April 19, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jonathan Levi's novel Septimania is an ambitious and imaginative epic.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"[L]aced with philosophy and wit. A thoroughly intellectual postmodern fable, wise yet melancholy, meant to be read slowly and savored."
Septimania opens in the organ loft of a Norman church outside Cambridge, England, where my hero, Malory, loses his heart and his virginity to a dyslexic math genius named Louiza. While Malory's repertoire tends more to Bach's famous "Toccata and Fugue", the year is 1978 and the airwaves are redolent with the patchouli of another Bachanalia, Procul Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale". I grew up playing the violin. Bach was god. But with a father who sang Hank Williams and friends who played Frank Zappa, musical monotheism was not an option. My first concert at the Fillmore East in 1972 featured one of the organ heroes of the 70s, the bare-chested, big-haired (and sadly, recently departed) Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, who unified the classical and the rock world with his two-fisted rendition of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
Much of the inspiration for Septimania came from my own experience as a student at Clare College, Cambridge in the late 70s. June 12, 1978 found me crashing the Trinity College May Ball with the girl who inspired Louiza. We snuck in via the river, easier than braving the porters by the main entrance next to the rooms where Malory, and before him his scientific muse Isaac Newton lived. The main band at the Ball was called The Attractions, fronted by a skinny guy with glasses and enough hot fusion to unify pop, punk, poetry and blast the home of Newton and Malory into orbit. Three days later, according to the Gospel of You Tube, Elvis and the boys played the same song in Cologne.
While at Cambridge, I busked for lunch money with a guitarist named Andy Metcalfe and a few of his mates who had a band called The Softboys. Fronted by Robyn Hitchcock who went on to create The Egyptians, the band played eclectic Syd Barrett-style tunes with titles like "Leppo and the Jooves" and "The Kingdome of Love". I sat in with them on electric violin at The Portland Arms and other pubs, on their surrealistic covers of "The Book of Love" and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," which featured the guitar of Kimberley Rew who went on to form Katrina and the Waves and make his fortune with a somewhat different song, "Walking on Sunshine."
When Malory loses his grant and Louiza disappears, he runs off to Rome to pick up an inheritance. In a city reeling from the assassination of Aldo Moro, Malory finds that he has inherited the Kingdom of Septimania, given by Charlemagne in the 8th century to the Jews of southern France. Yet Malory's modern Septimania consists mostly of a villa hidden beneath the Aventine hill of Rome. Rome, where I've lived for the past ten years, is indeed a city of layers, of secrets buried by the fall and rise of many empires. Renaissance palaces stand on the shoulders of Roman temples. Michelangelo rubs shoulders with Julius Caesar. " As Bob Dylan wrote in "When I Paint My Masterpiece": there are "ancient footprints everywhere. It almost feels like you're seeing double, on a cold dark night on the Spanish Stairs."
Although he is King of Septimania (and Holy Roman Emperor, King of the Jews, and possibly Caliph of All Islam) Malory is without Louiza and alone. He is taken in by another pair of exiles, Tibor and his wife Cristina. Every night, after their menial jobs are over, Tibor and Cristina gather The Bomb Squad and The Nurses, a loose group of fellow Rumanians, to drink and sing in a Mittel Europa cabaret of the kind perfectly captured in the films of Emir Kusturiça and his manic Sarajevan composer, Goran Bregovic.
Meanwhile, Louiza has been spirited off to a house just north of New York City, where, in a vague fugue state, she solves complex mathematical problems involving imaginary numbers for a shadowy American intelligence organization. One days, she comes to and realizes that a number of unimaginable things have happened to her. At that moment, she begins to hear music and sees a kick-ass, all-girl band—The Unimaginables. When I imagined these wonder women in PVC and dirndls, I visualized The Runaways, the all-girl hard rock quintet featuring Joan Jett on guitar and Cherie Currie on lead vocals, whose anthem to the power of female sexuality, "Cherry Bomb" hit the charts in 1976.
In 2002, I flew to Prague and drove to the little town of Lelekovice in an attempt to persuade the Czech singer Iva Bittova to star in a chamber version of the opera Don Giovanni. Iva wasn't an opera singer. But I'd been smitten with Iva's music only the month before, a sentiment I shared with Vaclav Havel, the writer, president and all-round Czech hero, who was her Number One fan. Iva was a popular movie star in her early twenties, but is best known for singing Czech folk and gypsy songs while accompanying herself on the violin. "Ne neheldj" (No, no one look) was the song that set me in search of her, magicked by her incantatory fiddle and witchy voice.
It has been thirty-eight years since I met Andy, fourteen since I met Iva, and twenty-four since I published my first novel A Guide for the Perplexed. And yet recording "Unimaginable" for the book trailer for Septimania, was the work of a single, unified moment. As Malory and Louiza discover, over the fifty-year search that is Septimania, time and love can be as strong and as flexible as gravity.
Jonathan Levi and Septimania links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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