes largely from music as well, less from grand opera than from more intimate works, especially the vocal works of Benjamin Britten.
My novel, What Belongs to You, is about a relationship between two men who meet in Sofia, Bulgaria. The first two songs on this list represent two different kinds of Bulgarian pop music, and they're drawn from the world of the novel. The other selections are here because they embody some quality I admire and aspire to as an artist. I don’t listen to music when I write, but music is the medium in which I most often encounter what seems to me ideal in art.
1. Azis, Sen Trope. Azis is an openly gay, crossdressing, Roma superstar in Bulgaria. Identified with two widely despised groups in a conservative, often xenophobic place, he takes a lot of abuse and responds by going queerer and fiercer. I love him. He sings chalga, a fusion of Balkan folk music and European pop that provides the soundtrack for nearly all of Sofia’s nightclubs, including its handful of gay bars. (It’s a favorite genre for Mitko, the young man my narrator falls in love with.) You don’t need Bulgarian to enjoy this song: the lyrics are mostly nonsense syllables and the names of tourist destinations (Saint Tropez, the Maldives, Dubai). If you watch the video on YouTube, you’ll see what a phenomenon Azis is. With his fabulous eyelashes, bleached goatee, very short shorts, and long, gleaming thighs, Azis is the embodiment of genderfuck glory. Oh, and his Rihanna-red wig gives me life for days.
2. Grafa & Bobo featuring Pechenkata, “Dim Da Me Niama.” Bulgarian rap is pretty terrific, not least because of grammatical idiosyncrasies that make the language rich in rhyming, percussive syllables. This song might not be the best example for excellence, but it was ubiquitous one summer I was in Bulgaria, and it makes an appearance in the final pages of What Belongs to You. The title, which also serves as chorus, is impossible to translate: it means something like “I’m outta here,” but accompanied by an image of disappearing in smoke (dim), like the roadrunner speeding away in the cartoon. Again, I recommend the video, not least for the appearance of Pechenkata (Adriana Nikolova), an amazing female beatboxer.
3. Richard Strauss, “Es gibt ein Reich” from Ariadne auf Naxos, sung by Jessye Norman. Ariadne auf Naxos has a pretty terrific set up: two groups of performers, one tragic and grand, one lowbrow and burlesque, are scheduled to sing for the richest man in Vienna. Strauss’s opera begins with an argument about who should go first, but then there’s a change of plans: time is short, they’ll have to perform at the same time. What follows is a brilliant mix of slapstick and gorgeousness, and the most sublime moment is this aria sung by abandoned Ariadne, who longs for death with a sometimes disconcerting joy. Jessye Norman is one of the marvels of the twentieth century, and she sings Strauss’s deadly long, unbelievably lush lines better than anyone. She’s technically impeccable and extraordinarily controlled; the effect is pure emotion.
4. Benjamin Britten, Phaedra, sung by Dame Janet Baker. In just over fifteen minutes, Britten packs all the intensity of an opera into this cantata for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra, a setting of parts of Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine. Britten is my favorite composer for voice, in large part because, in a medium that often paints with broad strokes, his music is so attuned to the nuances of emotion; he’s the Henry James of opera. (It’s no accident that one of his great works is The Turn of the Screw.) There’s an intensity and continuity of dramatic action that thrills me in Phaedra, his last composition for voice. And it’s achieved with a remarkable economy of means: the same musical material returns again and again, like a mind turning over the same thought, correcting and developing it: in this, too, he resembles James. This piece was never far from my thoughts as I worked on the first section of my novel. I’m not sure I know another work of art that captures so powerfully the proximity of ecstasy and abjection.
5. Björk, “Black Lake,” from Vulnicura. I’ve loved Bjork since I was in high school, but nothing prepared me for the emotional impact of this ten-minute song; I’m devastated every time I listen to it. No quality in art moves me more than defenselessness, especially when emotional vulnerability is paired, as it is here, with aesthetic fearlessness. The song subjects the listener to intensities of various kinds: the stillness of chords held beyond the point of comfort; aggressively driving beats. And above it all is Björk’s voice, at once broken and soaring. Like Jessye Norman, she’s a singer of total commitment—which is another kind of vulnerability, another kind of fierceness. More than anything else, it’s that commitment I strive for when I write.
Garth Greenwell and What Belongs to You links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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guest book reviews
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