Thursday, September 1, 2016

Theron Ware's Chopin - "You know this part, of course."

Chapter 6 of The Damnation of Theron Ware has a long paragraph describing how department stores are killing small book stores:

When Octavius had contained only five thousand inhabitants, it boasted four book-stores, two of them good ones.  Now, with a population more than doubled, only these latter two survived.  The reason?  It was in a nutshell.  A book which sold as retail for one dollar and a half cost the bookseller ninety cents.  If it was at all a popular book, “Thurston’s” advertised it at eighty-nine cents, - and in any case at a profit of only two or three cents.

The entire passage is artistically useless and should have been cut, but it was amusing to see the anti-Amazon argument in a book from 1896.  Reverend Ware “was indignant at this, and on his return home told Alice that he desired her to make no purchases whatever at ‘Thurston’s.’”  Many chapters later, when we finally see Ware buy a book, it is of course at Thurston’s.

He is buying a short biography of George Sand, from the “Eminent Women Series.”  Ware, when the novel begins, is a cultural blank slate, purely ignorant of anything that is not current Methodist theology.  A chance encounter introduces him to a Catholic priest and the attractive redhead, Celia, who plays the organ at the Catholic church.  Ware had never set foot in a Catholic church, had “scarcely ever spoken to a person of this curiously alien race before” – Irish, he means.  Music is just as alien, aside from Methodist hymn-singing and parlor pianos.  So he has never heard, or heard of Chopin, thus the need for a book about George Sand.

Celia, the free-spirited Irish musician who has her own money, collects statuary, and describes herself as Greek, is the main imaginative source of Ware’s trouble.  When he first meets the Catholic characters, Harold Frederic plays a little trick, making it look for a bit like the novel will be a sincere bildungsroman, or perhaps even a novel of conversion, as Ware is enlightened and enraptured first by Catholic aesthetics – music, incense, and stained-glass windows – then by Catholic ideas, and then faith, just as Chateaubriand argued in The Genius of Christianity (1802), or perhaps he would return to his original faith with more understanding of blah blah blah, that is not this novel.

Up against the proprieties of U.S. fiction, Frederic cannot have the Greek free-spirit physically seduce Ware, so instead there is an extraordinary, and long, scene in which Celia takes Theron up to her room and plays Chopin for him.  “’He is the Greekiest of the Greeks’” (Ch. 19).

The dreamy, wistful, meditative beauty of it all at once oppressed and inspired him.  He saw Celia’s shoulders sway under the impulse of the rubato license, - the privilege to invest each measure with the stress of the whole, to loiter, to weep, to run and laugh at will, - and the music she made spoke to him as with a human voice.  There was the wooing sense of roses and moonlight of perfumes, white skins, alluring languorous eyes, and then –

“You know this part, of course,” he heard her say.

Frederic keeps undercutting the clouds of Romanticism with lines like this.  Ware does not know that part of the Sixth Nocturne.  He knows nothing.

This chapter was reason enough to read the novel, I thought.

Later, a character who is a mother-figure for Ware reveals that she has found a treacherous use for Chopin.  She is the wife of a traveling revival preacher, a professional revivalist herself.  She has set the standard Methodist hymns to Chopin tunes so that when she sings, the whole congregation cannot join in with her, so she is the one performing.  She knows that none of the Methodists will know any Chopin.

It’s a funny novel.  A little bit on the cruel side.

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