Background

 Background to The Violin Lover


     This novel is based on family history. Hushed-up family history. Left-on-the-other-side-of-the-Atlantic family history that I retrieved by spending several years in England and getting to know my family there and through them, some deep dark secrets, including the existence of my grandfather’s Uncle Sam, the original of Dr Edward Abraham in The Violin Lover.

My Grandpa Harry was born in Yorkshire, in the fishing village of Goole. His mother’s siblings moved to Leeds, and later, London. His uncle Sam was a concert violinist and medical doctor with a practice in Hackney, a confirmed bachelor who lived with his elderly mother. Sam’s career came to a sudden end when a woman (the family just called her “that woman”) denounced him to the General Medical Council for having performed an abortion upon her. Having lost his medical license, he went off mountain-climbing in Austria and was never seen again. These facts — like his childhood in Leeds and his father’s occupation as an anarchist who made money in real estate — were the inspiration for my novel. But everything else is fiction.

How did I get from an aging Lothario in his mid-forties and a vengeful single woman to Ned and Clara? I suppose via Jacob, who didn’t even exist historically. How did I arrive at Jacob? Probably via the subject of abortion, because at the time I heard the story I was the mother of a two year old and a five year old, and passionate about the whole issue of wanted and unwanted pregnancies (mine had been greatly wanted and hard won). I guess I thought it would be more interesting to write about abortion from the perspective of someone who had already experienced a child quickening in her womb; someone who loved her children with that fierce, ambivalent love shared by all mothers overwhelmed by others’ needs. Someone who despite loving her children, didn’t want any to have any more.

But how would she meet such a man? Through one of her children. How would her child meet him? Through music. And so Jacob was born! And through successive drafts of the novel Jacob became more and more important, and music itself became a central subject of my exploration. I knew I was doing something right when my cousin Harold gave me a handwritten, faded fugue composed by Uncle Sam himself and it called for three instruments: Jacob’s piano, Sam’s violin and a cello representing Clara.

By the way, the historical context of the story is based on a mistake. Quite simply, I thought my cousins Anna and Harold said all this happened in 1936 when it actually happened in 1926! It did seem peculiar that an educated British Jew would seek refuge in Nazi-occupied Austria, but I took that as a given, and tried to understand it. The self-hating part of Ned’s character arose from this misunderstanding, as did the exploration of Jewish culture in England between the wars. As an English-speaking Jew who had grown up in French Catholic Montreal, I knew how it felt to be alienated from the surrounding culture, so even though this story takes place long ago and far away, there are certain resonances in it that are very personal. For this reason, I wasn’t too disappointed to discover that I had been mistaken in setting the story in the 30s.

© copyright Susan Glickman 2006

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