Writers love to evoke music when eulogising their work. They talk of the “rhythm of language.” They want their prose to “sing”. They crave musical fluidity. Compiling a comprehensive bibliography of fiction influenced by music would be daunting. It would range from the breathless descriptions of jazz in Kerouac to the turgid treatises on classical masterworks in Thomas Mann; from the stylistic experiments of Jennifer Egan’s suite of symbiotic stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad to Richard Hell’s drug damaged punk musician in Go Now; from Dave Warner’s satire of riffs and stiffs in Murder in the Groove to the TV tie-in antics of The Partridge Family #14: Thirteen at Killer Gorge.
One particularly potent fictional cocktail combines music, sex and mental derangement. Several examples spring to mind. In Thomas Mann’s retelling of the Faust legend, Doctor Faustus, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn is convinced he has bartered his soul to the Devil in exchange for the ability to create heavenly music. Adrian is aloof and distanced from friends, family and society. His art and the immortality it may confer is more important to him than personal relationships. The infernal forces that aid him in his musical composition also spur him towards insanity. By the conclusion, he is debilitated and dehumanised. Hubris and ambition have sucked him dry and left him a husk.
Buddy Bolden, the protagonist of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, has no qualms about exploiting his dexterity on the cornet to seduce his best friend’s wife. Ondaatje presents a fictionalised biography of a legendary jazz pioneer that lived in New Orleans in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Conveniently for the author, little is known of Bolden, who never recorded his music, giving Ondaatje free reign to spin poetic imagery around him. Buddy lives his life as he plays, spontaneously and continually on the point of losing control, dependent on others to provide a guiding backing rhythm. Although motivated by instinct, he is intelligent and introspective, yet he fails to understand what drives him. While playing, he fuses the blues – the Devil’s music – with the spirituality of hymns. His life is equally riven between good and evil, desire and the divine. During a parade, while trying to sustain an impossibly loud note, Buddy’s mind snaps. Adrian Leverkuhn crafted highly structured and intellectualised compositions, while Bolden riffed and lived in the moment, yet both descend into insanity and artistic and emotional emptiness.
In Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, a twitchy, wild-eyed train passenger narrates the story of his wife’s seduction by a violinist adept at playing the eponymous piece by Beethoven. The dishevelled Pozdnyshev seems close to madness as he spins his tale. As we only see events through his eyes, coloured by his prejudices, it is never clear if the seduction actually took place. Pozdnyshev is haughty and conservative, viewing the violinist much as pop stars were seen in the sixties, as overly feminine, louche and libidinous. Similarly, the music he produces is deemed to inflame passions and lead the young astray. Pozdnyshev criticises music not because it debases, but because it transports. It lures listeners into the emotional condition of the composer but without the context, leaving them agitated and wanton. In the conclusion of Tolstoy’s novella, a jealous and enraged Pozdnyshev believes he has been cuckolded and cruelly murders his wife.
Rachel Cusk subtly subverts these notions in her insightful psychological mosaic The Bradshaw Variations. Deep in middle-class suburbia, the Bradshaws defy convention when Thomas becomes a stay-at-home dad while his wife Tonie takes on increased work responsibilities. Thomas seizes this opportunity to enrich himself by taking piano lessons. His struggle to find authenticity through music results in hours of practice and discipline. Meanwhile, his sensible, non-musician wife is tempted by the spontaneities of an affair. Thomas is reading The Kreutzer Sonata when impetuousness and tragedy force the couple to reassess their freedoms. Guilt and shame prompt a realignment of priorities and dreams and desires are abandoned. Thomas surrenders his lessons and returns to work, while Tonie re-adopts motherhood. Conventionality quietly resets itself and the Bradshaws avoid the madness that consumes Pozdnyshey, Leverkuhn and Buddy Bolden. The Devil is defied, yet Thomas and Tonie seem snared in a comfortable, constrained hell.
Colin Varney’s short stories have appeared in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Island and Southerly. He has written articles for The Lifted Brow and satire for Adelaide Review and Tasmanian Times. His children’s book, Jellylegs, is widely used to promote protective behaviours. He completed a Master’s in creative writing at the University of Tasmania, mentored by Danielle Wood. Earworm is his first novel.