Sunday, July 10, 2011

The courage to question what we live for (Books - Appassionata by Eva Hoffman)

I read Eva Hoffman's thoughtful novel Appassionata while on my trip. It concerns Isabel Merton, a concert pianist, whose encounter with Anzor a passionate Chechen exile, leads her to question her life as an artist, one tuned to suit her needs for temperature control, practice on world-class instruments, solitary time before curtain in which she cultivates vulnerability - one in which seriousness is served by intense self-focus and in which such self-focus produces results that music lovers the world over value deeply.
She's free, free as a woman has ever been. Freedom is the element through which she moves, and she peers into it as into a milky fog, trying to discern what she is moving toward, what she so restlessly, so keenly desires. And yet maybe the man is right, maybe there's something hard about her life, in its deluxe later-capitalist way. She thinks of the stages she will have to cross before reaching the piano, the interviews, she'll have to give, the dinners she's promised to attend. Bourgeois heroism is what Peter calls it, the acrobatics of being in so many places practically at once, and doing so many amazing things in one day, and then conversing over dinner with unflagging energy. She'll have to be on the qui vive, it is expected. You must never be tired. You Must Love Your Life.
Although there are a few key events, this book's conflicts and action are largely internal. Anzor is indeed the mirror image of Isabel:
"...my country has been very hurt. Very damaged." An odd expression crosses his face, a setting of the jaw, a hooding of the eyes, as if to fend off vulnerability, or a private anger..."Not that I didn't want to leave when I was young," he resumes. "Or at least to travel. I felt so...restricted. To tell you the truth, I was almost excited when I was forced to leave. I was going to see the world."

"And Now?" she asks.

"Now I've seen it," he says tersely. "Now I think about my country. My mission."
The contrast couldn't be clearer, in fact, I sometimes found the clarity a bit pedantic. Isabel was richly drawn, and her combination of qualities fully believable, but I found Anzor somewhat illustrative of a position taken to fuel the conflict of this story. But Hoffman evokes their relationship with tenderness as well as tension and what she really accomplishes beautifully in this story, and this is key, is making Isabel's work serious and valuable so that her conflict becomes our own.

Hoffman has big talent for writing characters with powerfully motivating interior engines (even when they are externally quiet, as is true of Isabel's ex - Peter). She seems to me less precise with the details of her diction. Either she has a taste for or does not police her use of cliche:
Music which was nothing but shaped yearning, fierceness, lament, praise, lust. Blood, sweat and tears.
or
"But that music expresses our very own, special character, " he asserts, his eyes flashing. Yes, his eyes flash.
So, okay, perhaps she is conscious of her use of cliche - but its mustiness and imprecision occasionally pulled me out of this otherwise erudite and involving story.

Hoffman pits Isabel's internal struggle against the artistry of two other musicians, one her mentor, Wolfe, whose journals she reads throughout the course of the story, and the other a fellow disciple of Wolfe, Jane Robbins. In Jane we find the artistic opposite of Isabel, carefree where Isabel is careful, naive where Isabel is sophisticated, enthusiastic where Isabel is restrained. The passages in the journal are marvelous ventriloquism - the spirit of the opinionated charismatic guru artist is pitch-perfect , and some of the entries are downright hilarious.
A lesson with the cellist today. Jane Robbins, Admit it, old man, these young women pose a challenge to you. They vex your critical criteria. This one is particularly provoking. She burst into the studio almost rudely, with a wide white-toothed smile. Her breasts were bouncing freely underneath her blouse. There is something aggravating about the way she picks up her bow, as if it were a baseball bat. when I pointed this out, she informed me that she is "a very physical person," and has played not only baseball but basketball and girls' hockey in high school. She would have gone on without any self-consciousness, had I not interrputed. As far as I can tell, she has no inhibitions. She is like a big happy child who hasn't yet learned it may not be allowed to do everything it wants. She hurtled through the first movement of the Dvorak as if on a roller coaster, from one burst of excitement to another. Of course, it is an old warhorse and there was undeniable energy in her playing. But nothing else. No restraint, no tension, no wistfulness. Just this unrestrained...enthusiasm...She plays as if milking an ever-compliant cow.
Wonderful writing. What Hofmann creates in interleaving the journal entries about Isabel's artistic education, with this story about her as a mature artist, is multiple layers of awareness about the same person which resonate with each other in a way that evokes the harmonies and dissonances of a musical composition. I will not tell you whether the central tension of the novel is resolved, the pleasure is in accompanying Isabel on her struggle and finding out. Appassionata probes the contexts of art, and history - among the strong forces that motivate what we live for - and presents in Isabel a courageous character, in that she is willing to question mid-career why she does what she does and whether it is meaningful. A rich and entertaining read.

2 comments:

C.B. James said...

I like the description of the overly enthusiastic student you quote towards the end. Is Ms. Hoffman a musician as well? I wonder what a trained musician would say about this book.

Towards the end you comment on the main characters courage when she begins to question her life's work. I'd like to think of that as a brave act, but I'm afraid it's something that just happens after a certain age. One can't help but wonder.

Ted said...

CB - I don't know if she had any musical education, she does have experience of the creative process and she certainly convinces one of being inside the head of a pianist. Actually, I think questioning the basis of one's life is anything but a given in many lives, particularly when one doesn't JUST think about it (won't say any more than that as it would be a spoiler). I think many people approach mid-career and crave nothing but routine and protection from the pain of uncertainty, and do anything and everything they can to busy their lives and avoid or dull the nagging curiosity. Others don't, of course.