English Studies Information Server

Musical Novels

Disturbance of The Inner Ear by Joyce Hackett
A novel about music, history and love. Narrated by a cellist who has been playing her instrument without sound for over a decade, the novel recounts how Isabel regains her ability to play via an affair with an Italian male prostitute.

The Loser (Der Untergeher) by Thomas Bernhard
Two talented pianists are studying at the Salzburg Mozarteum when the celebrated Glenn Gould arrives and blows them out of the water. How they cope with their lack of greatness is the story of the novel. The eponymous loser's suicide opens the book and, while the narrator tries to understand it, he wrestles with the Herculean human task of finding his own "unique and autonomous being." You either love Bernhard's ranting, breathless style or you hate it - he's not an acquired taste - and The Loser, while not his funniest book, is his best.

Longing by JD Landis
Dense, and sometimes convoluted, Longing is a strikingly beautiful book about Schumann's relationship with Clara Weick. Landis's Schumann is a victim of his own demons; his love for Weick, the greatest pianist of the 19th century, begins when she is eight. The book explores the way the experience of artistic transcendence can destroy us because it either inspires us to an impossible quest to create it, or discourages us from even the most meagre attempts to do so.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Occasionally, after a few books, a writer gathers her bearings and hits pure, unalloyed ore. In this operatic novel, a group of international glitterati are taken hostage in a South American embassy by hapless terrorists. Trapped for weeks among them is a mega-soprano and her accompanist. As she practises day after day, her gorgeous singing shakes up everyone's assumptions about the identities they have formulated, and each person, hostage or captor, begins to find his or her best self. Under the spell of beautiful music, everyone becomes equal. Patchett's writing is spare, her spirit profoundly generous.

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
My piano teacher, an overweight woman with chipped orange fingernail polish, was a sadistic taskmaster with a metronome; the more Bach suites I played by ear, the more she lashed me to boring Czerny exercises. After I quit I read this book, desperately wishing I had been born into the musical Aubreys. The father's gone, and they are descending from poverty into destitution, yet their world seems magical; Mamma, an ex-concert pianist, is a wonderful mentor and, apart from Cordelia, who saws on the violin unaware of her lack of talent, the children are delightful prodigies. A world to sink into and never leave.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Reviled in its time as "gilded dirt," now regarded as the first masterpiece by an American woman, this Creole Bovary is the story of an ordinary woman who tries to break out of the narrative society has written for her. After a Whitmanesque sexual awakening, Edna leaves her husband and takes a lover for sex. Her emotional revelation begins when Mademoiselle Reisz, an ugly, pushy, celibate woman, moves Edna to tears by playing Frederic Chopin. Their encounters depict music's terrible power to pull us beyond where we might wish to remain.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
A gifted Swedish immigrant girl's sisyphean struggle to realise her talents as an opera singer, in a petty-bourgeois midwestern society where women's singing is supposed to be limited to church. A generation after Edna, Thea's journey takes her further, but the price of recognition, when it finally comes, is steep. Partly based on Wagnerian soprano Olive Fremstad, the achingly beautiful prose depicts the search for an artistic voice. As far as I know, the first all-out portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
A choir director in Maine molests his singers, including Fee, the novel's hero, who later finds himself the teacher of the choir director's son. A complex, sophisticated, elegant investigation of trauma and desire - like a white hot flame.

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
"Invisibility... gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat." Ellison takes the linear, progressive marching rhythms of Eurocentric music and turns them on their ear with a prose that, while it does not discuss much music, embodies jazz. In this story of a gifted black valedictorian who is tortured, taunted, and made invisible by the whites who must impose their myths upon him, Ellison explores, perhaps more intensely than any other prose writer, the literary possibilities of musical rhythm, time and form.

Corregidora by Gayl Jones
My favorite music is gospel, a raw, emotional call-and-response that opens the possibility of communal spirituality more than any other experience in my life. Blues comes out of a variant of this tradition, of slave laments sung as a way of relieving pain by enabling it to be shared by a community. In Jones's gorgeous, brutal novel, blues singer Ursa is consumed by the 19th century slave master, Corregidora, who fathered both her grandmother and mother. This novel is narrative as lament, and it is haunting.

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain
Arriving in Copenhagen in 1629 to join the Royal Orchestra of King Christian IV, Peter Claire learns that he will be playing in a cold winecellar exposed to the elements so that the wine may breathe. Through an ingenious system of pipes, the music rises upward from a place of miserable confinement, so that the sound appears heaven-sent. Music and Silence is a feast, encompassing a wide range of characters, and though the love story is drawn out like the slow movement of a Boccherini trio, the rich details keep one well-fed.

The Travelling Hornplayer by Barbara Trapido
Twined around Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin (which her mathematician father often sang), award-winning novelist Barbara Trapido's fifth book unravels the interconnected histories of Ellen, Jonathan and Stella and their friends, lovers and relations. Part Bildungsroman, part La Ronde, the novel's focal point is the moment when Ellen's younger sister Lydia is run over and killed outside novelist Jonathan Goldman's London flat.

Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty
Composer Catherine McKenna has more of a gift for music than happiness, but she has long since been driven beyond harmonies (musical and personal) that her Belfast family can comprehend. Bernard MacLaverty renders both sides of the equation: Catherine's feminist and aesthetic striving and her mother's more traditional grasp--it's hard not to sympathize with Mrs McKenna's impatient rejoinder, "You don't cope with music, you listen to it."

Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Joss Moody has died and the jazz world is in mourning. But in death, Joss can no longer guard the secret he kept all his life, and Colman, his son, must confront the truth: the man he believed to be his father was, in fact, a

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch
On a cold night in Holland, Max Delius picks up Onno Quist, a chaotic philologist who cannot bear the banalities of everyday life. They are like fire and water. But when they learn that they were conceived on the same day, it is clear that something extraordinary is about to happen. In this, Music plays a major part, not only in the person of a female cellist.

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
On a misty London afternoon in 1886, piano tuner Edgar Drake receives a strange request from the War Office: he must leave his wife, and his quiet life in London, to travel to the jungles of Burma to tune a rare Erard grand piano. A page turner; unforgettable and haunting:

Duende by Jason Webster
His heart broken by a failed love affair, Webster tells how he studied flamenco guitar, spent nights with a dancer and days on cocaine, all in search of 'duende' - the moment of ecstasy at the heart of flamenco. But can he ever infiltrate the most closed community in Spain?

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
Playing in a trio in Vienna, Michael the violinist is very attracted to Julia the pianist. But the trio splits up and the three go their own way. Several years later Michael sees Julia in London and, although she says she happily married and has a child, she agrees to visit Venice and Vienna with him... Seth is quite brilliant at conveying the intense and complex interplay of chamber musicians, in rehearsal and performance (an odd, obsessed, introspective, separatist breed).

for more see: A Bibliography of Musical Fiction by John R. Gibbs

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