Friday, January 11, 2013

Reading List: Incidental Music

Language. History. Love. Sex. Opera. The narratives of Incidental Music, Lydia Perović's debut novel, are concerned with all these things, and intertwine to create a satisfying and thought-provoking read. The histories of three women unfold amid the Georgian houses of Toronto and avenues of mid-century Budapest. Rather wonderfully, the events of the novel also take place in internet cafes and on broken pavements, in too-tidy rented rooms and dingy cubicles and academic offices. An abandoned factory can be redeemed by the first encounter of two lovers, an opulent bathhouse become a prison to a lover betrayed. Unusually, each of the three protagonists is in a different life stage. Petra we meet in youth, but after its first flush of optimism has died, leaving only the uncomfortable shards of idealism to spur her on in a city where she feels herself an outsider. The sophisticated Martha inhabits a middle age balanced uneasily between fulfillment and complacency, and is trying to discern the differences between success and stagnation. Romola, a retired operatic diva, is an amazingly charismatic figure, even in the ruin of an old age where a long and painful past insists on infiltrating an increasingly fragile present.

The momentum of the novel takes a little time to build, but picks up as Petra's world expands beyond the echoing lecture halls where she tries to help students think about truth, beauty, and free speech, and as her orbit begins to intersect with those of Martha and Romola. Her collisions with myopic bureaucracy are repeated as tragedy and farce, both all too recognizable. That Perović engages with the mundane as seriously as with the abstract is one of the novel's great strengths, and not the least of its charms. Even the largest intellectual questions, here, refuse to stay politely removed from the hard work of everyday living. How can individuals best work for change within flawed political systems? How can real intellectual labor flourish when education is so often treated as a commodity? How do we define our places of belonging in a not-really-post-nationalist world? How can we love best... and how can we bear love's suffering? Mercifully, these are nowhere so baldly or portentously stated as here; rather, they are worked out in vivid vignettes by characters whose unpredictable humanity makes them a pleasure to spend time with. Read the book to listen in on their conversations, to convince them that they're wrong about Wagner, to ask them to expand on what they think of Donna Elvira. Read it for the wickedly precise satire (my favorite one-line character sketch was of "the young man with charm that never fails with strangers.") Read it for the images: for the snow-bound hut that, for the two women living there, might as well be Anna and Vronsky's Italian villa; for the mezzo who dresses for her lover while singing Offenbach, in an imperiled city. Read it for the pleasure of rare acknowledgements: that sex is a profoundly serious matter, and that ideas are a potent aphrodisiac. And read it for the music, which weaves in and out of the narratives, underpinning them or driving them forward, and sometimes, when most necessary, giving the protagonists the necessary vocabulary with which to think and feel.

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