Organizing my archives I am finding a lot of interesting old stuff. I quite like this piece about The Violin Lover, my first novel.
Opening Talk for Vancouver Jewish Book Fair
November 20, 2006
I am just delighted to be back in Vancouver. When I read at the Jewish Book Fair here two years ago, I was promoting my most recent book of poetry, Running in Prospect Cemetery, but I managed to squeeze in a short excerpt from my then unpublished novel, The Violin Lover also. As the title suggests, The Violin Lover is story about music and its effect on people’s lives. So my profound gratitude goes to Macey Cadesky and Agnes Klinghofer for their beautiful performances so far—you will hear more later—and of course also to Reisa Schneider, the extremely dedicated organizer of this festival, and her staff, for making a shidach between music and words tonight.
The story that sparked The Violin Lover was told to me, over tea of course, by elderly relatives in London, England in the spring of 1997, almost ten years ago. My cousins Anna and Harold mentioned, in passing, a relative of whom I’d never heard: one of their uncles, a man who would have been my great-great uncle: that is, the younger brother of my mother’s grandmother (Are you listening? There’s going to be a test after the reading). Anyhow, this fellow, whose name was Sam, had been a shanda and a harpa – in fact, he was such a major disgrace that none of my relatives back home in Montreal had even heard of him!
I don’t really want to tell you what he did that was such a disgrace, because that might ruin the book for you! For the same reason I have to warn you not to read the Afterword first like some of my friends did, because that will also spoil the plot. (I thought when I called it an After Word, people would read the words AFTER the rest of the book, but apparently a lot of folk go there first.) But anyhow, the main thing was that poor disgraced Sam had been erased from the family archives for his sins, and I thought that was wrong. No one should be totally forgotten, as though they never had existed, no matter what they did or who they offended. So when I couldn’t stop thinking about the little bit I knew about my black sheep uncle, I decided that it was my job to give him back his history, even if most of it was invented. After all what did I have to go on? A couple of photographs, some childhood memories from my oldest relatives, a sheet of music. Gossip. And misinformation.
For example, the events narrated in my book take place from the fall of 1934 to the spring of 1936, in London and then, briefly, in Vienna and rural Austria. Now everyone knows that Austria in 1936 wasn’t a very good place for the Jews, so naturally I interpreted Uncle Sam’s going there as self-destructive behaviour, and developed my depiction of the character based on him accordingly. So imagine my chagrin when, after I’d already finished the first draft of my book, I found evidence that he’d actually gone to Austria ten years earlier: that is, in 1926. PreHitler. Obviously, going to Austria in 1926 did not mean the same thing as going there in 1936.
Of course, by the time I got this evidence, it was too late to use it. By then, long lost Great Great uncle Sam Nagley had been transformed into Ned Abraham, a character with his own complex history and motivations. And that’s when I realized that what I had written was entirely fiction, no matter how many details were borrowed from family history. That Ned, like my Great Great Uncle Sam, was a doctor and a violinist, a bachelor and a womanizer, that he grew up in Leeds, that his father had been an anarchist and that he still lived with his mother as a grown man—these tidbits were suggestive, certainly; they were what I based my character on. But how close my character Ned is to the real man Sam is impossible to say. The people in my novel frequently reflect about how little they know each other. How much more difficult it is to interpret people from the past; people one has never even met.
Our obsession with history is one of the main things The Violin Lover is about. When I was first sending it around to agents and publishers, I got some reactions that really mystified me. For example, a couple of editors declared, point blank: “we don’t publish historical fiction”. I find this peculiar, because the traditional storytelling voice is the past tense – “Once upon a time there was a princess who lived in a castle”, etcetera. To rule out historical fiction on principal seems, therefore, to be a very short-sighted policy for any press to have. But I guess what they want is stuff about contemporary society. And of course, that’s their privilege.
A slightly different response was the one I got from an agent, supposedly an experienced editor and lover of books, who complained that I kept talking about dead people, and that readers wouldn’t be interested in them. Now, this reaction really surprised me, because I thought it was clear that a major theme of the book is the way in which our family backgrounds influence our lives. In The Violin Lover, over and over again, the characters believe they’re acting freely and consciously, but every action bears the huge weight of the past. People are only partly aware of their own motivation and what forces compel them to do the things they do. They don’t really know all the ingredients of their physical and emotional DNA, though they try very hard to remember and to understand. All those “dead people” I insisted on writing about shaped my characters, so my characters think about them and remember them often.
Remember the saying, “Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it”? Unfortunately, only time gives us enough distance to see the patterns we are caught up in. And then we tend to see patterns everywhere; so many patterns, sometimes, that we start to question if we have any free will at all! In The Violin Lover, I play around with certain key patterns or motifs: for instance, empires flourishing and being lost, buildings burning down, bridges being built and demolished, water turning to ice and snow, men disappearing, war and exile. But as the water/ ice/ snow metaphors suggest, although there is perpetual transformation, some essential identity survives; we are all each other in new forms.
The patterns in our lives result from the necessary tension between freedom and destiny, between difference and identity. And in this regard, they are like the patterns in music which may modulate from major to minor, speed up or slow down, invert themselves: patterns which make it possible to be creative without chaos. Music is the universal language and, as such, another way of describing how human similarities prevail through translation and over time. Especially for the characters in The Violin Lover, who, as Jews and recent immigrants from Russia, feel themselves outsiders in English society, music is a force that both empowers them and joins them to others.
At this point I’d like to read you the first six pages of the novel, in which we see the power music has over the main character, Ned Abraham, the violin lover. Remember that we’re in London, England in the autumn of 1934. The story starts with Ned walking along the Thames after a concert. (read first 6 pages of book—then Bach partitas—then scene of Ned and Jacob, then Mozart duets, then question and answer period)