February 29, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Playful, smart, and original, Álvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death is one of the most engrossing novels I have read in years.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Joyfully disorienting… Enrigue's ambitious tale bends in on itself and will reward readers who won’t mind feeling like wanderers lost in the increasingly erudite corridors of Borges’ library of Babel."
A List of Not So Sexy Songs
One of the recordings I listened more frequently while writing Sudden Death was Cecilia Bartoli's Sacrificium. It's a collection of opera arias written for castrati singers that rescued vocal music that had not been sung since the 18th century. There is a beautiful awkwardness in the lower register that la Bartoli found to recreate a kind of human voice that has not been heard in a couple of centuries. And there is, of course, something deep and very dark and revolting there: the fact that is music composed to be sang by brutalized boys. Something to remember that modern art comes, as modern economy or modern borders, from the ugliest part of us.
I listened, too, in an obsessive way, to Bach's Wedding Cantatas, in the recording done by Emma Kirkby with The Academy of Ancient Music. The age of the Cantatas does not justify the selection: the pieces are 120 years younger than the paintings of Caravaggio, but it was Bach who pulled the trigger in the field of music of that mysterious, big and monstrous thing that is modern beauty: the desperate search for the spot where harmonies become rare without breaking apart; the rejoicing, the almost sexual pleasure we feel in the pain of the virtuoso; the obsession with distorting nature. Ms Kirkby's voice in conversation with the oboe during the first aria produces a sequence of sounds that are a triumph over nature and, consequently, the beginning of our defeat as a species: an animal that can do that is also an animal that can fuck up the world.
The same thing happens with Mozart's Vesperae solennes de confesore in the version of Eugene Jochum –the German conductor had the particularity of looking exactly like my Catalonian grandfather, whom I loved madly. The fifth movement, "Laudate Dominum" has an almost hallucinogenic quality: the childish simplicity of the theme proposed by the cords, its repetition by the soprano in such a slow way that it almost decomposes in a group of unrelated sostenuti; the choir variation, which returns to a faster pace so it generates a contrast with the coda: that absurdly, gloriously long and melismatic "Amen" that in Jochim's version takes 25 seconds to develop from the "A" to the "n."
There was a lot of Nina Simone keeping me company as I worked, but for no particular reason except that there is always a lot of the divine Nina Simone in my life.
Sudden Death advances through fast, short, chapters that emulate the speed of a tennis match. And it is loyal to a binary structure: it evolves trough fast-paced confrontations between positives and negatives. Debussy's Petite Suite for 4 Hands works more or less the same way. I particularly like the Menuet: it's elegant but doesn't fear to be melodramatic. It's all about confrontation and integration, almost a tango. I listened to it so many times that it would have worn out if it were not because, while writing, I listen to music in the ugly MP3 format—a medium so poor that you listen at most to half of what was actually recorded—mainly because you don't have to stand up to change sides.
I like Derek Jarman's film: Caravaggio. It's bold, brave, offers a possible, serious reading of the Lombard painter as a modern pioneer in a period in which a lot of people were looking backwards in search of what had been lost when the Renaissance faded. But I respectfully disagreed in one point with the director's decisions: I think that Jarman modeled his Caravaggio after the figure of David Bowie and it's my impression that he was more like Keith Richards. So there were a lot of Rolling Stones involved in the writing process of the novel. That great riff of "Gimme Shelter": simple, crude, effective –a Richard's best. There is the density of the bass, that when added to the riff produces a tissue so dense not a single ray of light could go through it; and there is one of the best performances of Mr. Jagger, reaching a Motown register in the choirs. The resentment of the winners who think they are losers, so present in pieces like "Beast of Burden" or "Play with Fire" is also all over Sudden Death.
Some friends of mine, respected but not universally acclaimed contemporary composers, tend to despise the work of Phillip Glass. I think that there is more envy than solid arguments in that discussion, but maybe I am just a melomaniac, an enthusiast. Or maybe I am just a big-eared man. I like the hypnotic quality that Mr. Glass' early minimalist period left in his more recent compositions, I like that if you could put one of his pieces in perspective, the apex in which all lines would get together would reach the 19the century. His music shamelessly claims the heritage of the Romantic period: if you repeat very few notes enough times putting the accent in orchestration, they eventually find a meaning of their own. I work a little bit like that, producing patterns that eventually find what they were trying to say through superimposition. While writing Sudden Death I listened to Mr. Glass' takes on Kafka's Metamorphosis –which can be found in the record Solo Piano—and also a longer piece, in six movements, which I like even if it has a really silly name: Glassworks. While moving through the book, I always thought that I would like that its brief epic episodes could have the tumultuous energy of the second act of Satyagraha. Satyagraha is my favorite Glass opera, perhaps for whimsical reasons: I am sure that the first scene of the first act –"Tolstoy"—is the steroidal re-elaboration of an old afro-Mexican song from the Gulf Coast –a son jarocho—named "El Pijul". Andres Huesca's version of "El Pijul" is the best recording we have of it.
It was a tough year, the one in which I finished the novel. Moving back to the US had resulted brutally expensive and my career as a writer was not really going anywhere. New York was becoming claustrophobic, but we didn't have any good reason to go back to Mexico City. Finishing Sudden Death had not felt like a liberation: I knew it was the best I could do in that moment, but I was not sure it was readable, or that if someone read it they would say that it really was a novel. My editor called me one day to say that he had loved it, but that this was the last time he would publish an extreme book. "I've tried to get you as many readers as I can," he said, "but you are not helping." Then, against all odds, the novel won the Herralde Prize. It was printed fast-track and launched. The reaction of the media and the critics was disproportionate with respect to anything I knew. Reprints, more prizes. It was vertiginous: the planes, the non-stop cocktails, the bids. Literary good luck comes with a wave of nonsense: it feels like a bad movie, it's disconcerting and produces a kind of anxiety that makes sitting down to do one's work impossible. One quiet night, drinking a glass of wine in our studio, my wife told me: "If you see Álvaro Enrigue, please tell him to return so we can enjoy all of this together." She played Patti Smith's cover of Dylan's "The Changing of the Guards," maybe meaning that the moment for a turning point had arrived and what was going on was just normal after so many years of hard work--and could be enjoyed! Not that the song says anything like that, but in Spanish that's what its title would mean: Cambio de guardia. We listened to the song frequently in the very messy last weeks of the year, we listened to it when we could be alone and in our studio. We spent New Year's Eve at home, with the kids and a very small but very close group of friends. She put the song again at 12 sharp and I felt so relieved, and so happy, and so welcomed back into our own life.
Álvaro Enrigue and Sudden Death links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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