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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Kreutzer Sonata by Margriet de Moor

The Kreutzer Sonata by Margriet de Moor. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005. First published in the Netherlands as Kreutzersonate in 2001. ISBN: 1-55970-744-5

First there was the sonata by Ludvig van Beethoven (Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Opus 47), published in 1802. Then the novella of the same title by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1889. Next comes Leos Janacek's first string quartet, inspired by the Tolstoy story, which premiered in 1923. Now comes this novel, based to at least some degree on Janacek's string quartet.

According to an analysis of Janacek's quartet, supplied according to the author, by the violists from two well-known European string quartets,

. . . in bars 1-45 of the first movement, anyone who wishes to can clearly visualize a beautiful woman. She is married. In the second movement, the con moto, with all those ominous tremolos, we can picture her meeting an elegant gentleman, bars 1-47, who also happens to be an excellent violinist. Firtation: bars 48-67; suggestive remarks: bars 185-224. Then comes the third movement, catastrophic from beginning to end, when we realize that the power of music is not always innocent, especially not when one is playing Beethoven, bars 8-10.

And so forth and so on:

Increasing madness—the third movement races on. Quarrel: bar 35. Lament: bars 39-59. The andante is a breather of sorts, but there's no getting around the score, so with a heavy heart, bars 60-70, the woman admits to herself that she would be delighted if a certain fantasy, bars 73-88, were to come true. In the fourth movement one thing after another goes terribly wrong.

This musical analysis is both potentially peripheral and yet integral to the actual story told in this novel. That is, the story stands on its own, without this as its plot, but is certainly informed by the analysis. Our narrator, himself a music scholar, with a master's thesis on Schoenberg (just like myself, dear reader!) describes several brief encounters, spaced out over several decades, with a well-known music critic, an aristocratic older gentleman, who blinded himself in a suicide attempt as a young man, in despair over a lover leaving him.

While attending a music festival, our narrator introduces the critic to a young woman, the first violinst in a string quartet. She and the older music critic eventually marry, and have a son. The next time our storyteller meets them, they are having having what seem to be severe marriage problems. The husband is insanely jealous of the viola player in his wife's quartet, though whether the jealousy has any real basis we never learn (just as in the Tolstoy story). He even plots and attempts his wife's murder, but fails (unlike Tolstoy's version).

So naturally our narrator expects that the two divorced, or separated, at best. But no, apparently they reconciled, and even had two more children. Or so he discovers, reading by chance an obituary, some sixteen years later.

This is modern, semi-existential style fiction, but endowed with a musical sensibility that colors and informs much of the narrative. Much of the story is actually told in the context of travel by train or by plane, much like Tolstoy's tale, which begins with conversation on a train. The narrator runs into the music critic in the airport, and they talk in a bar, or on the plane itself. The narrator's knowledge of the details of the couple's experience comes from conversation with the critic, giving the entire book a kind of second-hand third-person sort of feeling.

Nevertheless, more than marginally recommended for classical music lovers, or for lovers who love music, or anyone, like myself, who enjoys fiction that has a musical basis or is set in a musical milieu. Ideally, this novel should be issued in a multimedia version, complete with recordings of Beethoven's and Janacek's works, with Tolstoy's story included, so that one can enjoy all four together!

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