Frank Conroy, Body and Soul

Body and Soul was a near miss for me. I thought it was really very good most of the time, especially through the first half, but there were parts in the second half that seemed really thin and reedy, and they stood out more because the other parts of the book were so strong. The novel tells the story of Claude Rawlings, a musical prodigy who, thanks to a series of rather unbelievably supportive and available mentors, rises from a grim neglected childhood to triumphant performances at Carnegie Hall. Though we follow Claude’s point of view throughout the novel, he remains a fairly flat, enigmatic character: one explanation for this would be that he represses so many of his reactions as a child that his life, as well as his story, is also quite repressed, but another is that for him, nothing matters as much as music–which makes it appropriate, really, that nothing in the novel is as exciting as the detailed descriptions of music.

Reading and writing about music is a tricky business. Conroy is, of course, aware of this, and even has Claude remark it at one point: “don’t you think it’s practically impossible to write about music directly? I mean, all you can do is skirt around it, sort of.”  I was thinking about the other novels I like in which music plays a big part — Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field, or Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, or Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, for instance. In all of these, the writing drew me into the music intellectually as well as emotionally. Reading about music is never going to be the same as listening to it, so flowery attempts to sound ‘musical’ aren’t likely to be very effective. All of these writers focus on the ways the music feels to the musician or the audience, as well as on how the music is made or played. Conroy’s is, I think, by far the most analytic of this little group, with long discussions of technique and theory. He takes real risks here by putting in so much detail, and these passages do get a bit overwhelming, but they work because they are also carefully dramatized as part of Claude’s musical development, and it is fascinating to watch his comprehension grow and to experience the mental and emotional conflicts that emerge as his instinctive musical taste is challenged by his teachers. Here’s Claude working out an idea he has for subverting a composition assignment on atonality (I couldn’t explain exactly what he is doing, but it has something to do with Charlie Parker’s bebop changes, which in turn has to do with the novel’s larger interest in the musical integrity and seriousness of jazz in relation to classical music–one of its more interesting preoccupations):

Gradually, enough bits and pieces emerged, and held, for him to sense the general shape of the first four bars, which would contain all twelve tones, without a unison or a repetition. He worked it all out so as to include a certain four-note motive he was familiar with. When he had the complete tone row, he double-checked the math and began to explore the upside-down and retrograde forms.

At one point he almost lost heart. He’d written himself into a corner. There seemed no way to use the retrograde row against the original without a number of fairly strong tonal effects creeping in. He fooled with it in a dozen different ways, but as soon as he excised one tonal effect another would crop up somewhere else. It was like trying to pick up liquid mercury with your fingertips. Then he saw something. If he broke the original row into halves–a modest impurity even by Satterthwaite’s standards–and used the second half upside down, the tonal intervals were avoided.

A more ecstatic tone enters into the descriptions of performances:

Trading off with Fredericks, he felt almost outside himself, listening to the magic flow, the shift of colors, hearing the pulse, watching his hands do their amazing work. As he shaped the music in his mind and played it, he felt Fredericks shaping and playing right along with him, their souls joined in harmonious enterprise, like two old friends who can talk without words, who can communicate a thought even before it has fully emerged, because the same thought is nascent in the other. Claude knew he was on the stage, at the piano in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, but at the same time he was somewhere else, somewhere he could not describe even to himself–nor did he have the faintest urge to, so heavenly did it seem. Watch it! Watch it! Listen! Concentrate! Here it comes. Here it is. This!

It is thrilling to imagine what it must be like to break through in this way, and the most compelling parts of the novel for me were about precisely that experience–the near-miraculous, rare joy of transcending the technical skill and mental mastery and sheer hard work required to become an accomplished musician and being wholly released into the music itself. As someone who loves to play the piano but never had the talent or drive to become more than moderately skillful, I was moved by Claude’s development and impressed by Conroy’s evocation of it. As the mother of a much more gifted musician, I also felt that the novel gave me a glimpse into what music might be like for him, something much more organic and dynamic and inevitable and irresistible than it is for those of us forever stuck on the other side of that wall.

I didn’t care as much for the rest of the plot. Claude’s mother was interestingly conceived but I couldn’t connect her story to Claude’s (by which I don’t mean in the plot involving the hidden identity of his absent father or that kind of thing, but thematically, particularly her political entanglements–and the working out of the fatherhood plot was the thinnest part of the novel to me). I really didn’t like the whole ‘haunted by an inaccessible beloved’ storyline, or the story of Claude’s marriage: the former seemed clichéd, while the latter seemed kind of perfunctory. Claude’s relationship with his first mentor, Aaron Weisfeld, though, was a beautiful thing.

4 thoughts on “Frank Conroy, Body and Soul

  1. JC July 11, 2012 / 1:34 am

    Loved reading these thoughts. It’s been about ten years since I read it myself but from what I remember I largely concur. Though I do seem to remember his descriptions of place were quite nice. For awhile, stingers were my drink.


  2. Rohan Maitzen July 11, 2012 / 9:33 am

    Nice to hear from you over here, John! You are right about the descriptions of place: there’s some wonderful writing that’s really evocative–and not just of landscapes and locales but of the novel’s historical setting. It’s also a compellingly readable novel: I stayed up late to finish it, which is always a good sign! And I was genuinely fascinated by the musical discussions, which are really wide-ranging. I just found myself wishing that all the pieces felt inevitable in the way they do in a really great novel.


  3. sophylou July 16, 2012 / 1:55 am

    Re novels on music, have you read Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing?

    It’s a long read but very rich, about music and family and race and, literally, time, and the last 50 pages or so had me in happy tears. My mother went to conservatory and I studied music somewhat seriously when I was a kid, and I loved how Powers treats the music, the training, the performing, the selection processes, etc.


  4. Rohan July 16, 2012 / 11:19 am

    I haven’t read it, but it sounds wonderful — thanks for the recommendation!


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