Monday, June 08, 2009

Eva Hoffman's Appassionata

I don't spend a great deal of time reading current fiction, and, with some exceptions, I find that most recent novels that have musicians as main characters tend to show a less-than-plausible musical life. It sometimes comes from a lack of musical understanding; an inability to maintain the necessary balance between the idealistic, romantic innocence and the pedantic drudgery that real musicians carry with them everywhere they go, and it sometimes comes from a musician-writer's lack of experience with using language to express what is more easily expressed through music.

Eva Hoffman, who has a deep understanding of music and a truly musical way of writing, explores many of the serious questions that musicians find themselves thinking about again and again. Without sounding precious or pretentious, she deals with musical subject matter (and other matters of subjectivity) in a plausible way. Her use of language is exceptionally beautiful, making the novel a joy to read.

Hoffman, a pianist herself, who abandoned her dream of being a professional musician when she left her native Poland at the age of 13, seems to have fashioned Isabel Merton, the main character of the novel, after an alternate version of herself, working out an idealized dream of life as a successful, intelligent, insightful and beautiful pianist (with a fine and understanding manager) who is recognized and respected internationally for the beauty and depth of her playing.

The novel, which is organized like a piece of music, in a kind of rondo form, perhaps, takes place during one of Isabel Merton's concert tours through Eastern and Western Europe. Isabel's travels from city to city are separated by transitions (Hoffman labels these transitions appropriately as "in between") and excerpts from her former teacher's freshly-published journal. Through a series of coincidences, Isabel meets Anzor, a highly passionate music lover from Chechnya, who manages to have business in many of the cities on Isabel's tour. Through a developing romantic relationship, Anzor introduces Isabel to a world of violence and extremism that she is not prepared to understand.

The presence of music is everywhere in the novel, even, at one point, in its absence. I enjoy the way Hoffman's omniscient narrator "transcribes" the random thoughts of characters as they listen to Isabel's concerts, and the narrator occasionally enters into Isabel's own stream of consciousness while she is playing.

It might be more difficult to end a novel than it is to end a piece of music. I found the novel's coda, which includes the reintroduction of a character named Marcel, who appeared for a short time near beginning of the novel (just before the first memory of Isabel's childhood) a bit heavy handed. The name of Proust comes up now and again in the novel, and Isabel refers to her childhood memories of shabbiness as "madeleines." The reappearance of Marcel makes the structure of the novel clear, but the way it calls attention to itself makes me think that the device of a coda works better in a piece of music than it does in a work of fiction.

Hoffman's coda moves Isabel into unfamiliar musical territory that Hoffman is not able to write about with the musical authority she holds during the rest of the novel, but for people without my particular sensitivity to these matters, I imagine the ending, which seems to echo the ending of In Search of Lost Time, would be quite satisfying.

Here's a review of Appassionata for NPR by Jessa Crispin that includes an excerpt from the novel, a link to the Other Press page that has another excerpt and more reviews. Here is a review of the book by Grace Andreacchi that came out after its 2008 UK release as Illuminations, and an online discussion about the book.

Here's a conversation with Eva Hoffman concerning her 1989 memoir Lost in Translation (and a transcription of it).

UPDATE: Post post reviews (both of these reviews reveal details of the plot):

Here's a June 26th review Claire Hopley wrote for the Washington Times, and a June 28th New York Times review by Sylvia Brownrigg.


T. said...

I was just looking for a book to read, and I think this will have to be THE ONE! Thanks for this great review. As a literature-loving student of music who is dying to learn Russian, I think you've given me a reason to cash in my book store coupon over the weekend...:)

Elaine Fine said...

I'm interested to talk about it with you!