In 'Appassionata,' The Melody Of Failed Marriage Trying to put the listening or playing experience into words has led to some embarrassing moments in literary history. But in her new novel, Appassionata, former musician Eva Hoffman manages to avoid this fate.
NPR logo In 'Appassionata,' The Melody Of Failed Marriage


In 'Appassionata,' The Melody Of Failed Marriage

Cover: Appassionata
By Eva Hoffman
Hardcover, 272 pages
Other Press
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Eva Hoffman, a former senior editor and regular book critic for The New York Times. hide caption

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When it comes to novels about musicians, the old maxim, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," immediately comes to mind: There's something ineffable about great music, and trying to put the listening or playing experience into words has led to some embarrassing moments in literary history. Salman Rushdie's rock novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is, for example, better left excised from his bibliography.

But in her new novel, Appassionata, former musician Eva Hoffman manages to avoid this fate by leaving out any awkward or poetic descriptions of the music itself.

The novel follows Isabel, a concert pianist who goes on tour in Europe shortly after leaving her husband, Paul. When Isabel and Paul, an attorney, first met, she'd been attracted to the way he anchored her more passionate nature. But over time, that same attribute began to bother her. "When did she stop wanting an antidote to the restlessness, and start wanting to pursue the restlessness itself?"

Whatever the source of Isabel's wanderlust, she pursues it through recitals and a heated affair with an equally passionate and prideful Chechen activist. But the restlessness takes her much further than she had wanted to go — into a spiral of violence, memory and Europe's overwhelming history — and she has to find her way back to stability.

Perhaps better known in the U.S. as a former senior editor and regular book critic for The New York Times, the Polish-born Hoffman is, in her own right, a lyrical and nimble writer. She comes at the problem of narrating Isabel's performances sideways, offering a fragmented stream-of-consciousness that skips from one audience member to another: "Ah, thinks Fernand Mercier, the melody, weaving meandering, lyrical, ah, the sheer beauty / Chopin, comparable / it's in me, weaving through me, she's poured it into me." These passages, which read as an authentic rendering of listeners' thoughts, are representative of the inventiveness Hoffman exhibits throughout the book.

Appassionata is a sophisticated work, and not just because it contains discussions of Chopin and is set against some of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It's also a nuanced look at the role of music in our lives, the creative process and, most inspiringly, the good and ill that follow when all restraints are removed from our day-to-day existence.

Excerpt: 'Appassionata'

Cover: Appassionata
By Eva Hoffman
Hardcover, 272 pages
Other Press
List Price: $25.00

See her there, among the perpetual crowd, moving through the routines of check-in, security control, departure lounge. She's an attractive woman, with her stylishly cropped, reddish-brown hair, her clearly delineated features, and large, nearly transparent green eyes. She cuts her way through the airport's bland spaces with some impatience, her slim tall figure clad in jeans and short leather jacket, her head bent slightly as if to avoid notice. But there's something about her that attracts notice nevertheless: perhaps it is a certain concentration of expression, or of being; perhaps it is the pale, light-absorbing eyes. What cannot be seen, as she pauses to buy her bottled water, or look around some insipid airport shop, is that she's filled with a force of expressive meaning, a power of significant sound that enlarges the space within her to an immeasurable degree. Intimations of Schumann and Beethoven are always just below the surface of her mind and at the tips of her fingers, ready to emerge. She's trailing a comet's tail of music, a repertory of beauty and shaped feeling and strenuous human effort. She's barely conscious of it, this lived history of the soul; but it is always within her reach, almost audible in the stray motifs, rhythms, musical suggestions that inform her movements, and speak to her as eloquently as any sentences.

What she cannot see fully is herself, as she cuts her way through the old-new world, or as that world cuts through her. She does not discern the vectors of power within which she is held, or the currents of strife and change that may pass through her too, for good or ill. After all, the world through which she travels doesn't yet have a shape, and she is a new kind of creature in it. The forces pressing on her from within blur her own outline to her vision. She doesn't yet know what the music inside her is driving her toward; she is on the border of herself; of the present.

She closes the book on her lap, and thinks, this is only a transitional passage. The passage one hardly hears, the neutral arpeggio meant to get you from one theme to the next. She straps herself into her seat, wills herself into a kind of inner immobility. She thinks, only seven hours . . . The great machine rumbles and churns, and then crescendos into unnatural speed. Even through the shield of the airplane, something runs down her spine like the uncanny: a power of velocity and sound that could crush her in a mini-second. Then the stunning artifice of lift-off; the swoop above Long Island Sound; and as they leave it behind, the unending expanse of the resistless sky. She stares at it for a while, the vast blue space with no shape or horizon. Somewhere beneath the white noise of the airplane, phrases of Schubert rise up from within, with their lovely, fluent motion. Scraps of music, scraps of thought. To anchor herself, she reaches for her briefcase—the touch of sleek leather is a kind of reassurance; she is, among other things, a person with a sleek leather briefcase—and looks through the folder with her schedule. An anticipatory excitement simmers, the lit-up excitement of the tour ahead. A string of city names extends itself on the page with a still glittering allure: Paris, Sofia, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna, Stockholm, Budapest, Barcelona . . . Magical metropolises, her generation's fantasy of worldliness; of adventure. What is Sofia doing in that awkward place, though, and why didn't Anders get her Moscow or Rome? She thinks, how strangely arbitrary, and does it mean she is slipping, that the big cities will stop wanting her. That might happen, she knows, through some imperceptible elision, one never knows how or when. She peruses the file for the name of her Paris minder, and notes that it is Rougement. Well, that's nice. He has been around forever; he will cushion the first moments. There are some publicity materials

in the folder, and she looks at a photo of herself briefly and with some dissatisfaction. It was taken three years ago, and she didn't like it in the first place, its staged pose or the smooth fake flow of her hair on which the publicity people insisted.

She feels the attention of the man in the next seat turning in her direction. He is corpulent in a forceful, packed way, and he is staring at her quite intently.

"Excuse me," he finally brings out, with a careful respect. "I just couldn't help noticing . . . You're Isabel Merton, aren't you? I mean, I know it's strange to recognize a person from a photo, but I've seen you on posters, you see, or maybe in the newspapers."

She says yes, she is, and smiles politely, though not too encouragingly. She isn't sure she wants to get into a long conversation. "Well, I can't tell you how much I've admired your recordings. Especially your Schumann, the Davidsbündlertänze . . . So mercurial, so . . . true. True to the music," he adds, as if to assure her he doesn't mean anything trivial. He's speaking in a diffident rush. "You've given me so much pleasure, you see. In fact, I just got you on CD." His large, not unintelligent eyes look moony. He's face to face with one of Them, the veiled ones, an Artist.

"Oh, thank you," she says, and smiles more openly this time, sensing his difficulty, as well as her own. She has emerged from behind the veil, from the impersonal closeness of recorded sound, into this pseudo-intimacy of an airplane seat. It's undoubtedly disconcerting, this disjunction between her rather tired, embodied self, and the brilliant, disembodied sound by which he has known her.

"Are you going to be playing in Paris?" the man asks. "You see, I've listened to you so much, but I've never been to one of your concerts."

"Well, yes, I am scheduled at the Champs-Elysees on Saturday," she tells him.

"Ah, that's wonderful," he says with enthusiasm. "I was going to go to Perigord for the weekend, but I'll stay to hear you, what a great coincidence."

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