Saturday, April 01, 2006

Great Review in the National Post Saturday March 25

"Violence and violins converge in London"

Michael Greenstein
Weekend Post
Saturday, March 25, 2006


By Susan Glickman
Goose Lane Editions
242 pp., $22.95

Like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Don Coles, Anne Michaels, Michael Redhill and a host of other Canadian writers, Susan Glickman has taken a turn from verse to fiction. An accomplished poet and non-fiction author, she manages the transition to her first novel, The Violin Lover, with assurance. Whereas Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces uses music in a more metaphoric and abstract sense, Glickman's knowing narrator looks back to the more traditional prose forms of Henry Kreisel and Adele Wiseman.

In the 19th century, Walter Pater maintained that all art aspires toward the condition of music, and The Violin Lover adheres to this maxim. Set in London in the mid-1930s, this passionate love story is structured around seasonal rhythms as well as a three-part musical composition, like the sonata form, suited to the subject of a love triangle. In addition, the cyclical rhythms of these Vivaldian seasons underscore finely attuned repetitions in a contrapuntal fugue form.

The first movement, "Autumn-Winter 1934," is subdivided into three chapters -- "A Body," "Aufschwung" and "Jewish Music." "A Body" opens with a slow andante rhythm: "The boys were riding the sphinx when they noticed it, floating down the Thames in a leisurely way... Their shrill voices interrupted Dr. Edward Abraham's post-concert reverie as he strolled along the Embankment." This mysterious bearded corpse is never identified (though it is thought to be a Jew), and Dr. Abraham, the protagonist familiarly known as Ned, chooses to ignore it, just as he flees from other emotional issues and commitments in the novel.

A physician by day, Ned also plays the violin, which leads him to a meeting with Jacob Weiss, a promising young pianist, and his mother, Clara, with whom Ned soon has a complicated affair. Ned is not only a patriarch, but a wanderer forced to leave his home, as do so many of the fathers in this fatherless novel. The man about town longs to be a man of the world: On the one hand, the modern Wandering Jew is exiled from the ghetto in search of a broader emancipation; on the other hand, he abandons tradition and domesticity in the person of his wife and children. This inner conflict forms but one of the many tensions in Glickman's historic fiction, tensions that are finely adjusted, as the strings on a violin.

Ned's river walk continues in the andante movement: "Fishing and music had always provided the most reliable solace, and they remained linked in his imagination. Slow arts, both of them, demanding patience and attention and endless repetition." Glickman's omniscient narrator orchestrates her characters and modulates repetitions in a variety of minor and major keys. She unfolds the complexities of Ned's character, especially his relationship to Jacob and Clara.

As the narrative shifts from Ned to Jacob, we are offered the child's perspective that develops throughout the novel. Jacob's piano recital of Schumann's "Aufschwung" (which means "soaring" -- another leitmotif that unravels during the course of the novel) impresses everyone, and his teacher arranges for him to play in the future with Dr. Abraham, who eventually serves as his surrogate father. Jacob has recently lost his father to stomach cancer; Ned's father abandoned his family to return to Russia for the futile Bolshevik cause; a natural affinity between the two fatherless sons grows into a symbiotic relationship beyond their musical accompaniment.

Yet, given Ned's isolationist, distancing character, he cannot get involved beyond a certain point. His cosmopolitan need for freedom eliminates the possibility of any domestic attachment. Alternating between Ned's life and Jacob's life, Glickman's narrative plays a duet between violin and piano, weaving in and out of their overlapping lives, with Clara caught in between.

"Jewish Music" refers to Mendelssohn's "Song without Words", which Jacob plays for Clara, but Jewish music lies also at the core of The Violin Lover. The chapter begins with three generations and domestic details in Clara's family, shifts to Ned's violin and medical practice, reverts to Jacob at the piano, back to Ned's practice and family background, continues with Clara's family background and concludes with Ned's domestic and hospital routine. These sequences form a satisfying pattern interspersed with the narrator offering the history and esthetics of musical instruments, and examining Ned's heart, which is "hidden and inconsolable."

In addition to the tragic inner drama between Clara and Ned, we are reminded of the looming tragedy in Europe with the rise of the Nazis. This impinges on Jacob's family directly when Oswald Mosley's hooligan Blackshirts attack his grandfather's place in London's East End, an incident that follows the Passover Seder with Clara's family. The heated political exchanges during the Seder not only increase the tempo, but also point to the uncomfortable position of Jews in an anti-Semitic society. Ned has never felt at home in England and wishes to escape to Vienna with its romantic musical history; Clara, who has never travelled, longs for that kind of romantic escapism as well; but neither of them succeeds in this endeavour. Inner and outer worlds converge catastrophically: "What was happening in Germany became a kind of counterpoint to their affair. First they would make love, then they would argue."

Even if violins and violence are not etymologically related, they are close enough in sound to make sense: "Both the piano and the violin make music by causing strings to vibrate. Perhaps an ancient archer heard the thrumming of his string after the arrow had taken flight... Was it because of such inadvertent discoveries that Apollo, god of music, was twinned with his sister Artemis, goddess of the hunt?" Glickman pulls at her characters' and readers' heartstrings: Ned impregnates Clara, convinces her to have an abortion, then deserts her, though not without making plans for Jacob's education. Ned may be a good man at heart, but his heart is faulty. After performing the abortion, he loses his licence and leaves for Austria where the Alps swallow him, uniting him with his father in Russia and the abandoned body in the Thames.

If the soaring Alps belong to the "sublime," then Clara's painting (which she resumes at the end) partakes of the "picturesque" mode -- a subject Glickman covers in her critical study of the poetics of the Canadian landscape. As a first novel, The Violin Lover neither misses a beat nor strikes a false note.

© National Post 2006

And one in the Globe and Mail today:

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