The Violin Lover

by Susan Glickman

Published by Goose Lane Editions

242 pages, 2006


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Disparate Chords

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

 

"Music is the art of time, pure temporality abstracted from word or concept. Time as experienced by God and only guessed at by man -- rhythm and cadence, variable and pliant as air. Music is what you hear when you really listen ... And music is the art that stops time."

This, according to Ned Abraham, a practicing doctor who also is a violin virtuoso, is because when you play music you are playing toward the ideal performance which, if attainable, would only be followed by silence. Hence music is the art that seeks its own extinction.

Wow. Luckily, this comes halfway through The Violin Lover, a novel by Toronto poet and literary critic, Susan Glickman. Makes you stop and think. It wouldn't be my definition, but then I don't know music and musicians the way Glickman obviously does. And if she doesn't, she's done one staggering amount of research to give her total credibility.

Her research ranges well beyond the world of music. She's set her story in Jewish London in the 1930s, with Hitler's menace looming. A near destitute widow with three children, Clara has been encouraging her gifted 11-year old son, Jacob, to play the piano. They meet the doctor at Jacob's recital and eventually the former finds himself reluctantly agreeing to work on a duet with the serious young musician. While Jacob's sorrow at the loss of his father makes him only too eager for a relationship with an adult, Ned is slower to warm to the boy. Eventually, however, a friendship is formed through a shared love of music and the doctor's admiration for his young protégé's dedication.

More than a friendship is forged, unfortunately, with the boy's mother. The red-haired, passionate Clara quickly falls for Ned and is soon dreaming of the security and stability of a marriage with him. How perfect a father he would be for the adoring Jacob. The doctor, however, has never envisioned a life with four dependents. A womanizer, a traveler and a busy doctor who has his practice in the family home he shares with his mother, his feelings for Clara are largely sexual. They share little in common other than the boy and a physical attraction. Eventually the inevitable occurs; she falls pregnant and as attacks on Jews build and events spin out of control, each finds less than the life they dreamt of.

I found myself wishing for a feistier, more interesting Clara. A saint during the illness and death of her husband, and almost a martyr in her dedication and attention to her fatherless children, her passion turns her into a cliché: the desperate, plaintive, demanding mistress, the total slave of love. She's indecisive, weak and wallowing in a self-pity she never showed during her husband's long illness. Ned, however, is brilliantly portrayed. Clever and hard working, he's a man who will always put the brain above the heart, whose emotions will never rule his actions. Glickman cleverly foreshadows the man and his life in the first chapter, when walking by London's Embankment, he spies a drowned Jew and the gathering crowd, and chooses to turn away when someone calls for a doctor, telling himself there is no point. It was the unpleasantness he wished to avoid; the interruption of his routine for no beneficial result. He's a man who wishes he could paint because in art, at least, there is no corruption. "Things stay the same forever." We know well before Clara does that she's no match for him, an intellectual skating on the emotional surface of life who would never venture out when the ice is too thin.

Unfolding over a period of three years, while Hitler drives the world ever closer to war, The Violin Lover is impacted by the atmosphere, never overpowering but definitely underlining the actions of the characters. It resonates in the background, the tension of this gathering storm adding much to the tale. Interestingly, it's a story that ultimately reflects Ned's feelings about that perfect musical performance. When you read a good book, don't you also want to close that cover and be silent? To think about and savor it for a time, not even tempted to read another until the possibility of literary perfection again rears its head? Clever Glickman. | September 2006

 

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.