Posted on 17th July 2014

Posted by Sophie

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Anita Sethi on fiction and music

Pianos, violins, lutes, mandolins, string quartets, tin drums. Jazz, blues, reggae, rave, symphonies. Waltzes, ballet.  Open the pages of fiction, and all manner of music might flood out – both as a theme as well as in lyrical and rhythmic cadences of the prose itself. Music has chimed throughout the pages of fiction for centuries, and the relationship between music and fiction is sometimes discordant, sometimes in harmony, but never less than intriguing. Dirt Music, Frog Music, An Equal Music…the list goes on.

latNo more so is that relationship between music and fiction apparent than at festivals, where it is becoming ever closer, quite literally, as the forms are intertwined in the muddy fields: music festivals are increasingly featuring an ever-growing literary line-up and vice-versa.  This weekend I’ll be heading off to the Latitude Festival whose exciting programme includes the Literary Arena, which this year has appearances from Fiction Uncovered winner Naomi Wood (Mrs. Hemingway) as well as other novelists with new titles out including Mark Watson (Hotel Alpha), Patrick Flanery (Fallen Land), Luke Brown (My Biggest Lie), Nikesh Shukla (Meatspace), Zoe Pilger (Eat My Heart Out), and Andy Miller among others, with some reading at the aptly named Shed of Stories stage in conjunction with Litro: “Tucked away in the Faraway Forest, The Shed of Stories will house storytellers from all walks of life, lighting the imagination and weaving the audience into their tales”. I’m looking forward to venturing to the Faraway Forest to chair an event with Patrick Flanery and Kate Williams.  Meanwhile the fields of Henham Park will also echo with music from an exciting array of acts including The Black Keys, Damon Albarn and Phosphorescent.  Earlier in the Summer, Glastonbury for the sixth year running featured its own literary tent, the ‘Free University of Glastonbury’.

131doorwaySome interesting new novels this year with music at their core include the highly entertaining One Three One: A Time-Shifting Gnostic Hooligan Road Novel by Julian Cope (Faber), not only featuring rave and rock as one of the themes but written by a musician, too. Rave endorsements include those by the Manic Street Preacher’s Nicky Wire who writes that “the debut novel from the great cosmic intellect that is Julian Cope is as unique and fearless as the man himself” whilst Andrew Weatherall writes: “The myths and legends of Rock, rock and rocks collide on a freak-strewn highway leaving the reader feeling like a back-seat passenger suffering psychic whiplash”. Beginning with a striking scatological image of the protagonist finding himself in a sticky situation in an aeroplane lavatory, the plot goes on to thrillingly chronicle the adventures and misadventures of the star of the novel, ‘80s musical burnout Rock Section, who describes how he finds himself at one point “running for dear life as fast as my rock’n’roll legs would carry me”.  This is a colourful character who has in life sometimes been stuck between a rock and a hard place – but will an epic road trip along route 131 solve that? Little wonder that Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie has described the novel as “a hooligan saga of rave damaged psychic shipwrecks and mythic time travel”.

From rave to reggae, for the title of one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered winners, Mr Loverman, by Bernadine Evaristo, is taken from the Shabba Ranks song, to which two elderly men make love in a bedsit.  Music becomes political in this memorable novel, with one of those men, the Jamaican protagonist Barry, disproving of the homophobic lyrics of a Buju Banton song, exploring the link between song and social consciousness – and how the stuck records of prejudice can be changed.

As well as brand new fiction, classic novels from centuries ago are striking a chord in contemporary life with the reissuing this Summer of The Awakening by Kate Chopin in a beautiful new edition by Canongate. First published in 1899 this is both a timely and timeless story, in which protagonist Edna Pontellier, feeling shackled by marriage, finds love outside of the stale marriage, and music has a strong influence in Edna’s awakening; she learns the power of music through the nonconformist Mademoiselle Reisz, whose piano-playing stirs within Edna passionate emotion previously suppressed in her confined life, the chords of music serving to show her just how much discord she feels – a fascinating novel to consider in the light of contemporary debates about feminism.

Other new fiction this year to feature music in plot and theme includes Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (Blue Door) which powerfully explores the pleasures and purgatory of the ballet world.

There are many to choose from, but other personal favourites include Music and Silence by Rose Tremain, in which a young English lutenist, Peter Claire, arrives at the Danish Court to join the King’s Royal Orchestra, and realises that the musicians perform in a freezing cellar beneath the royal apartments. There is a discussion between characters in the novel about the origins of music, whether it can only be “born out of fire and fury”, with Peter Claire going on to muse that “we do not really know where music comes from or why, or when the first note of it was heard.  And we shall never know. It is the human soul speaking without words. But it seems to cure pain – this is an honest fact”.

The title of the thought-provoking An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, which explores love and the love for music, comes from a verse by John Donne, an epigraph to the novel:

And into that gate they shall enter, and in that / house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud / nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, / no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor / hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, / but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor / beginnings, but one equal eternity.”

the_ground_beneath_her_feetSalman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet also resounds with the power of music. When I interviewed Rushdie about the novel he explained: “I always wanted to write a rock and roll story and combine it with a love story”, and that “the Orpheus theme was perfect for doing this”. In the novel, music is described as “making love in a combat zone, insisting on the remembrance of beauty and innocence in a time of death and guilt; it privileged life over death” (this 1999 Guardian extract is filled with musical references).

Fiction which uses music in its very style and structure includes the heartrending Jazz by Toni Morrison, in which a beautifully orchestrated plot explores the ugliness of violence, abuse and racism.

Two novels from Picador this year featuring music as a theme include the fascinating Frog Music by Emma Donoghue and Shotgun Love Songs by Nickolas Butler and an earlier one is the unforgettable Dirt Music by Tim Winton.

Writers such as Ali Smith have also mined the lyrics of popular songs for meaning; it’s impossible to read her excellent hybrid of fiction and essay, Artful, without getting the Beyoncé song “Halo” stuck in the mind (for better or worse), as she juxtaposes pop culture references with those ranging from the Greeks to Dickens.

There are several writers who speak of how music was a primary passion of theirs, who had early dreams of being in a band (Simon Armitage), or currently combine their fiction writing with music-making (Amit Chaudhuri), as explored in an earlier piece,“Contemporary Troubadors”.

And then there are those instruments that are unforgettable: Oskar Matzerath banging on his tin drum in Gunter Grass’s eponymous The Tin Drum and the mandolin in Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – when I went to the author’s house to interview him, he showed me the shed where he himself makes many mandolins.

Such instruments have been transformed into instrumental plot or thematic devices by the writers’ key instrument – the pen (or perhaps more frequently in this day-and-age, the computer keyboard).

After getting the chance to strum upon an infamous mandolin myself, it was easy to see (or rather, hear) why storytelling might find such strange and beautiful sounds so seductive.

Anita Sethi is a journalist, writer and critic. She tweets at @anitasethi and her website is 


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