Easy Reading for the Serious Music Set

Fiction

By Joshua Cohen

Published April 20, 2007, issue of April 20, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Overture
By Yael Goldstein
Doubleday, 304 pages, $24.95.

Golden-brown and beautiful, curvy in all the right places: a generous bottom, a bounteous top; the waist nicely pinched. Her measurements: 355 millimeters for the length of her back, 130 millimeters for the length of her neck. Ebony and ivory. What a body. And that’s just the violin!

The other body — no less perfect, it would seem — belongs to Natasha “Tasha” Darsky, apparently “the most famous violinist since Paganini.” Not even Heifetz had hips like these.

These two, violin and violinist, brilliantly complementary, are the most mellifluously wrought protagonists of “Overture,” Yael Goldstein’s novel about passions prodigiously deferred. Take the greatest hits of Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus,” in which a composer bargains with Satan for immortal genius; harmonize in a theme taken from the life of Alma Mahler — Gustav’s wife was a frustrated composer, too, whose husband, as a condition of their marriage, forbid her to write any more music — then update to the modern, making your heroine an ingénue whose true talent is often mistaken for her sex appeal, and, voilà, you have this book: easy reading for the serious music set.

Like many a disappointing “genius” before her (Ervin Nyíregyházi, anyone?), Tasha begins life as a child prodigy. Daughter of high-minded, deep-pocketed uptown New York, she finds her calling early: music. But should she compose, which is to create, or should she perform, which is to interpret? Which master should she serve: dead Europeans, or their reincarnation in the person of her boyfriend — or herself, her own self-tutelary muse?

That boyfriend and fellow Juilliard student is Francophone Jean Paul Boumedienne, scion of Continental aristocracy, and, inexplicably, an Algerian terrorist — a prodigy as much as Tasha is, though a strictly bound composer, prolific and intense, the inventor of a theory of music that Goldstein terms “Sublimated Tonality.” With its unrepentantly Romantic idée fixe being “to turn atonal music into something organically tonal, to spin chaos into control, raw sounds into resolution,” Goldstein’s foray into the technicalities of musical thought remains woefully abstract, “sublimated,” as it were, in inverse proportion — serial composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, invoked in the text as Boumedienne’s model, might call it “in ‘retrograde relationship” — to the warmth and detail with which she characterizes her lovers.

“The taste of him when our mouths met was so familiar,” Tasha remembers lustfully, if with all the laziness that comes with that condition, “I thought perhaps I’d guessed it from the smell on his breath while we were sitting so close beside the piano, but the feel of his hands cupped behind my head, sliding down my back onto my waist, creeping toward my breasts, also seemed to have belonged there always.”

In giving up composition for a life of violin, in deference to Boumedienne’s outstanding talent, with the encouragement of conservatory teachers and her supportive, if careerist, parents, Natasha modulates publicly to Tasha only — Darsky’s preferred diminutive, a flourish perhaps intended by Goldstein to invoke last century’s famous violinists, with their marquee presences that seem almost like professional endearments: Jascha, Mischa (Elman), Yehudi (Menuhin), which means “The Jew.” Indeed, this decision, for the interpretation of music over the making of music to be interpreted by others, is a worthily intelligent and subtle variation fiddled upon the roof of that olden Jewish theme: ascension. Just as European Jewish parents would begin their children on the violin or piano early on, in the hopes of fashioning a bankable prodigy who would elevate their status from ghetto to court, Natasha the composer becomes internationally famous as Tasha the violinist cover-girl. It’s a promotion, to the world stage, in a bargain that’s glamorously Faustian.

Like Goethe’s professor, and like Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn, Tasha has made a deal with the devil: in our modernized theology to be represented by the record industry, the media multinationals, the society of the Conductor’s Circle. It’s an irony so proved as to constitute a theory of music in and of itself: The re-makers get rich and known, while the makers fade away. As Tasha performs all over the note-shaped globe, and spectates as her daughter, Alexandra, becomes a musician, and — in a recapitulation that owes as much to European sonata form as it does to an American sitcom or matinee movie — a composer in her own right, Boumedienne falls into obscurity in the American Midwest. “But [Boumedienne] never did show up in my circles — or any circles I heard about — and after awhile I stopped expecting him to. I don’t know why this should be, but once I stopped waiting to hear his name it became almost unthinkable that I would. It was as if he had ceased existing for anyone but me.” This last suspicion might have turned an interesting conceit — perhaps a Faust’s hallucinatory lapse into a genius’s decline: incoherence, insanity, lonely death. But hope for such a fantasia is in vain: Goldstein plays it safe.

Plans for a Darksy-Boumedienne reunion manifest, collapse; Tasha begins composing again, then gives it up, and, her performing career waning with the appearances of younger, ever most attractive violinists, gives herself to supporting “Alex” — the issue of her union with an older Polish film director — yet another genius Goldstein seems to improvise upon the page (there are shades throughout, one must think, of Goldstein’s relationship with her own mother, Rebecca, a noted novelist and philosopher, to whom this book is dedicated, “for a level of generosity in art and in love that I can only hope one day to match.” “Judging from [Alexandra’s] music,” a conservatory character tells proud Mom, “there’s no telling how far her talent might extend. It’s staggering.” And so the reader, too, is staggered, by such yearning for approval.

Amid all the Darsky mothering and daughtering, the concert chatter, thrust tongues and heaving, throbbing bosomy chords, the novel’s greatest, and most lasting, writing is to be found in the unsigned letters that Boumedienne writes Tasha amid the days of his neglect and her success: “Creative, genius-giving disease, disease that rides on high horse over all hindrances and springs with drunken daring from peak to peak, is a thousand times dearer to life than plodding healthiness,” he counsels in italics. Of course, those are the lasting, creative, genius-giving words not of Boumedienne himself but of Thomas Mann. If Goldstein shares this sentiment, this desire for high-riding, daring works of art, what’s she doing writing an overture like “Overture”?

Joshua Cohen is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.