Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2020

Late Sonata, by Bryan Walpert

Late Sonata is an interesting novella, framed around the structure of a sonata.  And not just any old sonata, it’s Beethoven’s No 30 in e Major, Op 109.  (Yes, it has its very own Wikipedia page.)  You do not need to know anything about sonatas to enjoy the book, but it enhances the pleasure if you know that this sonata consists of three movements, corresponding to the three parts of the book; and that the sonata has six variations in the third movement, which corresponds to six versions of reality that the central character considers in the last part of the book.

I did take the narrator’s advice at the beginning of Part One:

Listen to Beethoven’s Sonata No 30 in E Major, Op. 109.  Really listen to it. Not while you’re cooking or ironing or reading or paying the bills.  Listen with your eyes closed.  Lie down on the rug.  If you can, listen beside someone you love, while they are still capable of sharing it. Give your attention to every note, every silence. (p.1-2)

#Digression1: The recording I chose was played by Gerard Willems, on the Australian designed and manufactured Stuart & Sons piano. (I have, BTW, on the TBR a copy of Brendan Ward’s The Beethoven Obsession which tells the remarkable story of how Willems came to record all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas on the Stuart piano.  You can read a review of that book here.)  But you can also listen to Daniel Barenboim’s recording here.

#BackToTheBook: As we know from the first paragraph, Stephen exhorts us to listen with a loved one while they are still capable of sharing it because his wife Talia has Alzheimer’s and she has slipped further into total dependence since the death of their son Michael.  Stephen is a flawed character, but his devotion to caring for Talia at this time of her life when he is grieving for a son she can’t remember, makes him a good man.  He’s not just alert for any sound in the night that tells him she’s gone wandering, he’s also reluctantly editing her last book.  Talia was a musicologist and this last book is a study of Beethoven’s sonatas.

At the same time, Stephen escapes into his own writing, which Talia had described as his redemption fantasies.  Again, the sonata structure that underlies the novella makes an appearance: in the first movement, the exposition, a sonata begins in the tonic key, and moves into the dominant key.  It’s supposed to resolve in the tonic, and it doesn’t sound ‘right’ if it doesn’t.  So Late Sonata features two stories:

  • the one that Stephen is narrating about his real life, about his memories, and about his struggles to confront his past, to resolve his concerns about marital fidelity, and to face the truth about his family; and
  • the other, the story that Stephen is writing, about Orville who is involved in an experimental treatment to reverse ageing, a kind of Benjamin Button experience that presents an older man adjusting to life as a young man again.

There are many poignant moments in this novel, but I’ll share just one:

What I never expected to emerge from the course of Talia’s illness was the sense of losing my own history.  Hers, of course.  I expected her sense of self to dissipate — though I dreaded it — along with her memory of her profession, her conversations with her sister, her desires and rages.  I expected her to forget the way we used to sit out on the deck and watch rain clouds thicken, feel the humidity gather in the air, wait with eyes closed as the first drops splashed on our skins before running into the house, a regular event when we were younger (at what point had it become history?) To lose my wife’s knowledge of who I am — that is in a very real way to lose the knowledge myself.  There is no one else left alive who knows as much about me, both from the recollections I’ve shared with her (Recollected too often, she said) and the length of the journey taken together.  What I know of myself is informed, even constructed, by her wry responses and reflections, the occasional admissions of affection, even admiration.  That is the oddest, though not the most important, part of losing her, even as she sits just a few feet away. (p.136)

#Digression2: ‘a few feet away’: this was one of a number of phrasings in the text that alerted me to Walpert’s American background.  (NZ, like Australia, has used the metric system for decades.) He’s been in New Zealand since 2004 and is now a New Zealand citizen and a professor at Massey University, but every now and again I browsed back through the text to see if I’d missed something specific that identified the setting as American.  It took a Google search for a Cooper’s Hawk which makes an appearance in the story to confirm what I’d suspected from this passage:

They like eating birds best, Aaron said — pigeons and, if they can find them, doves.  Maybe you’ve heard them called chickenhawks.  But they’re also eat mice or squirrels, chipmunks, hares. (p.57)

As far as I can tell, there are no squirrels or chipmunks in New Zealand. Cooper’s Hawks are native to Northern America though they can be found as far afield as Canada and Mexico.  But not in New Zealand and neither is the Sharp-shinned Hawk which also gets a mention.   Not that this setting matters, of course, Late Sonata is a fine story and it was co-winner of the 2020 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize.  It’s just that I was expecting it to be set in New Zealand and was puzzled when hints emerged that it wasn’t.

You can listen to this interview about Late Sonata where Walpert talks about the genesis of the novel in a MOOC that he undertook.  I liked his motive for this: he wanted to experience what it was like for his students, to be embarking on learning about something completely unfamiliar.

Author: Bryan Walpert
Title: Late Sonata
Cover art by Sam Paine
Publisher: Seizure by Brio Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781922267238, pbk., 157 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Seizure Online
Available from the Seizure Bookshop or Fishpond: Late Sonata or your favourite indie bookshop.


Responses

  1. Terrific cover!

    Like

  2. A new name to me. I looked him up: he teaches creative writing at Massey, and is also a poet. Interesting chap. Do all writers have to teach writing to make ends meet, I wonder? He’s not the first to use musical structure as a foundation of his fiction – Rose Tremain, for example, and even Thomas Mann. I’m not sure if that’s too forced a device? Then again, why not?

    Like

    • I should have remembered Thomas Mann.
      I think all kinds of structures can be successful in the hands of a skilful writer. He says in that interview that he hopes it’s a book that rewards re-reading, and based on my second reading, I would say that it does, though I would also say that it works equally successfully even if you don’t have a clue about classical music.
      What’s really interesting to me, is that I got the impression from the narrator, his way of thinking and talking, and his allusions to listening to records and hanging up the phone, that Walpert himself was an older man. But as you can see from the photo on his website, he’s not! He’s just really skilful at evoking the past era of his character.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds really interesting Lisa. That opening quote, and particularly that phrase that you later italicised in your text, gets you in.

    I clicked on the Barenboim link and just listened to a bit. Just love Beethoven.

    Like

    • Yes, I’ve been playing that CD over and over since writing this review. It has Sonata No 6 as well as No 30, 21 and 24, and I used to play No 6 in my younger days. I’d play it now if I could find the score. I don’t know what’s become of it, because there’s no way I would ever have thrown it out.

      Liked by 1 person


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