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August 16, 2016

Book Notes - Forrest Leo "The Gentleman"

The Gentleman

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Forrest Leo's debut novel The Gentleman may be the most fun book I will read all year.

Electric Literature wrote of the book:

"Leo has a whimsical gift…His characters are rich with personality and eccentricity…Leo brings [them] to life with charm, wit, and pomp, and he builds a fully realized — if not a little wacky — Victorian London teeming with adventure and mystery…And yet, so much of the novel's great appeal comes from the hilariously realistic way in which it depicts the quirkiness of writers, the idiosyncratic relationships between them, and the painstaking work of their editors."


In his own words, here is Forrest Leo's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Gentleman:


After several dreadful false starts (thematic groupings! Victorian music hall favorites! one track from each of the playlists I listened to while I wrote!) I broke down The Gentleman by character and paired each of the ten key players with a piece of music. I basically gave them theme songs, Peter and the Wolf style. At first I did so with trepidation, because musical associations are hard to shake — but then calmed myself with the realization that if you started to whistle Boccherini every time you thought of Lizzie Savage I actually wouldn’t be sorry at all.



Savage — Vivaldi — Farnace: Sinfonia, Andante

Listen to the way this begins — the ambivalence, the uncertainty. The fitful fiddles. There’s a moment of pause, things have almost been resolved, but then the ambivalence begins again. The ambivalence grows, comes to a moment of epiphany, halts at the brink of a cliff — and then plunges off into exuberance. The whole piece opens up. The ambivalence returns — can never fully be broken free of — but there’s been a change. The exuberance is there now, inextricably. There’s a romance, a sense of adventure, that wasn’t there before, and that is now woven through the piece. Nothing could suit my poor muddled poet better.

Vivien — Mozart, Violin Concerto No. 3, Movement III

Like Vivien, Mozart is unassailable. He is always a step ahead, and usually several. He is elegance itself, without sacrificing a jot of feeling. He is all that is wholly admirable. He is funny and wise and knowing. And when, halfway through this piece, the plucking begins and the single fiddle tells its tale, I defy you not to smile.

Lizzie — Boccherini — Musica Notturna

This is my favorite piece of music ever written. It’s sprightly, deep, at once glitteringly easy and somehow profound. It begins and you think you know where it’s going, but you don’t at all. By the time it breaks into pizzicato and the central melody begins, all you can do is be swept along by its charm, wit, and goodwill. Savage was built in pieces, slowly, with refinement here and false starts there. But Lizzie sprang like Athena fully formed into this world, with a twinkle in her eye and a rejoinder on her lips. This piece belongs to her.

Lancaster — Beethoven — 9th Symphony, Movement IV

Forget how often you’ve heard the Ode to Joy, forget the bad commercials that try to cheapen it, forget the unfortunate ditties you sang to its tune in elementary school. Lie down, close your eyes, listen to it from start to finish, and marvel. It’s an exquisite piece, filled with bombast, life, and (to avoid at all costs the word “joy”) delight. It’s overbearing, but even as you’re overborne you cannot help but welcome it. Like the big adventurer, it is what it is because it cannot contain its sheer joy at being alive. (Damn.)

Tompkins — Kronos Quartet, Vladimir Martynov — The Beatitudes

To me, this piece signifies all that is beautiful in the world. (I fittingly first heard it playing over the end credits of my favorite movie, The Great Beauty — which end credits, incidentally, are the most perfect in the history of film.) Tompkins has the soul of a poet with none of the ego. He is a fountain of wisdom for wisdom’s sake, a lover of books and beauty and art. There is no music more fitting for him.

Simmons — Juan Arañés — Chacona: A La Vida Bona

There’s something of the gypsy in Simmons. Beneath the exterior of the parfit gentil butler, there’s something unruly and resolute. He is, after all, the man responsible for the rearing of the eccentric and occasionally scandalous Savage siblings. It was only after I’d chosen this song for him that I learned it was written as musical accompaniment for a rendition of Don Quixote.

Will Kensington — Dvorak — New World Symphony, Movement III

Will Kensington is polite to a fault, easygoing, indecisive, and idolizes his older siblings. But there’s a lust for life and sense of adventure that flares in his demure breast and belies his surface diffidence. It was, for him, an even tossup between Dvorak and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Dvorak won out for his vigor, and for his easy swing between swashbuckling gusto and idyllic lyricism.

Hubert — Handel — Water Music, Movement X

Like Hubert, this piece is uninteresting, pompous, and somehow at the same time hugely likeable and possessed of the deepest nobility.

The Gentleman — Beethoven — String Quartet 13, Movement IV

This piece is exquisitely coy. It hints at depths it never quite reveals, and does so with all the ingenuous goodwill in the world. It seems reluctant to impose upon you, but being present resolves to pass the time drolly and in just such a way that you will not be too much put out. It’s mercurial and wiser than it lets on, and surely if it invited you to Hell it would do so without the least thought of your eternal damnation.

Pocklington Place — Corelli — Christmas Concerto, Movement II

Pocklington Place, the Savages’ townhouse, gets its own piece because despite having not a single line of dialogue and being in the strictest sense of the word inanimate, it is every bit as much of a player in this story as any of the abovementioned men and women. Its stout walls and winding stairways hold the family together, and expand the very definition of the term. I’ve chosen Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, rather than something livelier, because a house is not lively: its inhabitants are. Pocklington Place, and this concerto, is gentle, beautiful, kind, and wise. It will cradle you when you fall down and then raise you back up again.


Forrest Leo and The Gentleman links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Electric Literature review
Kirkus review
Locus Online review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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