November 21st I posted a kind of preliminary review of Lydia Perović’s first novel Incidental Music: preliminary because at that time, I hadn’t finished reading it yet. Now that i’ve finished reading the book i have more to say.
A long time ago I recall Larry Niven explaining that they would find inspiration when two stimulating subject areas intersected. While a single idea could intrigue him, it was his recognition of an intersection with a second subject area that would ignite his imagination: and the story would begin to write itself in the tension between the two.
In reading Incidental Music I had the most curious sensations. Sure, we expect books to interest us, otherwise we wouldn’t pick them up and read them. But Perović’s novel concerns several subjects near and dear to my heart. I repeat, several.
Perović’s protagonist Petra (ha, there’s a mouthful), an Eastern European in Toronto navigates the tensions between her self-awareness and her conservative milieu as if she were Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms. Petra’s deadpan travels through Toronto set off many resonances for me, a second generation Eastern European, and a Torontonian. One of the incidental pleasures of Incidental Music is in navigating Toronto neighbourhoods. For instance, the church where i was married (first time) is in this book.
Perović takes on three other big subjects near and dear, via one of the characters. We hear from an aging opera singer (# 1), present in Budapest for the Hungarian uprising (#2), which she now recollects through the gathering haze of senility(#3). Readers of this blog will know of my obsession with opera. In addition, I’m a second generation Hungarian who has devoured tales of the uprising, both from family or from strangers. And I was close to a family member whose dementia was subject of a blog post awhile ago.
Perović makes distantly remembered operatic roles a kind of meta-text. Are we reading about the progress of a love affair, a revolution, or a kind of coming of age tale? All of the above in different ways. When I look at the complex array of topics, particularly considering how personal they all are for me, I can only sigh at how smoothly Perović crafted her interwoven tales of her three protagonists, and how authentic the accounts feel. I don’t deny that at first I resisted the Hungarian narrative –knowing that Perović is from Montenegro, not Hungary—but that this makes Perović’s achievement all the more impressive. In other words, this is not her life story, it’s an accomplished work of fiction, its points of view portrayed with genuine virtuosity.
The other big subject of this novel? Lesbian eroticism, and I must insist there’s nothing lewd or pornographic in what we read. It shouldn’t be a big deal, anymore than it’s a big deal when a man writes (or reads) about a woman or a woman writes (or reads) about a man. If we accept those imaginative stretches –when Shakespeare puts words in the mouths of such women as Juliet Capulet or Mrs Othello, or when Jane Austen brings Mr Darcy to life—then why would it be problematic for me, a sensitive male, to avidly devour accounts of lesbian love? For a man to somehow fail in his imaginative connection with lesbian love would, I believe, be tantamount to failing to show interest in women altogether. If I can read about a woman’s love for a man (I can and do), of a man’s love for another man (I can and do), this should be no different. I only mention it because it’s central to the novel, not because it’s such a big deal in any other sense. In fact it’s just one more aspect of the novel that’s handled with ease, and may i add, with class & dignity.
Music is not at all incidental in Incidental Music, a novel I recommend whether or not you’re a Torontonian, an opera-lover or an Eastern European.