“In the courts of heaven”: Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

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Pejorative generalizations about the ‘traditional novel,’ like debates over the ‘death of the novel,’ often seem to me unduly preoccupied with form, as if broadening the range of human possibilities expressed through fiction isn’t also a literary innovation or revision. The Fountain Overflows is a good reminder that  just because a novel is linear, has characters, and tells a story attached (however lightly) to life at all four corners, it isn’t necessarily derivative, tired, or predictable. All the way through it I was marveling how unfamiliar it was — even though to all appearances it is perfectly conventional. It is its own strange world, populated with utter conviction, and, best of all, told in West’s endlessly unexpected (and always, in unexpected ways, thrilling) sentences.

The Fountain Overflows tells the story of the formative years of the Aubrey children: Cordelia, Mary, Rose (who narrates), and Richard Quin. Their father Piers is a journalist and political radical, fierce, inspiring, improvident. His indifference to his family’s well-being is a palpable thing (“I had a glorious father,” Rose reflects, only to conclude the thought, “I had no father at all”), yet they are devotedly loyal to him even as their lives follow his erratic, disruptive path from job to job and patron to patron. Their mother Clare is a pianist whose brilliant career was cut short by illness. Her absolute, uncompromising commitment to music pervades the children’s lives and, ultimately, the novel, which turns out to be as much an exploration of art as a values system as it is a family saga. Though a sensational murder story takes over the plot of the novel at one point, it seems a drearily mundane crisis compared to the catastrophe that is Cordelia’s insistence on playing the violin. “Cordelia had no idea that she was not musical,” Rose explains, and once she began lessons, she had “shown an extreme and mistaken industry”:

She had a true ear, indeed she had absolute pitch, which neither Mamma nor Mary nor I had, which was a terrible waste, and she had supple fingers, she could bend them right back to the wrist, and she could read anything at sight. But Mamma’s face crumpled, first with rage, and then, just in time, with pity, every time she heard Cordelia laying the bow over the strings. Her tone was horribly greasy, and her phrasing always sounded like a stupid grown-up explaining something to a child. Also, she did not know good music from bad, as we did, as we had always done.

“It was not Cordelia’s fault that she was unmusical,” as Rose makes sure to acknowledge, but it does define her to Clare, to whom “Cordelia was someone who could not play the violin and insisted on doing so.” Worst of all, Cordelia’s technical proficiency deceives her pathetic teacher Miss Beevor into believing she has a great talent, and so the tension builds: how far will Miss Beevor’s insistence on fostering Cordelia’s “genius” take her? Will Cordelia ever realize that her playing is wholly inadequate? To her sisters, ruthless purists, her performances are an abomination:

Had the spirit of music appeared before her, it would have spanked her for there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her performance except the desire to please. She would deform any sound or any group of sounds if she thought she could thereby please her audience’s ear and so bribe it to give her its attention and see how pretty she looked as she played her violin.

The contest between Cordelia’s determination to keep on playing and the visceral horror her “musical idiocy” arouses in her family is at once acidly hilarious, and — once we realize that Cordelia hopes her violin will be her ticket out of her family’s isolating poverty — tragic. That Cordelia is profoundly misguided in thus attempting to use music to her own ends is never in doubt, though: all the energy of the novel supports Clare’s dedication to the highest ideals of art, by which “being fit to play Beethoven to Beethoven and Mozart to Mozart in the courts of heaven . . . is the impossible aim that all pianists must hold before themselves.” One of the most moving moments in the novel occurs when seedy, leering Cousin Jock — a man with no saving graces otherwise — stuns the gathered family with an extraordinary performance of the flute solo from Gluck’s Orpheo and Eurydice:

When I had heard Cousin Jock play before, I had thought he played too perfectly; it was as if he had sold his soul to the devil for power of performance and naturally enough performed without a soul. But now his powers dwelt humbly and faithfully with the triply mystery of the music he had chosen . . . That passage is sublime as pure sound; the mere relationship between the notes must cause delight. It is also a clear rendering of the climate of the legend, of the pure light of imagined classic Greece. It also states what is felt by all human beings when they have suffered a deep grief which is still, because they are not barbarians, within control, but is yet irreparable, even if its consequences should be afterwards annulled. . . .

When he came to an end we sat silent in the darkness.

Any sense we might have had that their revulsion at Cordelia’s playing was absurd, or at least disproportionate — that to compain “the music was profaned” when she played was to take music too seriously — is dispelled as we share in the respectful hush. To be “row[ed] away to the land where people were who are not musical” seems an exile more painful than the more literal isolation of the Aubreys in their shabby suburban home.

So that is one great surprise and pleasure and provocation of The Fountain Overflows: it challenges us to think about what music really is, and what it is worth — which is another way of saying that the novel is about life, and what it is for. “What is music about,” Rose asks Mary near the end of the novel. “Oh, it is about life, I suppose,” answers Mary, “and specially about the parts of life we do not understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.”

Rose and Mary — and, in her own way, Cordelia — are part of this cerebrally artistic world, but another fascination of the novel is that they are nonetheless children, and the novel also evokes the child’s world of imaginary animals and perverse adults who refuse to treat children as whole people. As the narrator, Rose seems anything but innocent, as she and her sister manage their unworldly mother and cope with their father’s eccentricities and withdrawals, yet she also reports things she sees but does not fully understand, West playing her point of view with Jamesian subtlety. She also (something else unexpected) accepts without question the presence of supernatural elements, from poltergeists at her cousin Rosamund’s home to her own ability to read minds — which, to her mother’s displeasure, she uses as a party trick. “We are Scottish,” Clare finally explains as she tries to deflect the interest Rose’s display has attracted; “we take these things more seriously than the English,” but the real reason is that Clare considers it unsafe to unleash these forces, which are not to be dismissed as childish fancies but rather repressed as only too real: “If there is a wall between the present and the future it is not for us to pull it down.”

The Fountains Overflow is apparently autobiographical: my Virago edition has an introducton by Victorian Glendinning that lays out the many connections between characters in the Fairfield family and those in the novel. I never know quite what this kind of information adds to our understanding of a novel: it’s not as if saying that Cordelia “is a portrait of Rebecca’s eldest sister Letitia” tells us what to make of Cordelia. It’s more revealing about West, really, that she would draw up such a portrait and then, apparently, have the nerve to dedicate the novel to Letitia, as if — what? she wouldn’t recognize herself in it? In a way, that would be the ultimate insult, perfecting the critique of Cordelia’s self-deception. I don’t know much about West’s personal life or character, but from that gesture I intuit that she (like Rose) put many qualities higher than kindness. There is in fact a cruel edge to The Fountain Overflows; that it’s expressed through aesthetics makes it none the less lacerating, and indeed another way of reading Clare and Rose’s musical idealism is as an elitism every bit as exclusive as the social snobbery the Aubreys disdain. Yet as I’ve said before, I think “the chief obligation of a writer . . . is not that she be nice but that she be interesting,” and I found The Fountain Overflows consistently interesting — not only for its intellectual preoccupations but for its human drama, which is as intense as it is bizarre. And I just loved turning every page wondering what sentence — funny or fierce, poetic or pathetic — would catch me up next.

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

Bel Canto is a beautiful, poignant, and fragile novel about the beauty, poignancy, and fragility of art and love. The simplicity of its narrative suits the underlying simplicity of its ideas: that music can transcend differences, for instance, or that art and love and beauty matter and should be nourished and shared.

In the early parts of the novel, these insights, which sound hackneyed stated so baldly, nonetheless come upon the characters as surprises borne in upon them by the extremity of their circumstances. Even Mr. Hosokawa, whose love of opera brings soprano Roxanne Coss to the party aborted so dramatically when the guests are taken hostage, has a complex life to which music can be only an accessory, an indulgence that makes a gift of a few days home with food poisoning: “He remembered this time as happily as any vacation because he played Handel’s Alcina continually, even while he slept.” The party itself is a business occasion: Mr. Hosokawa is “the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan,” and “the host country” hopes he can be seduced into investing, perhaps even building a factory. Only Mr. Hosokawa is there only to hear Roxanne Coss sing–and as it turns out, only he is there for the right reason, the only reason that matters. And yet, her singing propels the other guests beyond business to love:

They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

Some of them had loved her for years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing the music, the names of the cast, the conductor. There were others there that night who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that they would much rather pass three hours in a dentist’s chair. These were the ones who wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken.

In retrospect, we realize that this transformation captures the essence of the novel. But because this moment of intense aesthetic and erotic passion coincides with the moment the terrorists cut the lights, it initially seems associated with weakness or vulnerability, especially as the guests continue applauding. This impression builds as the guests in their party finery are surrounded by gun-toting guerillas who first take rough command of the house and then order their hostages to lie down; the guests are relieved, “like small dogs trying to avoid a fight.” Easy oppositions lurk, ready to cheapen the novel’s effects: music, refinement, civilization, under siege by bullets, brutality, savagery.

But (and what do we expect, in a novel called Bel Canto?) the music connects, rather than divides, guests from intruders. Quickly we learn, for example, that the uneducated terrorists (“No one having explained opera, or what it was to sing other than the singing that was done in a careless way . . . No one having explained anything”) have been emotionally overwhelmed (or is it undermined?) by listening to Roxanne Coss from their hiding places in the air-conditioning vents:

When a girl in their village had a pretty voice, one of the old women would say she had swallowed a bird, and this was what they tried to say to themselves as they looked at the pile of hairpins resting on the pistachio chiffon of her gown: she has swallowed a bird. But they knew it wasn’t true. In all their ignorance, in all their unworldliness, they knew there had never been such a bird.

And so it begins: an impossible, unrealistic, dream-like sequence in which, bit by bit, the underlying humanity of each character surfaces. The stale-mate of the hostage-taking, which maroons many men, one woman, and two girls of wildly different nationalities, backgrounds, and characters in a bizarre suspension from ordinary life, gradually liberates them to seek new loves, mostly of music, but also of each other; it’s a brave (but, we always understand, endangered) new world in which the worst come to lack conviction and the best discover their passionate intensity.

The sad but fundamental implausibility of all this requires that we suspend not only our disbelief but, to some extent, our critical faculties, liberating ourselves, you might say, to test and extend the limits of our own artistic sensibilities, to consider seriously, for instance, that song might, in its own way, be wielded as a weapon against petty tyranny:

In retrospect, it was a risky thing to do, both from the perspective of General Alfredo [a leader of the terrorists], who might have seen it as an act of insurrection, and from the care of the instrument of the voice itself. She had not sung in two weeks, nor did she go through a single scale to warm up. Roxanne Coss . . . stood in the middle of the vast living room and began to sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. . . . All of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear . . . .

Roxanne took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. “Tell him,” she said to Gen, “that’s it. Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment.”

How can it work? What can such a threat possibly mean to a man such as General Alfredo? Even he does not know, for the music has “confused him to the point of senselessness.” The stupidity of opposing art with violence incapacitates the Generals, as General Benjamin points out when they consider how to reassert complete control:

“If we put a gun to her head she would sing all day.”

“Try it first with a bird,” General Benjamin said gently to Alfredo. “Like our soprano, they have no capacity to understand authority. The bird doesn’t know enough to be afraid and the person holding the gun will only end up looking like a lunatic.”

However artificial the forms of art may seem (and surely opera is among the most contrived), over and over here the association is with nature, with transparency, with revelation. One of the loveliest epiphanic moments, less melodramatic than Roxanne’s confrontation with Alfredo, is Kato’s ascension from “a vice president at Nansei,” a man known “for being very good with numbers,” to pianist and accompanist. Kato’s playing of Chopin brings the young fighter Carmen to a new life; another terrorist, Cesar, is inspired and finds his own voice. Love and beauty are contagious in this novel. We are all either musicians or music-lovers, Patchett seems to be saying: isn’t that enough to allow us to live together?

Even within the novel, though, the answer has to be that it is not enough, and the certainty of tragedy on an operatic scale haunts the novel from the beginning. This is one cause of what I referred to as the novel’s fragility: it imagines impossibilities, dreams and hopes drawn from yearnings its readers may well recognize from their own encounters with art, especially with music, but its characters recognize, as do we, that theirs is not the real world. We are reminded of this by the recurrent visits of the Red Cross negotiator, Messner, painfully aware that the military is literally undermining the paradisaical garden in which hostages and terrorists play soccer. He knows, and they know, and we know, that they can’t in fact live there forever, despite Carmen’s prayer that “God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone.”

On the novel’s own terms, this kind of fragility adds to the beauty and poignancy of the situation: like fine lace or delicate filigree, the loves that form inspire a protective tenderness, a desire to save them from tearing or breaking. I think there is a further kind of fragility to Bel Canto as well, though, that is potentially more problematic because it arises from the novel’s deliberate distancing from history and politics. Take the refusal to place the novel in any particular time or place. As I noted, it’s always just “the host country”; the terrorists’ grievances and demands are boilerplate, even stereotyped; the government is an implacable yet vague force against them. This separation from real-world politics is necessary to preserve the fable-like sensibility of the novel, yet it undermines its credibility and perhaps even its own arguments: the solution the novel implicitly proposes is, after all, to real-world problems, isn’t it? But to imagine a way out of them, it has to leave them altogether behind, or reduce the conflict to the simplistic oppositions between beauty and power, art and guns, that seemed to have been avoided earlier: the only difference at the end is that by and large the terrorists too have been converted, seduced away from politics by love and opera. The novel also skips over any possible association of music in general and opera in particular with history or politics. Verdi, for instance, to whom Mr. Hosokawa is so loyal (Rigoletto is his first opera, and he “never forgot the importance of Verdi in his life”) was a hero of Italian nationalism; crowds at his funeral procession sang the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco. Opera may once have been a popular form, but today too it is inseparably associated (however justly or unjustly) with cultural and economic elites of just the kind attending the party at the Vice Presidential mansion. Do these considerations matter to the affective or aesthetic aspects of opera? I’m not sure, but there’s something a bit naive and wishful about ignoring them completely in a novel that pits opera against so many of the brutalities and vulgarities of modern life. This naivete is echoed in the extra materials at the end of my edition, which include a piece by Patchett called “How to Fall in Love with Opera”:

The fact is we need opera. We especially need it now. It is an enormous, passionate, melodramatic affair that puts the little business of our lives into perspective. . . . Opera, more than any other art form [really? even novels?] has the sheer muscle and magnitude to pull us into another world, and while that world may be as fraught with heartache as our own, it is infinitely more gorgeous.

As a life-long opera lover* who loves to bliss out to the Sutherland-Horne recording of “Mira, O Norma,” of course I agree. But I recognize that my bliss is based on escape, and while it may be escape into something transcendent and “gorgeous,” I’m not comfortable using it to measure the rest of my life.

And, speaking of being a life-long opera lover, I thought Bel Canto betrayed some signs of its author having (as she admits) come to opera relatively late. For one thing, Roxanne Coss’s repertoire is entirely predictable, from “O Mio Babbino Caro” to the “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka. I suppose familiar tracks were meant as a way to make the novel’s emphasis on opera (to some, as initially to Patchett, an esoteric expertise) user-friendly. Still, the risk is that the transcendent aesthetic moments in the novel approach cliche to the knowledgeable reader. (My own operatic taste is quite mainstream, but even I might have sought out arias with more thematic resonance–facing Alfredo with “Vissi d’arte” instead, for example, an area which does come up later on but more incidentally). Patchett points to Renee Fleming as one of her favourite singers (“I came to believe that Renee Fleming was the living embodiment of art”), a feeling I certainly second, but like Mr. Hosokawa, she shows little historical reach in her other recommendations, and even Fleming, whose voice is certainly beautiful, is no better to my ear, and maybe not as breathtaking, as early recordings of Leontyne Price or Montserrat Caballe. But here, of course, I’m heading well away from the novel (and into the dangerous waters of opera fandom, where everyone notoriously steers by their own stars).

The final weakness I felt in the novel was its epilogue. Patchett should have had the courage of her operatic predecessors and ended with her catastrophe, which I found painful, shocking, and inevitable. Tragic operas don’t rescue you from the emotional impact of their conclusions. Alfredo does not find consolation in Flora’s arms for the loss of Violetta; Rodolfo has no second chance at love after Mimi’s death; nobody responds to Pinkerton’s anguished cries of “Butterfly!” as he rushes upon her corpse; Amneris does not force open the tomb and give Radames a second chance he wouldn’t want anyway. Operatic love is total; there are no compromises. Perhaps Patchett could not accommodate this aspect of opera into her utopian vision, but the result of the epilogue for me was not the sustenance of hope but the bathos of anti-climax.

That said, I carried Bel Canto around for several days after I finished it. I wanted to read parts of it again and again; I needed to think about it; and I was sorry it ended, sorry its dream was over.


*Life-long, you ask? Not really an exaggeration: I still cherish an LP of highlights from La Traviata I got for my 5th birthday and had signed by La Stupenda herself in 1976 (I was 9).

Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

What an extraordinary, intense, poignant book. The central love story is compelling as a romance but would be conventional, perhaps even trite, if it weren’t entangled with another story about a different kind of love–for music. Michael’s desire for Julia, which borders on the obsessive, is itself a musical passion, aroused by and motivated by her playing, or their playing together. But his desire for his violin comes to seem like a purer form of desire, for something that transcends the impurities of human relationships or even human characters, with their flaws and imbalances. People (alas!) cannot be tuned to accommodate different needs, to make new or different combinations, new beauties. How utopian chamber music comes to seem here, as the members of the quartet ease away from their messy lives through the simplicity of a scale played in unison, until they are ready and generous enough to take their turns, to share the work and the pleasure of the music. But though I felt it this way, the novel itself is never sentimental. In his “Author’s Note” Seth remarks that he felt “gripped with anxiety” at the thought of writing about music, to him “dearer even than speech.” Perhaps as a result, he uses a spare but high-pressure style, relentlessly paced, never indulgent; the moments of grace appear as just that, moments in a turbulent, complicated world, themselves achieved by hard work, constant rehearsal, trial and error. Even the risky conceit of Julia’s hearing loss is handled coolly; like Michael, we shy away from pity even as we wonder how and why she can continue to make music she can hear fully only in her head. Beethoven too, we know, of course made music even after he could not hear it himself. In Julia’s case (she’s a fictional character, after all) we might ask if there is a metaphorical or symbolic dimension. Characters lose their sight in order to gain insight; is music here also a state of mind or perception from which sensory experience is a distraction? “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter”? But in the end it does seem to be the “heard melodies” that matter here, outweighing and outlasting every other desire, met or unmet, every painful, joyful love:

Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music–not too much, or the soul could not sustain it–from time to time.

Some love stories leave us longing (no doubt in vain) for that “happily ever after” ending, the miraculously harmonious human relationship. This one has left me longing for Bach and Schubert.

Follow-up: To my joy, it turns out there is a companion CD for this novel. I eagerly await its arrival and, eventually, a second reading of the novel complete with soundtrack.