Mathieu Boutin: L’Oreille Absolue (Perfect Pitch), Druide, 2013.
Mathieu Boutin is a Quebecois originally trained as a musician – and in fact worked as a violonist doing private gigs to support himself through law school. He practices as a lawyer and then became an editor of law texts for a publishing house. As if he weren’t busy enough, he also wrote several children’s books on the side, and this was his debut novel for adults. I met him in 2015 at Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland, where he was on a writing retreat, gave a reading and of course signed his book for me. I am giving all this background, because in this novel we find all of his knowledge of music, experience of a musician’s lifestyle and the very readable style that is often more present in YA or children’s literature than in literary fiction.
It’s the story of two violonists. Young David is an itinerant musician, competent but no genius, desperate to prove to his family that he can make a living as a musician, but also quite enjoying the various freelance gigs that he gets to do as a member of a quartet (the other members of the quartet all being beautiful young women). Meanwhile, Robert is in his fifties and has a steady job as a violonist in the second row of an orchestra. Although he has the perfect pitch of the title, he is quite content to never quite be the musical genius his glamorous, hugely talented pianist mother had hoped he would become. Now even he has to admit his mother is suffering from dementia, but he can’t bring himself to put her into a home, where she wouldn’t be able to play piano any time she felt like it. He also wants to help David to build a career, but his social skills are poor and he makes David feel uncomfortable.
It is a fun read, especially for those who are fond of classical music. It has many specialist references, some of which were probably way over my head, but which I enjoyed nevertheless. For example, do you know that the Italians and French call the sound-box in a violin the ‘anima’ or ‘âme’, which means ‘soul’, while the English use the more prosaic term ‘sound box’? Then there is a beautiful passage, which reminded me of the description of the circulation of the plague in Hamnet, which links the death of Bach in 1750 with a squirrel dropping acorns in the village of Thoiry in the French Jura, which grow into a beautiful oak tree that then gets cut down and used to make a beautifully-sounding violin that David inherits from his uncle.
Although the ending seems a bit too coincidental, it makes for a refreshing change to read about characters who may appear somewhat strange, but overall are quite nice… and passionate about what they do. And of course there are sharp digs at those who hire classical musicians for various corporate or life events, but treat the musicians like servants and don’t even like the kind of music they play. It’s a shame that Boutin doesn’t seem to have published anything since, because I’d really like to read more by him.
Inger Ash Wolfe: A Door in the River, Pegasus Crime, 2012.
The Canadian author Michael Redhill uses this pseudonym for his Hazel Micallef crime fiction series. I had seen the author talking about his work at Canada House in 2018 and found his literary fiction interesting, though challenging. So I wanted to give his crime fiction a whirl.
Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef herself is quite a lovely creation: middle-aged, divorced, sensible, a pillar of the community in Westmuir County, Ontario, trying to look after her fragile yet stubborn elderly mother. However, the story of women in captivity being forced into prostitution is one of those themes that I’ve become heartily sick of in recent years. Perhaps it would have made more of an impression if I had read the book when it first came out. It is certainly not badly written, and at least one of the victims manages to get out and plan a revenge. (Although she is a killer on the rampage, you cannot help but wish her well – or at least have conflicted loyalties.)
Anne Carson: Plainwater
I’m not quite sure how to describe this volume – it’s a collection of essays, some fragments of poetry, something like travel memoir, flash fictions… a little bit of everything, really. There doesn’t seem to be a unified theme. We have the poems (not sure if they are real or imagined) of Mimnermos, an Ancient Greek hedonistic poet, and also a series of interviews with him. A whole section of poems dedicated to towns: desert town, wolf town, memory town, town of the exhumation, town of my farewell to you and so on. Some sections felt almost trite, and I was unsure whether they deserved to be included,
It’s impossible really to review Anne Carson’s work: half of the time I think she is far too clever for me and I cannot possibly keep up with her. The other half of the time, she makes me want to stop and ruminate, she provides me with so much inspiration and source material for my own poems.
My favourite part was the section entitled The Anthropology of Water, which starts with the words:
Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried.
It is actually about a trip that the narrator makes, a pilgrimage to Compostela, when the pain of seeing the father sink into dementia becomes too much. Although there are place names, historical figures such as El Cid, and descriptions of towns and landscapes and the people the pilgrim meets, it is of course equally about an inner journey.
To look for the simplest question, the most obvious facts, the doors that no one may close, is what I meant by anthropology. I was a strong soul. Look I will change everything, all the meanings!… After all, the only rule of travel is, Don’t come back the way you went. Come a new way.
There is another road trip, this time in the American Mid-West: Indiana, Kansas, Colorado. The voyage also becomes a reason to delve deeper into family relationships and sense of identity – there are very interesting observations here about gender and, as you might expect if you’ve read anything else by Anne Carson, an ambiguous feeling about love, almost a fear of the physicality of it. Everything meaningful should be happening from the neck upwards, the poet persona seems to say – or is that where our greatest power to wound lies?
Humans in love are terrible. You see them come hungering at one another like prehistoric wolves, you see something struggling for life in between them like a root or a soul and it flares for a moment, then they smash it. The difference between them smashes the bones out. So delicate the bones.