Beauty and the World
- Martha Baillie (Author)
The Shape I Gave You. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Susan Glickman (Author)
The Violin Lover. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Emily Doucet
The Violin Lover begins with Ned Abraham, violist and doctor, taking a walk after a concert. Ned’s enjoyment is interrupted by the discovery of a corpse floating in the Thames. He contemplates helping but decides: “today he would just be Ned, lover of architecture and music . . . and not Dr. Abraham, patcher-up of the broken and the maimed.” The troubling selfishness of aesthetic enjoyment is the central preoccupation of this novel.
There is also Jacob, young piano prodigy, and Clara, his young widowed mother. Like Ned, these two struggle with the expectations of an external world. Jacob is “not so much desirous of learning as of becoming music, so he could shut out everything else.” Clara spends her days fulfilling a series of roles. In a representative moment Clara undresses before her nightly bath. We are told that “her shoes sat waiting by the front door, released from their obligation to take her out into the world.” As she continues, she thinks, “there were always so many layers to strip away before she could find herself.” Susan Glickman’s characters are vulnerable to a world that has no interest in the creative.
Ned befriends Jacob. This connection leads to an affair between Ned and Clara, baring the creative cores of the couple as the writer investigates whether the attachments of the so-called real world can co-exist with the inner, true life. Glickman deliberately paces the relationship. It is consummated after an anti-Semitic riot and so begins a resistance to the world typified by all the escalating conflict of a world in jeopardy. The relationship is, however, finally made impossible by its attachment to the world that it began by avoiding.
Glickman’s emphasis on the ordering nature of art over the chaos of life suggests that the two cannot coexist. The disconnect is, however, not entirely redemptive. The solitude required for the aesthetic moment—a necessity confirmed by the failure of the lovers’ attachment—limits the possibility of any aesthetic rejuvenation of the world. As the angel atop the Christmas tree at a recital remarks, in a moment of whimsical narration, “people, God bless them, always got in the way of the music.”
Instead, Glickman argues for an amoral retreat from the world that threatens the aesthetic sphere. The novel finishes with an anecdote about an international music conference held in 1939, which “unanimously adopted 440 cycles per second for the note A in the treble clef.” If aesthetic ecstasy is a space in which pollution seems impossible, it is also guilty of a certain blindness. Clara articulates this ambiguity when, after a moment of musical rapture at a concert, she asks her son if “the feelings in this music. The yearning, you know, the sacrifice” are real. This central question of The Violin Lover is never really answered.
Martha Baillie’s The Shape I Gave You also looks to answer Clara’s question about the relation between art and truth. Pianist Ulrike Huguenot receives an unexpected letter from the sculptor Beatrice Mann, the lover and illicit correspondent of Ulrike’s deceased father Gustave. Beatrice tries, through writing, to make sense of her life in the aftermath of her daughter’s tragic death. In Baillie’s novel, however, the relation between art and the world is very different.
Baillie argues that it is art that makes things real, that things are heavy with meaning. Beatrice describes one of her pieces, which takes tree stumps and makes them look like tires. She writes, “I want each tire to be beautiful.” The aestheticization of the world contrasts with the aesthetic segregation in The Violin Lover. After an encounter with Gustave she describes her journey home: “Everything was terribly real—the cars in the next lane, the drivers behind their steering wheels . . . the salt I licked from my cheek, all these belonged to the same acute afternoon.”
Baillie pairs this acute reality with reminders that if the world is beautiful, and painfully real, it is also made anew by each person who notices it. Beatrice reminds us that the Gustave of her letters is of her own creation. The same is true of all relationships in the novel. As these relationships are narrated by the speaker, they are given shape in a way both true and personal.
As with The Violin Lover, this novel records an artistic crisis. Beatrice writes to Ulrike, “Ines is dead and no more stories are possible.” This crisis, however, is overcome through the act of narration. Beatrice follows each sentence of defeat with another sentence and so the stories continue. By the end Ulrike writes back: “I find that much of what is true is unbearable. Expressed in music, the truth is more bearable. By the end of your letter, you’d convinced me it is the truth you’re after.” This articulation of the midwifery of art in the service of truth, and the pairing of this truth with Beatrice’s letter, resolves the creative crisis of the novel.
Unlike the ambiguous coda that ends The Violin Lover, The Shape I Gave You is redeemed through personal passion filtered through the lens of an artistic statement. The Violin Lover’s uneasiness with its passion is a more complex position, perhaps, but a less successful one. Glickman’s attempts to marry form and content are less successful than Baillie’s who also uses different and occasionally warring narrative perspectives. Glickman’s choir of narrative voices is meant to suggest a musical piece with several instruments, but if unity is an attribute of music it is not one shared by the characters of the novel, and so the structure destroys itself with each new perspective introduced. Perhaps the tonal shifts, from prose to poetry to musical theory and back are also meant to be strategic. In the end, The Shape I Gave you has a tightness that The Violin Lover lacks. While the elements of Glickman’s writing are lovely—indeed The Violin Lover has more “underlineables” than The Shape I Gave You—the sum is more stilted than its parts.
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MLA: Doucet, Emily. Beauty and the World. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 142 - 143)
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