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May 8, 2017

Book Notes - Elanor Dymott "Silver and Salt"

Silver and Salt

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.

Elanor Dymott's novel Silver and Salt is a haunting psychological portrait of how childhood trauma affects the present.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Elegiac, devastating....[a] gut-wrenching, achingly intimate look at grief and how closely art and life intertwine."

In her own words, here is Elanor Dymott's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Silver and Salt:

Rusalka's 'Song to the Moon', from Rusalka by Antonin Dvořák, performed by Renée Fleming with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras

In my novel, British celebrity photographer Max Hollingbourne is sent to Sadler's Wells by the editor of Vogue. It's March, 1959, and his commission is to shoot the dress rehearsal for Rusalka, and, afterwards, the star, Joan Hammond, in her dressing room. When he delivers a folder of prints of the understudy for the role of first wood-nymph, instead, he is promptly fired. The understudy, Sophie, is half-French and half-English. Just 22 and straight out of the Royal Academy opera course, she is at the threshold of a glittering career. Later that night, deep in the Kent countryside, she and Max become lovers. Months on, her father warns her, 'this is a man who will steal your soul and silence you.' Sophie, who is already pregnant with Max's daughter, says to her father, 'I know, Papa. But it's too late now.'

Dvořák, with his poet-librettist, Jaroslav Kvapil, made the opera, Rusalka, from a fairy-tale. First performed in Prague in 1901, its tragic heroine is the daughter of the Spirit of the Lake. In her show-stopper aria, 'The Song to the Moon,' Rusalka confesses her desire: she has fallen for a prince, whom she has seen out hunting by her father's lake. She asks her father how she can become human, so that she can be with her prince. Her father, with a heavy heart, tells her to go to the witch in the woods. The witch's instructions come with two warnings. First, her transformation will render her mute. Second, if her prince turns out to be faithless, the pair will be forever damned.

The prince is enraptured by his new love, and marries her. When she has nothing to say for herself, though, he turns to another, and the witch's warning plays out.

I can't remember which came first for me: Rusalka, or Silver and Salt. In any case, I had Sophie's story, and Rusalka worked: I wanted to write about what happens when someone who has a voice, or another creative gift, is prevented from fulfilling their dreams.

Thinking about how to place the story of Rusalka in my novel, I looked at how others had nested a tale within a tale, and settled on the straightforward method favoured by Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained. One night on their ride across America, the bounty hunter and Django, on their quest to rescue Broomhilda, make camp and light a fire. In the shadows of the flames, the tale is told.

One night when Vinny and her sister, Ruthie, are very young, Max returns to Pennerton House from a trip to Mauritius. The family sit by the fire in the Long Library, and Max asks Sophie to tell them a story. Vinny requests Rusalka, and Sophie begins, "In this woodland was a clearing. And in this clearing was a lake, and on the shore of the lake was a cottage." The girls fall asleep before the story is done, and Sophie finishes it for them later, in bed. She tells them, too, what she had felt like when she sang opera. "I stopped being myself. I became my voice not my body. Once I began I never touched the ground and I never looked down and I was carried through the sky and I was free."

Plenty of megastars have recorded The Song to the Moon. My favourite recording is this one, by Renée Fleming. She captures something of Sophie, as she'd have sounded before she met Max. All is hope and yearning.

'Du Bist Die Ruh', Franz Schubert, performed by Katheen Ferrier and Bruno Walter

This is Schubert's setting of Friedrich Rückert's poem. At Pennerton once, Max and Sophie argue about some inscriptions she has painted on the wall. In an attempt to calm him, she hums him a phrase from this song. He resists, saying he doesn't know what it means, and she translates the phrase, 'You are longing and what stills it.' In the morning, she comes down to finds he has written his own inscription on the wall, in the form of some words about love.

For a time the couple are reconciled. Soon afterwards, she is pregnant with the baby Emile.

After Schubert set the poem, Rückert renamed it, 'Peace.' It expresses for me what the Hollingbourne family might have enjoyed, were it not for Max's anger. In the Ferrier version, there is the fragility of that house at Pennerton, and of that family. The Rückert text expresses what they might have been, and what Sophie, when she hums it that morning in the kitchen at Pennerton, thinks might still be possible.

'Comes Love', comp. Sam H Stept, lyrics Lew Brown and Charles Tobias. Performed by Billie Holiday

The 1957 recording is at an easy pace. It has none of the upbeat jaunty kick other singers bring to this 1939 standard, but instead a languid kind of hazy helplessness, which captures what it is to be in love with the wrong kind of guy. Unlike a heatwave, when one can hurry to the shore, or a nightmare, when one can always stay awake: 'Comes love, nothin' can be done.' That was Sophie's fate, the night she fell for Max.

Spiegel im Spiegel, by Arvo Pärt, performed by Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe

The title of this piece means 'Mirror in a Mirror.' I heard it by chance the first time, early one morning on BBC radio 3. I was held fast until it was through, and had it on replay for a lot of the years of writing Silver and Salt. It expresses exactly the suspended glassy tranquillity which sometimes emerged for the Hollingbourne family at Pennerton, and was sometimes felt at the family's Greek villa by Ruthie in her adulthood. It's also like the sea off the Peloponneisan coast: endless, and soft, and glassy and perfect.

'Sack O' Woe', The Cannonball Adderley Quintet, from their album At The Lighthouse

The session was recorded live at The Lighthouse, Hermosa Beach, CA, in 1960. You can hear glasses being touched together, and people talking, laughing. Sometimes when I listen to it I imagine I can see hear the sea crashing on the shore outside. Thanking his audience, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley introduces the number like this.

"This a little tune, you know, you could call this one funky, that we do, that's based upon a rhythm that's a common one used dancing, and it has been used for a long time. This one is called, 'A Sack O' Woe.'"

Then there's the sound of fingers being clicked, the 'one, a-two, a-one-two-three' and they're away.

In Ruthie's teens, she works in her father's darkroom at Pennerton House as his quasi-assistant. He talks while he works, and she learns that he bought his first record in 1949 from a man called Vincent on the rue de La Huchette, and was introduced to jazz by a woman called Melanie. After his death, when the adult Ruthie returns to the family's villa in Greece, she restores his darkroom and sorts through his belongings. She finds his old records, and tapes them onto a reel-to-reel. Bringing the player downstairs to the courtyard, she persuades Vinny to dance with her to this Cannonball Adderley track. They dance so vigorously that Vinny's hair slips from its bright cloth band, and in the heat of the august evening, the two of them become sweaty. With a name like 'Sack O' Woe', you'd think this number might be sad. Far from it. I liked the idea of the sisters dancing like crazy, while thinking of their dad, whom they'd half-loved, half-hated.

'September Song' (Weill/Anderson) performed by Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown

This is another of the songs Ruthie plays those nights at the villa. In a roundabout kind of a way, it's a song about autumn, and loss, and love. Clifford Brown was Vaughan's sideman in this 1954 session, though he plays an equal part. The line he weaves is so delicate and so surprising.

'Breakin' Down the Walls of Heartache', Dexy's Midnight Runners

Rooting Silver and Salt in time was a really enjoyable job. My chronology chart for the novel starts in 1919 when Peter, the groundsman at Pennerton, was born. It ends in 2003. I didn't study history beyond my teens, and writing this novel was a really great way to learn something about what I'd missed. I thought about how other writers had done it with their novels, and wrote to a few to ask them, then I went to a talk hosted by the Society of Authors with Hilary Mantel. Asked a question about writing historical fiction, Mantel gave some advice: when a writer is stuck on something in a new book, she said, and are avoiding tackling it, that is exactly what they should focus on. Do the thing they are intimidated by, she said, and they will create energy in the work.

At the British Library the next day, I took her advice and made for the Newsroom. There I met Victor Bristoll, who talked to me about 70s and 80s popular music, of the sort Ruthie and Vinny would have listened to, heard, and argued about. It was pretty much new to me, and brilliant fun. I got recommendations too from a bunch of friends who had been in the habit of going to gigs in the 70s and 80s, and I listened to The Ramones, Siouxsie Sioux, Blondie, Depeche Mode, The Sex Pistols, Ultravox, 23 Skidoo, and The Blue Aeroplanes (a personal favourite). For the long days and nights Ruthie worked in her own darkroom in her teens, I imagined she would have chosen tracks like this one by Dexys Midnight Runners, and played it way too loud. Beatrice, her aunt, would have let her, and would have quite enjoyed hearing it through the floorboards. When a print came out how Ruthie had wanted it to, I imagine she'd have turned the volume up, and started on the next print.

'Alphabet Street', Prince

Some days, writing Silver and Salt, I wished I could write like Prince sang, danced, moved. On days like that, I'd put this on, and begin.

Elanor Dymott and Silver and Salt links:

the author's website

Booklist review
BookPage review
Daily Mail review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
Scotsman review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Every Contact Leaves A Trace

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