Tuesday 5 October 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Back in the summer I attended a classical music concert at a local church. I don't know about you, dear readers, but I love music concerts in churches. Despite my secular nature, I enjoy the air of tranquillity and harmony these gatherings convey, plus the acoustics are much better.

On this occasion we were treated to a short, but intense, programme in which Beethoven's "Clarinet Trio Op 11" was included. I had never heard this piece before so it was a pleasant discovery for me.

I've listened to a fair amount of trio compositions over the years, especially by Mozart but until the pianist at the concert explained what made this specific piece - and genre - so peculiar, all I was looking forward to was to being exposed to yet another facet of the great Beethoven.

I don't normally like artists unveiling the secrets that lie well hidden inside their oeuvres, or those they execute. Craft is craft. I like the mystery, the magic, the je ne sais quoi, mais je ne veux pas savoir, merci. But I didn't mind the exegesis this time. The way the pianist spoke about the combination of different tones in the composition, high, mid-range and low, made a lot of sense and helped me enjoy more the artistry displayed by the performers. It also, unintentionally, sent me on a reverie whose outcome was very surprising.

The presence of the clarinet and cello in the trio is to prevent them from cancelling out the piano, as our impromptu compère informed us. But there's another effect, too. Whereas the first and part of the third movements are joyful, the second (Adagio) is sombre and solemn, if also beautiful. It was this section I enjoyed the most and it made me think of those books I've read in which the author suddenly changes pace, thus throwing the reader off balance.

Depending on the writer's skill, this effect can be highly beneficial or detrimental to the narrative (I'm referring only to works of fiction). If it's the latter, you usually lose an admirer or future follower. If it's the former, as the fragment below shows, then your reader will appreciate your efforts.

A good example of how successful a change in tone can be in a novel is Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale". If you're not familiar with the Canadian's author's masterpiece, this is a book about an imaginary country, the Republic of Gilead, where women's sole function is that of breeding. If they don't, they get hanged or are sent out to die of radiation sickness. The main character, Offred, is still hopeful of fulfilling her reproductive role, but there's one problem she's not able to overcome. She can still remember a time when women were free. Offred has not been totally brainwashed.

Whereas in the first five chapters the novel fluctuates between a descriptive and a mocking tone (and since it's narrated in the first person singular, we're able to sympathise more with the protagonist's woes), it's only in the sixth episode where Atwood gives the reader the harsh reality of what the 'breeding' process entails. A small disclaimer, though. Please, be aware that there's strong language ahead. I saw no point in using asterisks because that would have lessened the effect of the author's words. Thanks for your attention, you have been warned:

"My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he is doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does raper cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose."

I've read "The Handmaid's Tale" a few times now and this passage has always left me speechless. The reasons are manifold: up to this scene, and as far as I can recall, the 'f' word had not been used, the first time it is, it's without an object, as in "Below it the Commander is fucking", yet the verb is a transitive one. That's why the next sentence starts with a "what", that is, the object. The dexterity that goes into that passage shouldn't be underestimated. The fact that the main character cannot find any words to describe what's being done to her is a challenge for the reader: if she can't, can you?

There's another passage in the same chapter, "Household", and on the same page that also manages to combine the horrific with the ludicrous:

"Serena Joy grips my hands as if it is she, not I, who's being fucked, as if she finds it either pleasurable or painful, and the Commander fucks, with a regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping. He is preoccupied, like a man humming to himself in the shower without knowing he's humming; like a man who has other things on his mind."

If in the first episodes the sentences are short and cogent, for this section Atwood makes an exception. Forty-one words in that first phrase. Forty-one words that render the handmaid's ordeal tragicomic in that the name of the woman holding her down is Serena Joy ("serene joy", maybe? is that what the women are supposed to feel?). In addition, the commander's rhythmic thrusts are caricaturesque and followers of Margaret's work will identify her very peculiar sense of humour.

In the same way that the second movement of Beethoven's Clarinet Trio changes the composition's pace from a brisk to a serious tempo, Margaret Atwood uses a similar trick to show us the horror visited on Offred and the rest of the handmaids. In both cases the result is pure virtuosity.

© 2010

Next Post: "National Poetry Day in the UK", to be published on Thursday 7th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Point made! It must have been a difficult exercise for Atwood to maintain controlled detachment with her protagonist in this scene. I read the novel a few years ago, and what I remember feeling was saddened and horrified, thinking there are so many women in the world still treated so.

  2. This is some parts of Africa right now without the benefit of getting to be a handmaiden but just an object to hurt, humiliate and discard in whatever shape or form the fucking leaves them.

    I read this a long time ago as a young woman. It would be more poignant to revisit now in middle age when so much of the world's cruelties towards women are known to me.

    Great post as always mi hermano. The picture on the cover is amazing.

  3. Dear Cuban,
    So interesting! While I have no experience with analyzing music, I could certainly follow your meaning on the literature. I read this Atwood novel many years ago and that passage still stands out in my mind.

    Interestingly, another author who uses this technique of changing sentence length and pattern is Hemingway. Many view his style as short and succinct, but there are cases when he uses flow of language to impart emotional impact.

  4. Dynamic new banner image! I like the easier to read font too.

    I love how you tied music to writing. As you know, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books. It haunts me like beautiful music despite the ugliness of the acts involved. Atwood uses dissonance well. I am in awe of her writing and your posting. Lovely trio too.

  5. What an incisive post. Comparisons between the arts are difficult to articulate but that was great. Thank you!

  6. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Yes, yoli, I agree with you, this is the sad reality for many women around the world.

    Greetings from London.

  7. I can't even tell you how many years I've been meaning to read The Handmaid's Tale. This review just gave me the added push.


  8. I must read this book. Thank you for a wonderful post. I have missed visiting. So much to learn.



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