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June 15, 2018

Carla Guelfenbein's Playlist for Her Novel "In the Distance with You"

In the Distance with You

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

Chilean author Carla Guelfenbein's novel In the Distance with You is a nuanced and poignant literary mystery.

Garth Greenwell wrote of the book:

"The subject of this profound and intricate novel is the irreducible mystery at the core of every person, the buried lines of history and desire that render us inscrutable even to ourselves. Carla Guelfenbein is an important and powerful writer, and this translation is a gift to English-language readers."

In her own words, here is Carla Guelfenbein's Book Notes music playlist for her novel In the Distance with You:

Contigo en la distancia (In the Distance With You) by Cesar Portillo de la Cruz
Everybody in Latin America has heard the Cuban bolero Contigo en la distancia. The song came back to me one morning when I was walking through the streets of Habana with a friend. Suddenly I heard a man singing this song while cleaning the windows of a house. My friend started to follow him, singing with him, and soon a woman next door joined too. It became clear to me that this song should be the title of the novel. It accurately portrays the character's relationships: The two couples of the novel, Emilia and Daniel, Vera and Horacio, are bound by strong affections, love, longing, desire, and their past history, but at the same time, they are condemned to distance, both emotional and geographic. In a way, this song conveys the main theme in all my novels: the difficulties, and sometimes the impossibility, of really connecting with each other.

Sposa son disprezzata (“I am a Scorned Wife”): by Vivaldi, Cecilia Bartoli version
This aria accompanied me through the writing of this novel. Bartoli's voice sounds alone, far away, as if she’s talking to herself but longing to be heard by someone. That was the feeling I wanted to convey in my characters.

Je veux (“I Want”) by Isabelle Geffroy
I always relate each character of my novels with a particular harmony, a rhythm, a musician, an author, or a song. This relationship can work in different levels and ways, but the most important one is the one that cannot be seen on the surface. It works from the inside. The sound of Je veux is the soul of Emilia. The daring and hopeful spirit of the singer, the freshness of her voice, and her earthy jazz sound, are all inside Emilia's character. However, Emilia doesn’t know she has all these qualities. She travels from France to Chile, searching for the mysterious cult writer Vera Sigall. Emilia is fragile and alone. Little does she know that everything is there for her to find: wisdom, love, and answers to her own tormenting mysteries. She just has to find her sound.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan
Vera Sigall, the main character, is inspired by many different women, including Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer. But above all, she is inspired by my mother, who died when I was 17. She was a philosopher, and like Vera, she was very much ahead of her time. She could listen to Dylan's songs over and over again. Many times I heard her say he was the best poet of his generation, and that he should get the Nobel Prize. This song in particular relates profoundly to the novel, as it portrays, among other things, how lives can grow apart by words unsaid.

Stabat Mater by Pergolesi
I imagined Horacio, Vera's eternal lover, listening to the Stabat Mater in his living room, at dawn, all alone, smoking his pipe, and looking through the window at the movements of the river. Horacio is a famous poet surrounded by tradition, by the celestial voices of the singers, but at the same time, he’s a small man who desperately holds to his certainties to scare away his phantoms and his dreadful fear of failure.

Der Lindenbaum by Schubert
I could see Vera listening to this Lieder, which is the song that Hans Castrop sings in the Magic Mountain while knowing he is going to die very soon. It is the same tragic destiny that Vera feels when she edits Horacio's poems, giving them an invisible blow, creating works that Horacio can't ever reproduce because he lacks the talent to do it. In doing so, Vera knows she is killing his worship for her and opening the door for resentment. But she does it anyway, because her love for him is greater than her fear of losing him.

Ne me quitte pas (‘Don’t Leave Me’) by Jacques Brel
One of the most perfect love songs of all times is actually the song that Jacques Brel wrote when he failed to commit to his lover, the actress Zizou. She was alone and pregnant with his baby, he was married, and he left her. The song turns around reality perfectly. Don’t leave me/You have to forget/ Everything can be forgotten/ Forget the time/The misunderstandings/ /I will offer you/ Pearls made of rain / Coming from countries / Where it never rains/ I will work the earth / Until I die/ To cover your body / With gold and light. Brel, like Horacio in In the Distance with You, changes reality to make it fit with his needs. They are both cowards in life, and heroes in words.

Just Like Heaven by The Cure
This song, which I listened to over and over when I was younger, has a spirit that I try to put into my writing: That strangeness, and at the same time that transparency. You, soft and only, /you lost and lonely/ You, strange as angels /Dancing in the deepest oceans. These are the kind of feelings I wanted to convey in Emilia and Daniel. They know that reality is not just made up of what they can see. So they look for that other dimension, sometimes naively but other times deliberately and consciously.

One of Us Cannot Be Wrong by Leonard Cohen
One of the things I love about this song is the multiple interpretations that it has received over the years. Most people think that Cohen was talking about a woman, but I always believed that his subjects were power, splendor, and wealth. He mocks them. This song perfectly portrays what Daniel, the fourth character of the novel, is feeling. Daniel was condemned to possess a strange and powerful physical beauty, which he despises. His real self has become elusive, even to himself. His marriage to Gracia, a very powerful woman, increasingly separates him from himself. But when Emilia appears in his life, he realizes that he might be able to find his way back.

Gracias a la vida (“Thanks to Life”) by Violeta Parra
This song, by one of the most important authors in Latin America, is at once an homage to life, and a goodbye. In the song Violeta Parra names all the things life gave her that she’s thankful for. But at same time, there is a tragic tone in the song, which makes you feel like she is leaving life. Vera, the protagonist, is in a coma. We don't know whether she is going to come back. Life has been generous and mean to her. One wonders what is behind those closed eyes, behind her peaceful and old traits. Many times, when I looked at her in my writing, I could hear this song in my mind.

Carla Guelfenbein and In the Distance with You links:

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