Music in Contemporary British Fiction: Listening to the Novel

May 21, 2009

Whether or not "writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's a stupid thing to do", as a quip often attributed to Elvis Costello would have it, the uses of music within fiction are legion, and Gerry Smyth provides a fascinating overview of ways in which writers invoke the musical.

In its laudable attempt to deal with as wide a variety of both fictional and musical genres as possible, the book's structure is more Prelude, Fugue and Riffs than an exercise in sonata form. The introduction and first part chart the uses of music in fiction in relation to literary theory (including the growing critical subgenre of word and music studies), treating music as inspiration, metaphor and structuring principle for the novelist. Examples - not just British, at this point - are drawn from the 18th century onwards and include some fascinating insights: Smyth's reading of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure as a Wagnerian novel - structured through leitmotifs - is particularly striking.

The second part riffs on musical and literary subgenres in recent British fiction. Smyth is adventurously inclusive here, dealing with fantasy, science fiction and crime fiction alongside the Bookerocracy, and with folk, rock, jazz, hip hop and dance music alongside the classical repertoire. Along the way we meet established and early-career novelists, many of whom show remarkable inventiveness: for example Suhayl Saadi, in Psychoraag, imagines the narrator's life in music through a single all-night radio broadcast; and in the "semi-graphic" novel Horace Darlan, Andrej Klimowski subjects his principal character to Kafkaesque transformation, and the music offered does not produce the half-expected therapeutic outcome.

As Smyth claims, in much of this work music acts as a semiotic boundary marking the limits of language. Standing for the unwritable and inexpressible, the novelist's references to music nonetheless express emotions beyond the text, increasing the writer's affective power by sleight of hand. As long as the reader is aware of the music in question, or of music to which the author's imagined music can be compared, the writer can deepen the expressiveness of the text through the imaginary deployment of that which is otherwise silent.

However, music is - at least in most of the novels under consideration here - a marker in a rather different way, one that limits the range of the author's realism rather than expanding it, while also fettering the imagination of the knowing reader. To that reader, aware of past and present music but also of its cultural context of consumption, characters may indeed play Chopin's B minor sonata as the triumphant conclusion to a piano recital, or experience a Damascene moment having attended an early London gig by Patti Smith or the Ramones; such knowledge will reinforce the pleasures of realism as well as offering the consolations of the unwritable.

Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet offers a spectacular instance of the use of 20th-century music as, precisely, fiction; but equally of the ways in which music can act as a marker for the real. In this retelling of the Orpheus myth, two lovers who grew up together in Bombay become rock stars. To present this alternative reality, Rushdie reinvents the history of rock, subtly altering names and details, while also changing political history here and there to provide a credible parallel universe. The knowing reader will smile, or grimace, and move on; he or she will also recognise Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara as analogues of real stars of stadium rock such as Rushdie's friends U2, or indeed the first real Indian rock star, Freddie Mercury. In this way, we can indeed listen to the novel.

Music in Contemporary British Fiction: Listening to the Novel

By Gerry Smyth. Palgrave Macmillan, 256pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780230573284. Published 20 November 2008

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