Sunday, October 2, 2011


And every word written shall lift off
letter by letter, the backward text
read ever briefer, even more antic
in its effort to insist that nothing
shall be lost.
—Kay Ryan

The first time I read Edmund White’s comment on Rimbaud’s Antique, I wondered what he was on about:
". . . Stroll about by night, softly moving this thigh, this second thigh and this left leg.”  These lines have become celebrated as the essence of Rimbaud’s final style and in French they are unforgettable:  “Promène-toi, la nuit, en movant cette cuisse, cette seconde cuisse et cette jambe de gauche."
The English rendering White chose does no service to the lines.  To me, at least, they clunk along to a dead end.  (John Ashbery, in this case, isn’t able to improve on them much.)  Nor did the French strike me as memorable, I’ll admit.  Only when I heard the words sung did I begin to understand what the fuss was all about.  Now, when I listen to Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, I wait for that passage and will it not to pass.

What I want to achieve, when I write about music, is to return the favor Britten did me.  It’s a struggle to describe music in words.  It's tough to write description that works, periodand that set me to thinking about writers who succeed at it.

Mark Kerstetter recently wrote, about literary description,
In describing, only what is essential to the story or feel of the piece is desirable. . . . In Millhauser, establishing Jeffrey Cartwright’s power of observation does not need to be labored, or could be demonstrated in ways other than testing the reader’s tolerance for long descriptive passages that, in the end, please only those who like to know that the mirror the butler happened to be standing in front of, as he did the deed in his argyle socks, was hung in a gold frame.
I confess to delight in those argyle socks, but I see Mark’s point.  Description needs a larger purpose if it’s not to end up as dead weight on the page.  So, who does it “right”?

The telling details T. S. Eliot chose to give voice to Prufrock’s dilemma surely do:
I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?  Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
And who, upon reading John Ashbery’s dream of Guadalajara in The Instruction Manual, isn’t set to dreaming, too?
And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on
    the desk and leaning out of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara!  City of rose-colored flowers!
City I wanted most to see, and most did not see, in Mexico!
But I fancy I see, under the press of having to write the
    instruction manual,
Your public square, city, with its elaborate little bandstand!
The band is playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Around stand the flower girls, handing out rose- and lemon-
    colored flowers,
Each attractive in her rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such
    shades of rose and blue),
And nearby is the little white booth where women in green
    serve you green and yellow fruit.
Before some call me out on cheating by using poetry, I’ll turn back to prose.  In response to a post on Magris’s Danube, Friko made clear that I MUST read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of journeying through Europe on foot in 1934.  While Leigh Fermor wrote his book in the twentieth century, he made no concession to the existence of photography or film.  With the leisurely pace and abundant charm of a fine nineteenth century novel, he describes his wanderings in crystalline prose.

At the end of the first volume, he takes us to a bridge that crosses over from then-Czechoslovakia to Hungary, and suspends us there with him as he takes in the scene:
Touching my arm, the shepherd pointed downstream at something in the dark-shadowed east high above the river and just discernible across the failing sky.  Ragged and flocculent, fading to grey, scattered with specks of pink from the declining sun, varying in width as random fragments were dropping away and re-cohering and agitated with motion as though its whole length were turning on a single thread, a thick white line of crowding storks stretched from one side of the heavens to the other.
“I was determined to linger," he continues, "suspended there in a void,"
and let a few more hundred thousand tons of liquid rush under the girders before stepping across the remaining yards into Hungary.  I might have been in the royal box opposite the milling dramatis personae as the curtain was going up.
We ruminate with Eliot’s Prufrock, we daydream with Ashbery, we stand in entranced anticipation with Leigh Fermor—and it is words alone that take us where these writers would have us go.

On the fiction side of prose, I give you a passage from Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Là-Bas, in which we join the protagonist Durtal in a bell-tower:
. . .  the wind rattled against the sounding-shutters, stormed through the cage of timbers, howled along the spiral stair, and was caught and held whining in the bell vases.  Suddenly a light breeze, like the stirring of confined air, fanned his cheek.  He looked up.  The current had been set in motion by the swaying of a great bell beginning to get under way.  There was a crash of sound, the bell gathered momentum, and now the clapper, like a gigantic pestle, was grinding the great bronze mortar with a deafening clamour.  The tower trembled, the balcony on which Durtal was standing trepidated like the floor of a railway coach, there was the continuous rolling of a mighty reverberation, interrupted regularly by the jar of metal upon metal.
My ears hurt, and I wasn’t there.  But then again, I was.

There are many who write with elegance and wit about music:  David Nice and George Wallace, both of whom noted Britten’s Les Illuminations to me, have me snapping up music to try at every turn.

Here’s another:  Carl E. Schorske, a historian and scholar, in his book Fin-de-Siècle Vienna:  Politics and Culture, of all things.  George Wallace, it was, who identified Schorske’s breathtaking description of Ravel’s La Valse.  (So of course I had to buy the book.)

Well.  Even more remarkable was Schorske on Schoenberg.  After all, for me, enjoying Ravel is a piece of that proverbial cake.  Schoenberg, though, is another matter.  But here’s Schorske on Schoenberg’s setting of The Book of the Hanging Gardens:
The first song sets the tone, the mood of the rococo park at evening.  In the piano introduction a profoundly serene series of slow, single-toned phrases conveys the soundless stillness of the garden pond.  The lack of key produces in us only expectancy.  We are in an open universe, we soon become aware. . . .  A tone will break into a privileged position, but disappear again into the mass, like a stone cast into the dark pond.
Schorske goes so far as to give Schoenberg the last word about fin-de-siècle Vienna.  Here is the final passage in the book:
Out of the depths of his extraordinary being [Schoenberg] generated the power to present the wilderness as the proper metaphysical analogue and metaphoric ideal for psychological man.  To those who could listen, he showed how it might be organized in sound to replace the garden he had done so much to destroy.
I leave you with this:  If words ever sent you to music, tell us the story:  who, what, where, when?

 Credits:  The quotation from Kay Ryan is from her poem All Shall Be Restored.  The quotation from Edmund White can be found on p.138 here.  The quotation from Mark Kerstetter can be found here.  The quotation from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock can be found here.  The quotation from The Instruction Manual can be found here.  The comment from Friko can be found here.  The quotations from Patrick Leigh Fermor can be found on pp. 309-310 here.  The quotation from Là-Bas can be found here.  The quotations from Schorske can be found on pp. 350 and 364 here.

For a Spotify playlist of Les Illuminations and The Book of the Hanging Gardens, click here.  For another audio source for The Book of the Hanging Gardens, click here


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
As Friko recommends, Patrick Leigh Fermor's books are both essential reading and a joy.

The bridge across the Danube, to which reference is made here, was bombed during the last war, thereby cutting off a vital link between Hungary and what is now her neighbour, Slovakia. It was rebuilt only about ten years ago; we were present on the day of its reopening and joined with many others in walking across, something which it had not been possible to do for about sixty years.

David said...

I suppose I live even more in the musical than the literary world, so can I play the game in reverse and tell you what music turned me to what books? First serious case was Strauss's Don Quixote, when I was 15 and well into a big Strauss craze (initiated by Michael Kennedy, whose enthusiasm for Strauss, Barbirolli, Elgar and Vaughan Williams were equally important at that age), leading me to Cervantes' novel, which is the only book along with War and Peace I think I'll keep re-reading every ten years.

Britten to Wilfred Owen (and Rimbaud!); Prokofiev to the silver age poets, especially Balmont, and then Akhmatova; the great Russian operas to a wish to study Pushkin in the original; and in that respect lots of opera libretti to greater plays. On which theme, I thought Weinberg’s The Passenger was pretty fine at ENO recently, but the uncompleted Andrzej Munk film of the original Posmysz novel is a masterpiece as the opera is not.

And so it goes. By the way, I was spellbound by Magris but always found Leigh Fermor, may his soul rest etc., a little precious if valuable for a document of that part of Europe at that stage in history. Schorske's book is wonderful and beautifully presented, too.

Friko said...

Doing description right or doing it wrong, is there a hard and fast rule? It depends very much on the writer for me; there are people whose shopping list would send shivers down my spine.

Do you know, I have never been aware of words sending me to music, probably more likely the other way round. I'l have to think about this.

shoreacres said...

Sometimes, your posts have the substance of the La Brea tar pits - they're so dense and sticky, I'm not sure how to make my way through them. That's a compliment, of course!

Description is difficult. Words can be bricks as well as windows, and if you pile up too many of them, you obscure the view.

Beyond that, words are words, music is music and art is art - they're no more perfectly translatable, one to the other, than any sort of idiom.

But once - just once, as far as I remember - words did send me to music of a sort. I found Lawrence Durrell in Africa, and re-read his Alexandria Quartet at least once each year. Who, I wonder, would not long to hear the muezzin, after reading a passage such as this? (Apologies for its length...)

In that early spring dawn, with its dense dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin from the mosque reciting the Ebed - a voice hanging like a hair in the palm cooled upper airs of Alexandria...

...The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy conscsiousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words - the voice of the muezzin sinking from register to register of gravity - until the whole morning seemed dense with its marvellous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected, impregnating that shabby room where Melissa lay, breathing as lightly as a gull, rocked upon the oceanic splendours of a language she would never know.


Mark Kerstetter said...

Description is difficult to do well, I think, whether in fiction or writing on the arts. Of course I think Huysmans was great at it. In writing about the visual arts or music, description is very important, and I admire those who can write well about music, something that so far has eluded me.

Mostly I am motivated to learn about music when it is recommended by someone I admire. In this case, I want to hear Britten's piece very much now. Because of Ashbery I checked out Turandot, and Puccini has become a favorite - I've even gone to live performances of his work. I know that I have read many reviews that have made me curious about recordings, but I can't think of a particular example. Years ago Brian Eno's song "Kurt's Rejoinder" ( which samples Kurt Schwitters performing his Ursonate) made me want to read Schwitter's poetry, but then I was already interested in Scwhitters as a visual artist.

On a related note, I'm reading Carson McCullers' "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" right now - have you read it? It's an excellent novel. One of the characters, a teenage girl, has overpowering urges to create music. Because of her poverty and poor education she has difficulty giving coherent form to these urges. McCullers describes this situation - the mind of this girl - extremely well.

As always, thank you for a beautiful post. I like your pictures too!

MILLY said...

What an interesting arrangement on your desk, the objects give the viewer clues to the mind of the person. My little feather feels honoured to be there. Just about to post two more feathers. Always lovely to hear from you.

Suze said...

On the contrary, music sends me to story.

Suze said...

Hello, Susan. Back to answer the further inquiry you left on my blog. There was one scene in particular in one of the novels I wrote in which a young man is teaching a young girl to play the piano. There was a song I listened to, over and over as I wrote it, and to this day, whenever I hear it, I am transported to that 'place' in the book.

Oddly, as I type this now, I realize that in two different drafts of the book, that place was, well, two different places.

I am so tired of revising. I am so tired of this deep lostness I feel with my work. I so want to just forget it all for a long while to see if I can stop spinning my hideous wheels.

Maggie Asfahani Hajj said...

You mesmerize me, truly. This was such an elegant and eloquent post.

I go both ways - from music to story and back again. The sort of music that most inspires me to write, though, is fairly spare: David Gray, Ray LaMontagne, Ryan Adams, instrumentals without a lot of horns. :)

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
thank you for that! I liked the words on Schoenberg - they might (!) motivate me to listen to him once again. As you asked: Thomas Mann once succeeded in doing so.
But for me really touching is Pufrock's Dilemma - when I read poetry it doesn't lead me to music: it IS music.
PS: I'm sorry to say that Mr. Fermor is far too verbose for me (and I do love long sentences and long descriptions, but I can't get warm with that one of his)

Susan Scheid said...

To all: Thank you all so much for being willing to dive in and respond to the question posed. Your sublimely varied and thought-provoking perspectives greatly enrich my little post.

Jane and Lance: To think of the fate that subsequently befell this bridge makes Leigh Fermor’s description of the scene all the more poignant. How magnificent that you were there to attend its reopening so many years later. I hope perhaps you’ll write about that sometime.

David: I’m so pleased you turned the question on its head, for you’ve provided a treasure chest of instances where music led you to books. As you often do, you had me running off to try and find the Munk film. So far I’ve been thwarted, but I’ve made a note and hope I’ll prevail at some point. Interesting the differing reactions to Leigh Fermor. Magris, no question, sent me off in a thousand fascinating directions—with a possibly inexhaustible supply of avenues still to pursue. Leigh Fermor’s book seems to me to have a different mission and, as you indicate, provides a valuable record of Europe at a critical point in time.

Friko: You make a valid point (no surprise there!). I suspect we all know when description works and when it falls flat, but as to articulating why, views can and will vary. Leigh Fermor definitely succeeded for me, and I have you to thank for pointing him out.

shoreacres: Your comment is rich with keen observations. This one I particularly loved: “Words can be bricks as well as windows, and if you pile up too many of them, you obscure the view.” I have to say, this is the first time I’ve been complimented through a comparison with the La Brea tar pits—but I do know what you mean. I’m so glad you were willing to get stuck a while. Rest assured no apologies are needed for gracing this post with a quotation as gorgeously apt as Durrell’s.

Mark: So, not only did you inspire this post with your own on the subject of describing, but you’ve enriched mine with your examples—and, once again, you’ve set me on the trail of another book!

Milly: Every time I look at that feather, it pleases me, as do all your wonderful Drawings from Nature. I look forward to them every week.

Suze: Thank you doubly! I like to imagine you at your writing, accompanied by music that inspires you. Perhaps one day you’ll reveal the song.

Maggie: I’m pleased and flattered that you enjoyed the post. I want you to know I tracked down and listened to everyone you named (none of which I knew)—and I’m fascinated that you specified, in addition, instrumentals “without a lot of horns.” Perhaps one day you’ll say why.

Britta: Ah, yes, Doctor Faustus. Indeed hard to avoid sampling Schoenberg after reading that. And yes, how right you are that good poetry IS music. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is, for me, among the best. Now, as for Leigh Fermor: fair enough, though perhaps the problem is my choice of excerpt. I found it hard to pull out a small quote that would do him justice, and it seems I haven’t entirely succeeded. I am glad, though, that you enjoyed the Schorske, even if it might lead you back again to Schoenberg(!) (and I so agree with that (!). I know just what you mean.) By the way, Schorske also has a brilliant chapter on Klimt. I suspect you would enjoy this book.

Suze said...

Hi Susan, I'll reveal it, now.

Let me know if you enjoyed it.

Susan Scheid said...

Suze: The piece perfectly fits the scene you describe. I'm so pleased you chose to share it.

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