July 27, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Gina Ochsner's second novel The Hidden Letters of Velta B. impressively melds history with magical realism.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"In Ochsner's...strange, vivid second novel, a woman in a tiny Latvian village traces the magic-infused story of her life...Through bizarre, often hilarious vignettes featuring a cast of colorful characters and slapstick moments, Inara's tale comes to light… Ochsner has created an entire town filled with characters who display eccentric habits and engage in sharp-tongued banter, bringing a touch of believability to even the book's most out-there anecdotes. Humor, mythology, and an immersive setting, as well as a few poignant and visceral moments as family secrets are revealed, render this a memorable tale."
I had no idea how much music would be at the heart of my latest novel The Hidden Letters of Velta B. The novel is set in eastern Latvia and follows the lives of a family who has been caretakers of the town cemetery. I knew early on in the research that history would be important. I thought I would collect old wives tales, jokes, recipes and thread a storyline out of the typical misunderstandings that all so often exist in small town populated by flamboyant and eccentric people. This was a fine place to start. But the more I travelled to eastern Latvia and the more I spent time simply listening, I realized that a huge part of Latvian culture is its music. Particularly important to Latvian culture are the thousands upon thousands of old songs called dainas. Just about everyone I talked to knew many of these old songs and had learned them as children. Some of the songs seemed to me of a more whimsical nature or like a riddle. Some described protocols of courtship and marrying. Some were laments. Others expressed outrage over the oppression Latvians have suffered at the hands of foreign occupiers. There were songs, Ligo songs, specifically sung for Jani Day or St. John's Day, a special mid-summer celebration that starts in the evening and goes until dawn. I attended a book fair in Sweden at which Latvia was featured as the "guest" nation. Several of the events showcased Latvian authors and issues relevant to current Latvian culture, politics and literature. At one event former president Vaira Vike-Freiberga explained the importance of language and music as preservers of identity and history for Latvians. She concluded her remarks by reciting a daina:
My mother died singing
And so did my father
And so will I
After I die, I will go on singing
With my sister
We'll stand on our gravestones and sing
That's when I knew that music had to be at the core of any story about Latvia.
Which makes the following track list especially baffling. Not one song is of Latvian origin. But somehow, to my odd, peculiar way of thinking, each of these songs shaped or spoke to a character in the novel. Maybe the better way to say it, is each of these songs spoke to me as I was thinking about characters and what they might be feeling. I've grouped them roughly into four categories: Klezmer, Romani, and Classical.
Klezmatics: Jews With Horns
Ever had a bad day when nothing, and I do mean nothing goes right? The toilet backs up, the dog gets sick all over Very Important Documents, and the transmission drops out in the driveway in a pile of metal and oily goo, and that's just the beginning? We've all had these kinds of days. The badness seems to create its own universe spiraling in a vortex, the center of which is you. That is the same day, of course—of course—you are Seriously Reprimanded at work, an email alerts you that someone has made fraudulent purchases with your credit card, a Close Personal Friend sends chilly vibes signaling the beginning of the end. What to do? Three options:
Weep and howl while yanking out your hair
Watch Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote and tell yourself you are just as smart and capable as the roadrunner, the rest of the world has yet to recognize this
Listen to Jews with Horns by The Klezmatics. Seriously. I can think of no one else whose music instantly makes me forget my troubles. Their work is, in their own words "wild, mystical, provocative, reflective . . " "Man in a Hat" for example is a song that makes your feet move, even if they feel like they weigh a hundred pounds. That's the enchantment of music. It speaks to the body and the soul. In the novel, one of the characters, Joels, is part of a Jazz/Klezmer band and when narrator hears them play she can't help but fall in love with this man who somehow takes a lifetime of sorrow and hurt and makes something magical out of it. She falls for him and he for her, like meat for salt. She learns that when he was young he was begrudgingly raised by an aunt who didn't like him and kept him cooped up in a mudroom most of the time. Most people would go barking mad. But Joels, a man she realizes has music thrumming through his veins, watched the play of shadow and light, the way the window cast lines—empty bars of music on the walls. Every sound from every bird, every call from an owl or rush of wind he translated into notes that rose and fell along the wall.
The Giora Feidman Jazz Experience: Klezmer Meets Jazz
Several of the songs on the CD whirled though my mind as I was writing the opening chapters of the novel. I think I played the CD non-stop for about six months. My kids begged me to play something, anything else. But no. Giora Feidman it was. Why? Well, why not. Who else captures the quick light quality of joy which can only be understood as sorrow's shadow. The songs are a complex whirl, light and quick at times and at others dolorous and pensive. The intricate play of melody and harmony, the weaving together and apart, resolves and clarifies into singular lucidity. The notes rise and fall, it's a melody that haunts, piercing and raw like a toothache—you can't leave it alone. I found myself humming it while making soups or hanging laundry out on the line. I was thinking of the character of the grandmother, Velta, who had such a hard life marked with such few joys. But she did have music and music saved her. Ordinary language couldn't contain her grief and her sorrow. She had to find a more capacious, expansive language. Music became her refuge and hiding place where she could write her thoughts and observations coded in musical score, the notes flying across the bars like birds set loose. I listen to these songs , particularly "Freilach Chadash" and "Simply Nigun", appreciating the depth and complexity and loving the fact that they reflect a sort of truth: life isn't simple and it was never meant to be.
After six months of hearing my kids make alternate requests, I finally relented. To my surprise one choice that earned unanimous approval Luminescent Orchestrii's Too Hot To Sleep. "Amaritsi" in particular, I heard them play live at a McMenamins in Oregon. They played a "Kolemeike" a gorgeous lively reel and then they launched into a Moldovan lullaby. I've never heard anything that moved me more. As they played, the air left the room and we sat numb, silent, and utterly spellbound. The lullaby starts with one violin then another joins in, and then another. One violin is the tall grass by a river, the next the sway of the endless fields of sunflowers that mark the Moldovan countryside. Another violin is the wind rustling through the trees. And the final violin is a mother's quiet prayer. When they finished we sat, again numb, awestruck that something so beautiful had been created and shared and that we were so lucky as to have witnessed it.
Another track "Rabbi in Palestine" tugged at me and I found myself hitting the replay on it over. As with most of this group's work, strings carry the show. Listening to it is like listening to a story being told of a long history unfolding over time. The opening segment vocals have a folk sound, a sort of framing device to the body of the piece. Each segment returns to or incorporates somehow the opening melody. But each segment stands alone as a miniature story within the larger story. Each segment holds its own interior conversation even while adding to the whole. And I find again a similar trope: joy and sorrow. Why is it that one can't exist without the other? Listening to this piece calls to mind something Theodore Roethke wrote in "The Moment": "What else to say? --We end in joy." It's a sentiment echoed by Karl Knausgaard in his book A Time For Everything: "One does not argue with joy; one surrenders to it."
Via Romen: Noevo Russian-Romany Music: My Two Homes
Every one of these songs I imagined being sung by Stanka, a Roma character in the novel whose life is inextricably bound with the narrator's (Inara). Stanka is the wise woman who knows or claims to know the answer to any problem: how to get a man, how to get rid of man, how to curse in five languages and cause someone's tomato vines to wither, what to do if you've been insulted, how to cure eczema, the true and correct way to quiet a ghost. She dispenses advice whether anyone wants it or not. And she is a treasure trove of song. She knows the songs sung while traveling, the songs that tell what happened to so many of her tribe at Auschwitz, the songs that remind us that life is for living. In particular Vadim Kopakov's artistry radiates in track 1 "Amare Chavare" (Our Children) and track 12 "Remembrance".
For a period of about two and half years the research for the novel stalled. I simply could not move past page 211. I had written myself into a corner. After those two and some odd years (or maybe during?) I realized that I didn't know the characters as well as I needed to. I plunged into a mini-depression that I now refer to as a Creative Funk. I should have taken my own advice and listened to more Klezmer during this time period. Instead, I listened to what I call Sad Classical. In particular I seemed fixated on Clare de Lune by Debussy, Chopin's Nocturne in E flat Major, and Eric Satie's Gymnopedie and Gnossienne . I went through boxes and boxes of Kleenex. But the beauty of the lyrical lines restored my faith in beauty itself. It also solidified whatever despair I was feeling about my own work. After thirty six months of Sad Classical, I decided to move on. Push through. Write that damn ending even if it kills me, or most of the characters. What I learned from those months is that there is a sort of shambling value to my broken, not-quite-there-yet-work and that I shouldn't give up. I also discovered that art fosters art. Beauty cultivates beauty, truth—large and small—generates inspires more of the same. I am grateful to these masters for reminding me of this.
Gina Ochsner and The Hidden Letters of Velta B. 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
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