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Terez Mertes

Books, Books, Books

July 31, 2007 at 8:46 PM

More on Violin and Classical Music Novels

I so enjoyed the contributions from the last thread I wrote on Classical Music Novels, that I summarized the list here. But first, two new kids on the block.

The Savior by Eugene Drucker
Heavy subject—the Holocaust—approached with great skill by Emerson Quartet’s Eugene Drucker. Trust a musician to get the pacing of a novel down right. And trust a musician to write such peerless detail about classical music and playing the violin. The story—a German violinist who must serve his country by playing solo violin pieces to a group of near-death Jewish prisoners in a concentration camp, in a lurid experiment to see if he can bring them back to life— flashes back to the past from time to time, which helps make the grim scenario of the present WWII angle of the story more bearable. Wonderfully written, even when it hurts to read it.

Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick
This is a visceral take on Venice and Vivaldi and the classical music scene in the 18th century. Well-researched and elegantly written, it tells the story of Anna Maria dal Violin (orphans pick up the name of their instrument as a last name), her search for her parentage and observations of “the Red Priest,” maestro Antonio Vivaldi, and her coming of age in a cloistered convent-orphanage. A wonderful depiction of the times and the mores, but while classical music and singing is well portrayed, the technical details of a working violinist are completely missing, and I never believed that Anna Maria lived for her playing. My guess is that the writer focused on researching other aspects of the story, which she did very well. But imagine if Barbara Quick had teamed up with Eugene Drucker... A good story, nonetheless.

And now, here is a compilation list. I have not included the short story and/or nonfiction suggestions mentioned on the last thread, but Mischa S. posted some wonderful short story links, so those interested should check out the original thread HERE.

These are in no particular order. Thanks, everyone, for your contributions!

1) Vikram Seth - An Equal Music
If you’re a string musician and you read fiction and you haven’t read this, well… do. Just, do.

2) Nathan Shaham – The Rosendorf Quartet
The closest to Seth’s equal, narrated through the perspective of four Jewish refugees, fleeing Germany in the wake of WW II, to Palestine. Thoughtful, soulful and a great peek in at the interpersonal dynamics in a string quartet.

3) Mark Salzman – The Soloist
Wonderfully written, lively, interesting story, featuring a 30-ish former child prodigy, a cellist, who can no longer perform and isn’t quite sure why. Mentors a talented Korean boy while getting a few life lessons of his own during jury duty.

4) Virginia Euwer Wolfe - The Mozart Season
Recommended to me by member Theresa Martin. Even though it’s categorized as young adult, it is elegantly written, not too girlish or simplistic. I loved the way it put me into the head of a talented young violinist whose talent was still developing.

5) Paul Adam - The Rainaldi Quartet
I usually don’t read thriller/mysteries, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to someone seeking solely that, because that aspect is not what makes this book so good. Told from the point of view of a luthier, the violin details are exquisite and the story is compelling and heartfelt. One of those stories that you’ll remember long after you’ve read the well-deserved ending.

6) Kristy Kiernan - Catching Genius
This isn’t really a “violinist” novel as much as a story from the perspective of a woman who plays the violin. In a nutshell: two sisters, whose young lives were irrevocably altered when one was diagnosed as a math genius must now, as adults, deal with the fallout in their relationship. Young Connie, the “non-genius,” focused on playing the violin in order to regain their father’s attention, and while she reached great proficiency, she never excelled. As an adult, however, Connie still plays the violin, though now mostly for pleasure.

7) Overture, by Yael Goldstein. ISBN 978-0-385-51781-2.
The advantages of waiting a few months to update this list. Back then, I couldn’t get this on my public library system. Now, I was just able to do it. Gotta love libraries! Thanks, Anne H. for the suggestion. Amazon has info on this one.

8) Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto by Joshua Cohen
Karin who mentioned this one, says, “The premise sounds interesting, but I saw an excerpt and it seems like it would be quite tiring to read.” Terez would have to agree. Would love to hear otherwise by anyone who's tried this one.

9) Spring Sonata: A Fable by Bernice Rubens. Feb '86 by Warner Books ISBN 10: 0446328960
Buri had commented, “I read a really weird novel years ago about a woman everyone thought had a `phantom` pregnancy but it was really a reincarnation of Heifetz lurking in her stomach.” Anne did some sleuthing and found this book. Anyone read this one? Looks fun.

10) From Cora Venus Lunny: “Jilly Cooper's Appassionata is an absolutely unmissable read, as are the other music-oriented books in her interminable (and very readable) series. Let's see - The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous features an evil conductor and hilarious soprano, and Score has all the characters from Appassionata and more. Pulpy, raunchy, hilarious and wonderful in every way.

11) The Student Conductor, by Robert Ford

12) Schlafes Bruder by Robert Schneider: (Synopsis and info provided by Mischa S. on original thread, but otherwise difficult to find information on this one.)

13) The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
A pause to thank Wayne Schafer for this suggestion—I read this book and absolutely loved it. What a great musical artist novel, that captures so much spirit and hope and despair.

14) The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (Have put a request in at my library – and good info, BTW, at Amazon on this novel.)

15) Canone Inverso by Paolo Maurensig

16) Dvorak in Love by Josef Skvorecky

17) Notes From The Pit by Helen Kopec. ISBN 0-9728722-0-5.
Very hard to get purchasing information on this fictionalized account of a real-life cellist, but one member (forgive me, now I can’t find the original comment and poster’s name!) called it brilliantly funny and other reviewers have declared it a good read.

18) The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht
Many, many thanks to Tom Holzman for suggesting this one and I second his high recommendation of this novel. Compulsively readable, good story, solid musical reference (no surprise, as Lebrecht is well known for his music critiques and his nonfiction, Who Killed Classical Music?) In it, Dovidl, a Polish child prodigy violinist escapes the Holocaust by living in London with same-aged Martin and his family. It explores music, love, betrayal, the boys' relationship and its fallout after Dovidl's disappearance on the eve of a major performance. (Tom describes it better on the original thread.)

19) Ghost Quartet by Richard Burgin
Not about a violinist, but about the classical music world and the challenges visited up aspiring composers, posing the question "How far will you go to further your career?" Recommended to me by v.commie Gabriel Kastelle. Great, absorbing, fast read. (Warning: it gets a bit dark.)

20) The Fiddler and the Ferret by Douglas Boyd. Recommended by Phil Houghton, who says: “Concert violinist gets embroiled in art theft conspiracy. Not bad!”

21) Body and Soul by Frank Conroy
I once again second this excellent suggestion, contributed by Sheila Ganapathy. The novel has an old fashioned, “epic” flavor about it and eloquently chronicles the youth of a prodigiously talented pianist. A story and character that will live in your head long after you’ve put down the book.

22) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Okay, maybe this is stretching the “Classical Music Novel” category, but the story does revolve around the presence of a world-famous diva who has been invited to sing at a Japanese millionaire’s birthday party, taking place in an unnamed South American country. The party goes awry, guest and performers alike are taken hostage by a paramilitary group, and in spite of this, a lovely, lyrical story emerges. The music scenes and digressions are just lovely. Aside from that, Ann Patchett is an absolutely brilliant writer and I recommend that book for this reason alone.

23) Pinball by Jerzy Kosinski
Recommended by Amy F. On my nightstand pile (one of fifteen tottering books). Music, art, sex, search for self – sounds great!

24) Sheet Music by M.J. Rose – not a musician’s novel, but has a music institute as part of the setting, a cellist as a secondary character, and some deliciously sensual cello-playing scenes in it. And I mean sensual. (The author does the same thing with food – try reading the first few pages…)

Check out the original thread and comments if you need more details. Then head to your local library/bookstore/Amazon link and read, read, read!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 12:07 AM
Yeah Books!

"The Rainaldi Quartet" is AKA "Sleeper".

Also, "Spring Sonata" is not that great. If you want a creepy British novel that is actually well written, try Kingsley Amis' "The Alteration". No violins, but it has singers, which I suppose is just as bad...

Also, I put "Vivaldi's Virgins" in the Chick Lit category...many descriptions of shoes, outfits, and whining, but not enough music. I was a bit disappointed.

"The Savior: A Novel" got a nice write up in the Sunday NYT this week. Oestrich interviewed Drucker, and another writer named Henry Grinberg, whose book "Variations on the Beast", is about conductors in Germany during the Nazi reign.

Also, I really enjoy your book blogs, Terez. Thanks for taking the time to pull all of this information together!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 4:29 AM
Thanks back atcha, Anne. You made some great comments/suggestions, both there and here. I have to smile at your descrip of V.'s Virgins. I really really think she should have tried harder with the violin angle. That part of the book is really lame, particularly when compared to all these wonderful books on this list. But I'll still give her good marks. (I'll be reviewing that book, as well as Savior, for an online review publication, BTW. That's how a copy of Savior landed on my lap and made me decide to leap in and read it.)
From Mischa S.
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 7:00 AM
Hi Terez,

maybe two other books: Last year Prix Goncourt winner Jean Echenoz published a novel about Maurice Ravel's journey to the US in 1927. A short novel (~110 pages) about a short man. The author seemed to be more fascinated about Ravel's wardrobe than his music, you read about the daily life of a weird man in the scenery of an ocean-liner, doing weird things, here and there some quotes. I'm a big Ravel-Fan - very disappointing novel, but maybe (for me) a good example, how it shouldn't be done. And maybe I'm wrong and it's great. :)

Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author (Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) will publish a book called Musicophilia, you can read and hear a short publishers preview and an interview-mp3 made for the New Yorker here. I'm a big fan of Oliver Sacks, his writings are brilliant and very clear. In "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" he describes e. g. the story of a brain-damaged named Martin, who grew up with his father, an opera-singer, who cared about him a lot until he dies. Martin knows 2.000 operas, he had a musical intelligence fully up to appreciating all the structural rules and complexities of Bach, all the intricacies of contrapuntal and fugal writing. He had the musical intelligence of a professional musician. Sacks describes how Martin tries (and fails) to be integrated in his therapeutical residential home. And how music and esp. Bach became the little world he (literally) dominated. Great writer!

O.k., it's non-fiction, but O. Sacks describes like a skillful novelist would do.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 1:08 PM
Terez - thanks for the praise. One book I would recommend that is non-fiction but a very good read and helpful in understanding what it was like to be a Jewish musician in Nazi Germany is Martin Goldsmith's "The Inextinguishable Symphony" which chronicles the experience of his parents in the Jewish Kulturbund orchestra. His father was a flutist and his mother a violist.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 1:34 PM
Mischa, thanks, enjoyed reading your comments here! And many thanks for including links with your recommendations - that's really helpful. I'll go check these new ones out.

Tom, I've got that book, actually, along with the book about Alma Rose (can't find the little accent for the "e") and actually, 3 or 4 other books on the subject. My novel #3 references musicians/artists who were victims of the Holocaust and the subject is so compelling to me. But, as I'm currently revising novel #2, all that reading (actually, over a dozen related books) got shelved. But The Savior, and The Song of Names - boy, I'm glad I found the time to read those books. Both authors had a master touch in their presentation of Holocaust issues and the climate of the times. Oh, so did Nathan Shaham in The Rosendorf Quartet.

Oh, so many books, so little time...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 1:40 PM
Okay, just glanced at the publisher's review of Musophilia and it does indeed sound good! Particularly loved these lines from the review:

>"...from people with “amusia,” to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans, to a man whose memory spans only seven seconds—for everything but music."

And this...

>"Our exquisite sensitivity to music can sometimes go wrong: Sacks explores how catchy tunes can subject us to hours of mental replay, and how a surprising number of people acquire nonstop musical hallucinations that assault them night and day."

Oh, I have SO been a victim to the "can't get the stupid, simplistic catchy tune out of my head all day" syndrome. That's one of the reasons I like classical music so much. If something's going to be stuck in my head all day, I want it to have some depth, something to analyze. Out, pop music, out!

Thanks again, Mischa!

From Emily Liz
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 3:49 PM
I remember commenting here once on a book that I thought was really bad. I found it again! It's called Allegro: A Novel, by Joseph Machlis. It's available on Amazon used for one cent. :S There's sex, ballerinas, drugs, and probably other juicy stuff (I wouldn't know because I couldn't finish it). I have never been so unmoved by a piece of literature in my life. I think I'm going to check it out again, to see if it's really as bad as I remember.

But maybe it was just bad because I got it at the library the same time I got An Equal Music, and everybody knows how much I love AEM. So much seems dull in comparison.

Thank you so much for these recommendations. Music and literature both mean so much to me, and it is fascinating to me when their worlds mesh.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 4:32 PM
You know Terez, for all the music descriptions, or lack of, "Vivaldi's Virgins" could have been set anywhere...and I thought the author could have developed Vivaldi a little better. Oh well.

I haven't read "Song of Names" yet, but I will put that next on the list. Lebrecht's non-fiction is A BIT negative for my style, but since Tom has fabulous taste, I will order a copy and give it a go.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 4:57 PM
>I remember commenting here once on a book that I thought was really bad. I found it again! It's called Allegro: A Novel, by Joseph Machlis. It's available on Amazon used for one cent. :S There's sex, ballerinas, drugs, and probably other juicy stuff (I wouldn't know because I couldn't finish it). I have never been so unmoved by a piece of literature in my life. I think I'm going to check it out again, to see if it's really as bad as I remember.

Emily - ha ha! I'm going to go check it out just from this descrip alone. Sometimes it's really fun to read a book that's so bad it's entertaining (especially when you only invested a penny). Thanks for the "really bad" tip here. : )

Anne - I leafed through Norman Lebrecht's Who Killed Classical Music and can appreciate your trepidation about reading a novel from the same author, but I am happy to report that he does not bring any author intrusion into the story (well, maybe a few lines when the adult Martin muses about his family's music business and the changes through the years). I was really blown away by the artfulness of the novel, and I wasn't alone - it won the Whitbread First Novel Award.

As for VV - have you read Anita Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan? Some of my friends didn't like it, but I LOVED it. I think she's the real gem among the slew of writers who are filling the shelves with historical fiction these days (along with Tracy Chevalier). The other novels coming out (there are easily 4 or 5 right now with those dreamy Italian art covers and similar subjects) all seem to be pale copies.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 1, 2007 at 7:01 PM
I have a book to order! Thanks for the advice! (What is it with Lebrecht anyway? Maybe he has put too many lemons into his tea? "Who Killed Classical Music" is not nearly as snarky as "The Maestro Myth", but then again, I have always thought that conductors are such an easy target.) Also, you can read Lebrecht's blog on

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