In this post I discuss “The Prague Sonata” by Bradford Morrow and “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells” by Andrew Sean Greer, .
I have read much less than usual this month for reasons joyous and not so; friends and new beginnings belonging to the former category, my continuing health saga and personal stressors belonging to the latter. The relevance of beginning a book blog entry with this self-involved I-paragraph being I have become increasingly stingy with my time and increasingly prone to dropping off to sleep during what used to be my reading time. And it’s September, not just in 2017, but, in my life — for me, on this go round, it is at least Fall, if not Winter, and so my time — what I do with it and how I think about it — is of paramount concern. Which brought September Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson to mind. This lyric:
Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game
Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you
I am — during these, my precious days, careful with which books I choose to share myself, my thoughts, my heart. So you can be sure if I write about one, it has been at least a pleasant companion. Otherwise, I just fold after about page 50, thank it for its efforts, and move on. I don’t write about those books because even though I didn’t enjoy them, they are the product of someone’s heart and love and good intentions (almost always) and time, and I think to say unpleasant things about books (or, most anything except the current administration and all sorts of bigotry and hatred) is more damaging and revealing about the speaker than it is about the book.
Kindness is always a better choice, and very much needed in the world these days — so I am striving to have kindness be my default, even (especially?) in those instances when rage was once my go-to.
So, here are my latest reads, both of which, as coincidence (or not) would have it, have to do with time.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Andrew Sean Greer, Hardcover, 289pp, June 2013, Ecco Books
I recently read and loved Andrew Sean Greer’s latest novel, Less [which I talked about here] and so I determined to explore his backlist, thus, this 2013 book.
In 1985 Greta’s beloved brother, Felix, has died. Soon after, frustrated by Greta’s lack of energy for anything but mourning, her partner, Nathan, departs. Despite medication and the support of her devoted aunt, Ruth, Greta is inconsolable. She agrees to electro-convulsive therapy, the first treatment of which finds her awakened in 1918.
In 1918 she wakes with her 1985 consciousness, but is somehow connected to another version of herself which is both different and the same, surrounded by the same — but again, different — people in her life from 1985. And 1918-Greta is also having treatment for depression which sends her(them?) to the 1941 version of the three (one?) of them.
It’s a little complicated and we only hear inside 1985 Greta’s head as she tries to change the lives of the 1918 and 1941 versions of herself and others, which, it seems, the 1918 and 1941 versions of Greta are also doing as they hop around in time.
I am a huge fan of Andrew Sean Greer’s writing. It is rich in heart and forgiveness, insight into human nature, and the ability to evoke both the frailty and strength, foibles and fine points, light and dark of characters and situations. In this ambitiously structured novel he draws parallels between the massive, tragic, and mostly needless loss of lives from AIDS, the 1918 flu pandemic, and World War II; in doing so he creates many beautiful images, heartbreak, and the lyrical, near poetic sentences I so loved in Less. Late in the story, speaking about her ex-lover (in 1985’s iteration) Nathan, Greta says this:
Those separate men, the different men he was, in different worlds. Perhaps it’s because I knew Nathan so well, and knew his moods; of him thinking beside me: so quiet! Of him silencing the alarm so I could sleep another hour: so kind! Of him reading some infuriating news in the paper: so angry! I could roll them all into one ball and put it in my brain as one person. Even before my travels, I had met and lived with these different men: the quiet one, the kind one, the angry one. Just as Nathan had lived with those same men himself. For others are not the only ones forced to face our other selves; above all, we must face them. On my last visit to 1942, Felix showed me a photograph of the two of us. It had been taken the week before. And while I knew it was not me, I could not tell which one it was. Perhaps one day they will invent a camera to capture the fleeting self — not the soul, but the self— and we can truly see which one we were, on any particular day, and mark the shifting lives we lead that we pretend belong to one person alone. Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels?
It’s something like the aha-moment/magic discovery of the book for Greta, or, the discovery of magic, when she begins to comprehend all the possible Me’s who exist in each I. And while I sometimes found parts of the narrative to be difficult to follow, and here and there a little self-help-y prosaic and banal, even those passages, like the above quoted, were grounded in wonder and hope, two elements of which there can never be too much and which make a fine foundation for any novel.
The Prague Sonata, Bradford Morrow, Hardcover, 528pp, October 2017, Atlantic Monthly Press
[I requested a copy of this novel and was sent one. I do not know the author, and have no connection to the publisher, I found the synopsis intriguing and so asked to be included in the list of bloggers/book people who got advance reader copies.]
I have not read any of Bradford Morrow’s eight previously published works of fiction, so I came to the Prague Sonata fresh, unencumbered by expectations other than this — like The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, about which I just wrote — the novel was blurbed and praised by Michael Cunningham, a writer whose work I very much admire, and in synopsis it sounded like a thick, rich, sprawling epic of old school heft.
That, it was. Its five-hundred-plus pages play a score of emotional richness, its themes and motifs introduced, reiterated and expanded, crescendo after crescendo — each memorable and developed in singularity — merging, melding to become a whole which has been artfully puzzled together into something symphonic, seamless, an entirely unique composition meticulously created from its various counter-themes into a harmony of a textured, layered, masterful epic.
It is early 20th century when Otylie’s father dies, a casualty of war, having left his nine-year-old daughter who he’d been training to be an accomplished pianist with a music manuscript she knew to be his most prized possession. Otylie swears never again to sing or play music and in 1939 Prague when war again intrudes into her life, she divides her father’s treasure in three, knowing by then its provenance may be historically important making it a valuable artifact she does not wish to lose to the invading German beast-Nazis. She keeps one movement for herself, sending another by messenger to her husband who has disappeared into the underground resistance movement, and a third to friends.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century when neophyte music historian Meta Taverner — whose father in a very different way had encouraged and ended her career as a concert pianist — is given the middle movement of the sonata by Irena, friend of Otylie who carried the manuscript out of Czechoslovakia when she survived the death camps, and now, in New York, chooses Meta to unearth the first and third movements, thus fulfilling the promise Irena made to Otylie, whose fate she does not know.
All of this plot is performed in the first fifty pages and advanced and refined in the next 475 during which Meta pursues her quest to make Otylie’s sonata whole again and, too, to discover its composer. The narrative moves back and forth through time following both Otylie and Meta in their separate trajectories until those paths melt into one another in a finale of rhapsodic consonance.
Bradford Morrow interweaves many themes through each time period: Music. War. Love stories. Friendship. Truth and Lies for Good and Evil. Ambition. Parent-Child. And others. There are elements of mystery-writing, tinges of gothic villainy and distress, romance novels, and all of this delivered in an enrapturing literary fiction format that transports the reader into other worlds. It is tempting to speed through to discover the fates of the characters, but then one would miss the abundance of historical detail, musical scholarship, and well-crafted prose. Listen to this excerpt (borrowed from the Grove Atlantic website for the novel, [CLICK HERE]):
With reverent delicacy, she turned the pages one by one, eyes traveling across the busy staves that filled each leaf. This wasn’t going to be easy to play. Unaware she was doing so, she hummed an occasional phrase, tapped her toe gently on the floor. Meta might have sat down with the manuscript at her piano and performed it then and there. But she didn’t want to listen to it until she’d had time to study the piece, learn what its composer was saying.
This was not your everyday second movement of a sonata, despite Irena’s recollecting that’s what it probably was. Brazen in its initial runs, the music settled now and again, only to move away into knotty clusters of sixteenth notes, like an impish acrobat who pretends to teeter off his tightrope high above the crowd, flails his arms as if he’s about to fall, until, nimbly, in slow motion, he moves on.
Then, a plunge off a cliff—everything shifted to blacker registers. Gone was the acrobat. Gone were the playful, bucolic pace and tone of the earlier passage, which was, it now occurred to Meta, a feint, a dramatic setup. The meat, the soul of the dolorous passage had such a rich, slow sadness to it that, surprised, she turned back to the opening and reread the movement up to this radical shift in mood.
With its moments of staggering power and slyness, the music seemed as fresh that day, to this young woman in her barbell flat, as it must have sounded when it was conceived. Who was the conceiver, though? And where were the fore and aft of this noteworthy craft?
Lovely, yes? Musical and poetic and evocative and compelling; which neatly sums up Bradford Morrow’s The Prague Sonata.
And so, I finish here, exiting to get back to cherishing and contemplating time in these Septembers — the current month, and the Fall of my life. Fall has always been my favorite season with its voluntary shedding of its summer clothes and the faith in the promise of Spring renewal such shedding implies. I leave you with the inimitable and brilliant Miss Betty Buckley and her version of Weill and Anderson’s September Song. Enjoy my dears, and please, don’t waste your time on the waiting game. Much love and light and, my dear ones, truly, thank you for spending these precious days with me, I am so grateful you read me, it has brought me much joy. Now, here I am, going.