War stories

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a Pulitzer prize winner and has been on the best selling list in Australia for some time.

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Yet I have put off reviewing it, just as I put off reading it. I bought it at the airport on my way to Perth at Christmas time, and read some of it on the plane. As soon as I found other books to read, I put it aside, and kept doing this until I had nothing left to read, then I finished it. I’m not sure why I was and am so lukewarm. This book has been critically acclaimed, and many reviewers on Goodreads give it 5 stars. I would give it 3 and a half. 3 for moral worthiness and invention and metaphorical intensity, and half for characterisation and narrative construction. It is an unusual war story, taking two children from opposite sides of the war, Nazi Germany and occupied France, and winding their semi-captive lives on separate spools until finally they weave together briefly, only to separate again. Perhaps this is part of my resistance. I feel their lives have been engineered by the author from the start, as if he’d said ‘how can I show how it was to be a child with few choices on each side of the war, and how, when they are brought together, they can both transcend the war and yet remain captured by it?’

This conscious construction is evident for me in the structuring of the story, which is told in brief, alternating episodes, counterpointed with episodes in another voice, that of an ageing, terminally ill Nazi officer hunting for a priceless treasure that the French girl is unknowingly keeper of. I found the toing and froing of the narrative very distracting, especially as the time frame keeps changing between remote and recent past and present, in no particular order (that I could see). Dates are put at the front of each section, but I had to keep referring back to them to keep track.

As for the characters, each of them is unusual, verging on deformed or damaged, in different ways. Marie-Laure, the French girl, is blind from the age of six, and so perforce lives in a world she cannot see yet imagines vividly through other senses. This become particularly intense in the climactic scenes when she is being hunted by the Nazi officer. He is bizarre in his insane obsession with the treasure and disregard of the bigger picture of which he is part. Werner, the German boy, is gifted, a self-taught genius in electronics, which wins him survival in a Hitler Youth school and a job hunting Resistance fighters. An orphan, his emotions are constricted, his main object of affection (in absentia for most of the story) being his sister, until he meets Marie-Laure, only to have to separate from her to save her life. Each character, in their own way, could unfold as a unique  and tragic /grotesque study in loss, obsession and survival. Intersecting their lives should intensify their strange beauty/grotesquerie. Clearly, many readers feel it does. It didn’t work for me. Marie-Laure seems more real than the others, but she is so rarefied and un-childlike, she remains an idea for me.

This book reminded me of The Book Thief. I was a dissenter from the admiration it received too. I find them both over-constructed, and for different reasons, disengaging.

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Memoir of late love

Elopement: a Memoir by Maureen Helen  is an engrossing read, which held my attention from start to finish. This although I had already read the story a couple of times, having edited an earlier draft and a later one. Maureen is a friend of mine, and I knew her during the years when she was living the life described here, and then writing the story of it.

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It seems an unlikely story — two septuagenarians, Maureen and John, life-long friends, falling in love a couple of years after the death of John’s first wife, and deciding to elope rather than have a family wedding. An interesting and risky choice, as was brought home to them when their friends and family found out. But not one they regretted, as they enjoyed their honeymoon in Paris and the south of France. The falling in love happens slowly, from its tiny beginnings on a holiday together in South Australia, to its unfolding while they work together to paint and restore John’s beloved old yacht, Amigo Diablo, and Maureen tentatively explores the pleasures and risks of sailing. Falling in love and getting married is the easy part. The hard part is living together for the first four years in the house John and his first wife had shared, and where she died painfully of cancer, nursed by John. Not only does Maureen feel out of place in a house saturated in the past and furnished in a style and in a suburb she does not like; she has given up her own pretty house and garden, her car, her independence, won over many years as a single parent, graduate/postgraduate student and career woman in allied health. She has a large and close family, who all accept and quickly grow to love John. But John’s smaller family are still grieving for their mother, and resent Maureen’s new place in their father’s life.

The most engaging quality of this book is the writer’s honesty. She is very frank about her turmoil of feelings, her resentment, regret, anger, and despair, which are not unrelieved, but increasingly affect her health and their relationship. She becomes ill, and there is a crisis, which brings about a fresh start and the fundamental changes on both sides needed for their relationship to recover, for their ‘earlier, unexpected old-age-love’ to re-emerge.

There are several risks Maureen takes in writing and publishing this memoir. First, to write a story of their love and shared life together while in the midst of it, so to speak; and to do this at an early stage of their marriage. This is a story that couldn’t wait to be told, since Maureen needed to write, which kept her spirit alive, and ‘time and tide wait for no (wo)man’. To write such a memoir which gives a frank picture of a marriage and its trials and discontents, and of the tensions and discords with family members, is a courageous act. To do it with the knowledge and blessing of the partner speaks volumes for the strength of their relationship and commitment to each other.

The theme which emerges most strongly for me is that celibacy and independence, Maureen’s lifestyle choice before she fell in love, can be a happy, fulfilling pathway; she gave up  more than she realised when she made the choice to marry. But Maureen is able to do things with John, like sailing, travelling in Australia and overseas, caravanning, that she would not have done alone at that stage of her life. The regret for what is lost that afflicts her through much of the years described is resolved, and a mutually satisfying balance is found.

The tension and empathic unease I felt through many pages dissolved, and I closed the book feeling happy, not only that my friend has found a new, fulfilling life, but that she has written a story of it which will engage, move and inspire readers.

 

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Neapolitan Quartet

The Story of a Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Anna Goldstein, and published in Australia by Text, is the final volume in the Neapolitan quartet, a mammoth work published over the last three years, by a pseudonymous Italian author. 9781925240511

When I finished the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, I was fascinated but ambivalent. This is part of my review of it, in an earlier blog I wrote, “A Mixed Bag: Books I’ve Read Lately”:

At best I can say this is an interesting and intriguing book but it didn’t grip me and make me want to see what happens after the end of the story. It gave me a window into an unfamiliar world, but I felt very much an outsider to it; perhaps this reflects how Elena felt, a misfit, longing to get outside the confines of this narrow world, trapped in it by her childhood, seeing education as her escape. Whereas Lila, the wild one, remains trapped. I will read the sequels.

As I’ve read the sequels, I have remained ambivalent. On the one hand, I admire the author’s immense skill in weaving the complex story of the lives of two friends and the large cast of characters who revolve around them in a strange galaxy where loyalty, love and creativity are inextricably mixed with hatred, lust, betrayal, manipulation and disillusionment. Where the central character, Elena or Lenu, educates herself out of her violent, impoverished, chaotic background, marries a professor and becomes a successful author and feminist theorist. Where her friend and soulmate, Lila, who she always suspects is more brilliant than she is, remains trapped in the Naples they were born into, but keeps drawing Lenu back into that world. Where serially they love and abandon the radical, brilliant man from their neighbourhood who uses and betrays them. Lenu, the narrator, struggles to tell the story of their friendship, to distil the essence of her friend, and ultimately fails. In the process, Lenu loses the love of her life (through disillusionment) and Lila loses her daughter, a little girl of seven who mysteriously disappears. They grow old, Lila disappears, and Lenu asks: “What is the point of these pages, then? I intended to capture her, to have her beside me again, and I will die without knowing if I succeeded.” Then, she receives a parcel roughly wrapped in newspaper. To reveal what is in it would be even more of a spoiler than those I’ve already given away. Suffice to say, it  is a relic from their childhood together, and Lenu is unable to interpret it, and is left with two conflicting stories of their entwined destinies: one of deception, one of the return of friendship. “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity.”

Obscure it remains, and perhaps that is why I am ambivalent. Perhaps I am an incurable romantic and redemptionist, and want the characters in a story to reach some sort of resolution or at least awareness. Perhaps these Neapolitan stories are too postmodern for me, too open-ended, ambiguous, unresolved, like a secret that has no heart, kept alive only by the mystery. So although I was compelled to keep reading till I finished, I quickly forgot the world I had witnessed, and the only thing that has made me revisit it is a wish to tidy my desk by writing a blog about it so I can put it away on the shelf.

 

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Memoir of bushfire survivor

All the Days After, by Sue Gunningham, Finch Publishing 2015, is a compelling story of a woman’s grief and journey of love beyond Black Saturday, the day when the catastrophic fires began in Victoria , 7 February 2009.

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From the Black Saturday website:

The Black Saturday Bushfires killed 173 people, injured 414 people, destroyed 2,100 homes and displaced 7,562 people. 120 people were killed by a single fire in the Kinglake Area alone. It is estimated the energy released by the Black Saturday Bushfires, was the equivalent of 1,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs. In total 1,100,000 acres were burnt.

 

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One of those killed was Sue Gunningham’s partner, Barry, who was caught in the heart of the fire at their cottage. Sue spoke to him on the phone half an hour before he died (as was later established by forensic evidence from the site, including his remains found in the underground bunker he had built).

Sue is unable to accept that Barry is dead, and frantically tries to reach the site. When she finally does, she still has trouble accepting reality, and believes that somehow he will be found alive. Meanwhile, she has to go through all the long drawn out and tedious, often traumatic, processes of identification of his remains (over which there is a battle between her and his officious and possessive executor), the rounds of interviews with police, case managers, psychologists and the Victoria Bushfire Royal Commission. Many of the people involved are supportive and compassionate. She does ultimately reach a compromise with grief, in that she acknowledges his death, but keeps him alive in her daily life by rebuilding their cottage (which has to meet the requirements for safety and access brought in from the review process), keeping his ashes, some teddies he gave her, and a pillowcase of memorabilia. She also confronts his executor and tells him what she thinks of him. A year later, she has succeeded in having a large shed built to store her tools, with a stretcher and a small stove so she can camp there overnight; so now at least she can restore the garden. She has a life, transitioning to retirement, doing art classes, a member of a local writing group, travelling, going to the opera and theatre. Her life “still centres on Barry but it is a life of my own making.” Sustained by memories, she has learned to do many things she never would have considered possible before 2009, and her days at Waldene are joyful and peaceful. “Barry is always with me and I am grateful for every day that we had together.”

Grief is complicated, and the notion that the bereaved needs to let go of the loved one is challenged by this book. What makes it very readable and engaging is the author’s honesty. She is not ashamed of her refusal to let go, and wins for herself a life where her loved one is still the centre of her life. Some readers may not be comfortable with this. I had some qualms about it, but by the time I finished the book, I accepted that this is not a pathological state, it is one of healing and intelligent, brave love.

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Questions of meaning: what do we look for in a good novel?

urlAt last, I’ve read the book that was awarded the Miles Franklin in 2013 and several other prizes,  including the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction.

Like many other reviewers I’ve checked out on Goodreads, I’m mystified by the awards and the rave reviews. This is a book I wish I hadn’t read. Then why did I? Because I wanted to find out what/if I’d missed out, to find out why respected writers and literary reviewers find it so good. I should have listened to my instinct, to avoid award winning books unless readers I trust recommend them. I’ve had so many disappointments.

I kept reading it because I hoped it would get better, and I hoped to find out what, apart from the artificial linking of the plot, connected the two lives, of Laura (Australian) and of Ravi (Sri Lankan), that are run in counterpoint throughout the novel. The answer is, on one level, the fact that they are both travellers, with no home: one dispossessed by her birth and upbringing, one cast out by the violence of the brutal murder of his wife and child. On another level, as far as I can see, the only connection is the artificial one made by the author. From opposite sides of the world they are finally brought together in the same workplace in Sydney, and have a few encounters in the work car park. Then Laura, in late middle age, lost again, at a loose end, decides to travel to Sri Lanka, and Ravi, after a long wait for asylum in Australia, decides to return home. One wonders if the final encounter, as the pages (so many! 515) of the book run out, will bring some deeper meaning. There is only a watery answer. For those of you, like me, who’ve avoided reading this book so far, or simply overlooked it, I won’t say more on that.

Why do I dislike it? Frankly, dear reader, I was bored a lot of the time, mystified at others, and occasionally engaged by a catching image or a moment of humour or compassion. I was bored by the two-dimensional characters, the flatness of the narrative, the concatenation of events which often seem disconnected, the intrusiveness of bits of information that don’t seem to have any connection with the characters or what is happening to them — like debris of the author’s consciousness. I was alienated by the lack of any vision beyond the emptiness and loneliness underlying the surface of people’s lives. I was bored by the endless trivia of their lives and the world around them, especially of the workplace (publisher of travel books) where Laura and Ravi finally meet. I was bored by all the secondary characters that appear and disappear and are not developed.

I was mystified by the feeling that the author had some overarching plan, intricately worked out, tying all these threads and fragments together, and that it escaped me. What have I missed? Why can I not enjoy what many others claim to enjoy? Beyond this, what makes judges tick? What are they looking for?

I have no answers, but I trust my own judgement. I don’t recommend this book.

So what do I look for in a good contemporary novel? Believable characters and situations, good writing, clarity, a vision of the world which is both familiar and new, and a narrative which allows the characters to develop lives of their own. And surprise, and space for the imagination to work.

What about you?

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The Golden Age by Joan London

9780857989000 Joan London‘s quiet and moving story of children afflicted by polio, in a children’s convalescent hospital in Perth named The Golden Age, has won the 2015 Kibble award for literature, and in my opinion, deservedly so. It is  a historical novel, set in the age of innocence of Perth (as echoed in the title) — blighted in the 1950s, when the dreadful epidemic of polio struck and took many young lives, and left many more crippled for life. I was a child of the 40s and 50s, but was fortunate in living in outback NSW, with little contact with other children or adults; so I escaped. I do remember, as a teenager at boarding school, taking the Salk polio vaccine on a lump of sugar; this became available in 1957. There was a children’s convalescent hospital called The Golden Age from 1949 to 1959 in Leederville, Perth. The novel is also a love story of two young teenagers, Frank and Elsa, who find in each other their twin soul, and survive with grace while they are together, but are bereft when they are expelled from the hospital for expressing their love in physical intimacy. I confess this is the first time I have read Joan London; she has been on my horizon for some years, and now I will be seeking out the rest of her books. Tegan Bennett Daylight has written a long, loving review of this book, published recently in the Sydney Review of Books.  Daylight offers a resonant definition of good writing:

Perhaps the best definition of good writing is the kind that recreates this safe aloneness, this suspended awareness of the self, this being lost but at the same time attached.

Safe aloneness, she implies, following the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, is also something that children need to learn: the capacity to be alone in the presence of the mother, and beyond that, in her absence. This difficult lesson is one that all the children in The Golden Age have to learn, abruptly and yet seemingly endlessly, again and again, every day, every night, always hoping and longing to go home. Some of them do not see their parents at all; most only see them occasionally. The parents, too, are bereft — at least the loving ones are — and many of them have to battle poverty, the demands of other small children in the family, public transport and walking or begging a lift, to see their ill child. All this is conveyed in subtle and sensuous detail, without labouring the point. Above all, I find London an unobtrusive author; her characters and their world inhabit the page without the intrusive sense of an author pulling the strings that I often get with contemporary novels. At least 19th century novelists were direct and unashamed about their omniscience. Contemporary writers tend to use more indirect methods, like complex structural devices, shifting and ambiguous point of view and obscure plot shifts. More of this in my next blog, which will be about Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel.

I won’t relate the story here; Daylight’s review is a good start if you want this. What is memorable for me is the slow and subtle realisation of a microcosm, the hospital, within the macrocosm of sleepy, hot, dusty Perth. This was very real for me, partly because I lived in Perth for many years, though I went there at the end of the 70s, a couple of decades after the time of this story. But many of the sensuous qualities of this provincial city are re-awakened for me here; little glimpses of a familiar world. Here is Meyer, the Hungarian father of Frank:

Meyer stepped out of the factory into an evening so warm and light that as if by instinct he turned at once towards the river and started to walk…. He saw watermelon clouds piled up above the dark breast of the river and smelt the weedy flow of its depths. A fresh-water breeze found him and, like a puppy, licked his face and neck, breathed cool life back into him.

Frank’s parents are refugees from the Holocaust, bring their dark and bitter past with them. Frank, too, has memories of the war years, of living in hiding with an elderly mother and daughter who have given him refuge while his mother works incognito and his father is in a labour camp in the Ukraine. This is the beginning of loneliness for Frank:

It was the beginning of himself. Up until then he hadn’t really felt sad or frightened, his mother had done that for him. As long as she was there, he didn’t have to fear. He was part of her, and like a mother cat she had attended to every part of him. Now each morning, while Hedwiga was busy with Julia [her aged mother], he pissed into the chamber-pot and pulled on his own pants. He buttoned up his woollen vest and slowly, seriously, as his mother had instructed him, ran a wet comb through his hair. For a while he felt a silence in the air around him, an emptiness at his elbow. If he fell over who would pick him up? He had an impulse to crawl, in order to feel safer, but Julia told him to stand up and walk on his two feet. He did everything that Julia told him to do, as his mother had instructed.

Safety, calm, and the peace of sharing a secret world, is what he finds with Elsa. Here is Elsa’s view of their relationship, shortly before they are cast out of The Golden Age (echoes of the Garden of Eden here):

When did everything start to change? Suddenly Frank’s face had become familiar to her. Not handsome, not unhandsome, but like her own, a sort of twin, a mirror. Their connection seemed to fill the air around them. From the moment they woke up to the light glowing behind the long white curtains in their separate dormitories, they were waiting to rejoin each other.

After their fall from this state of innocence, which could only be sustained while the institution turned a blind eye to it, everything changes. The loss is greater than the original loss of wholeness and health, though there is hope of reunion. I won’t reveal the denouement and the aftermath, but I do agree with Daylight, that the ending, set 50 years later in New York, is an abrupt change that for me breaks the spell of the timeless, suspended state of the main story, tying up the loose ends in a knot that can’t be undone rather than leaving us to imagine what their lives, together or apart, were like in adulthood. The one flaw, for me, in a rare book. On the same note, I don’t like the cover design, which suggests a middle aged Frank looking back through a window; nothing to do with the structure of the narrative, the main content of it, or the ending.

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Grace and Passion: Obama’s eulegy

Liam Viney’s beautiful reflection on Obama’s amazing sermon/eulogy in The Conversation is well worth reading, both for its appreciation of Obama’s mastery and grace, and for its insights into how music can go where words alone cannot. This eulogy must go down in history and literature as one of the great English language speeches of all time, along with other iconic American and British ones, and the 17th century poet and priest John Donne’s legendary sermon (preached by him wrapped in his funeral shroud), Death’s Duel. Passion, rhetoric and theatre are the arts of our community celebrations of the great passages of life — birth, marriage, death — and of celebrations of our common humanity.

Obama’s Amazing Grace shows how music can lift oratory high

July 1, 2015 6.10am AEST

When the President of the United States burst into song on the weekend, music amplified the emotional force of his words. EPA/Richard Ellis

Where words leave off, so music begins – Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) Amazing grace, amazing grace … (trailing off). Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (now singing) – Barack Obama, 2015.

Barely a week after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launch provided a problematic example of music in the political sphere, Barack Obama’s eulogy at the Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston, South Carolina provided the polar opposite; an example of how music can propel oratory into regions of meaning and impact that most politicians can only dream of. To be sure, the two events are categorically distinct on many levels; Trump’s campaign launch (likely attended by paid actors) sits firmly in the political sphere (or the commedia dell’arte sphere, depending on your viewpoint), whereas a funeral, even one freighted with political issues, connects with music more readily through the raw and exposed emotional nerve endings of the people in attendance. Yet music played a fascinating role at both events, and in each case, context was everything. Unlike the Trump campaign launch, however, Obama’s most recent public musical moment (there have been others) has reverberated positively around the world. Only a hard heart could fail to respond on some emotional level when the President of the United States of America, eulogising at one of the most emotionally and racially charged funerals in US history, started singing Amazing Grace. Only blindness could deny the power of witnessing the US’s first president of colour break into song, powerfully illustrating his connection to one of the most musically rich religious communities on Earth (the African American Church generally), galvanising an entire nation into finding strength in a time of great need. Obama’s words alone that day would have been enough to inspire awe. His performance approached the emotional intensity of a sermon, and subsequent speakers were compelled to anoint him “Reverend President”. Compared to the anodyne and anaemic cultural engagement leaders of most Western neo-liberal democracies exhibit, it was hard not to be transported back to the heady days of Obama’s election win in 2008 by the centred charisma he showed onstage.

The power of the moment

Near the end of an almost 40-minute eulogy, after a perfectly-judged rhetorical crescendo, Obama paused, bowed his head, and gently launched into a rendition of the first verse of Amazing Grace: A re-reading of the names of the shooting victims follows, and the climax of the eulogy is reached. Many news stories that feature video of the event cut into the moment a split-second before Obama sings, and only some include the subsequent reading of names. But to fully understand the power of the moment, it’s worth going further back into the textof the eulogy. The theme of grace, God’s grace here, was threaded throughout. And like a great symphonist embarking on a lengthy musical journey, Obama drops his theme right at the beginning: the first thing he’d noticed upon meeting Rev. Pinckney had been his “graciousness”.

Obama builds his theme

After beautifully describing the Reverend’s biographical embodiment of graciousness, Obama pivots from the personal to the general. As Pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pinckney was profoundly connected to the history of African American religious culture. The references to history open the door to a political dimension, which comes a bit later. He then twice describes the alleged killer as “blinded” by hatred, saying “he would not see the grace” of the people he would soon murder. Obama was clearly building his rhetoric around the last line of the first verse of Amazing Grace:

was blind, but now I see.

Obama then explicitly refers to grace as the central theme of the eulogy:

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.

He quotes lines from Amazing Grace, described the local community’s reaction as graceful, and referred to the grace shown by the victims’ relatives upon facing the alleged killer. Pondering the opportunity grace provides further, Obama again uses blindness to bring up a list of acutely painful issues for American society: blindness to the pain cause by the Confederate flag, to the role of past injustice in present-day problems, to poverty, to endemic problems in education and employment, to the criminal justice system, to recent problems with law enforcement, and to voting issues. Ultimately though, it is gun violence that Obama settles on. He implores Americans to approach the issue with open hearts, to find “reservoirs of goodness” that will allow grace to emerge. He then says:

If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace.

He trails off. Then he pauses. The pause generates electricity, it suggests something is about to happen, and it makes people listen. Like musicians who don’t begin a performance until an audience has fully settled, Obama wants silence in the space before music. In lesser hands, this moment could have been a corny disaster, and as an artistic moment, people are free to find it such. Critical discussion in most of the press, however, seems to have judged it a success – testament to Obama’s consummate skill as a political performer. Don’t forget, Obama had just spoken the words “amazing grace” twice, and trailed off. When he then started singing Amazing Grace, he was literally re-creating Heine’s philosophical perspective on music’s post-linguistic status. Adding melody on the third repetition was not only a great segue, but at a fundamental dramatic, theatrical, and philosophical level, pretty clever. Many things then happen in quick succession. The church leaders behind him spontaneously beam, voice their pleasure at what is happening, and stand to join in. The congregation, surprised to find itself feeling so good about what is happening (it is a funeral after all) doesn’t cheer so much as collectively smile audibly, then sings too. The musicians figure out what key he is in and improvise an accompaniment (almost certainly unscripted). Of course there are some who may have reacted negatively. Amazing Grace is so ubiquitous as to almost warrant cliché status. The 18th-century English slave-owner turned abolitionist John Newton penned the words, and the melody we know today has been associated with those words since the 1830s and the Second Great Awakening. Used ever since in countless different contexts, especially since the 1950s, Amazing Grace is in danger of losing its power thanks to over-familiarity. For the purposes of this eulogy, however, the singing of Amazing Grace was a perfect tool to take the political message into stratospheric emotional territory.

Three classic notes

The opening three notes outline the most ubiquitous structure in post-1600 Western music – the major triad. But they are arranged in a particular way: the first note, sung to “ah-”, is not the strongest of the three notes, but it leads into the most structurally stable, sung to “-maz-”. The rhythmically longer “-maaaaz-” mirrors the way we speak the word when we want to emphasise it – as in, “wasn’t that speech amaaazing”. By the third note on “zing”, we certainly know which song we’re hearing. These three notes resonate on deeper levels for anyone familiar with American music of the past. Just one example: Aaron Copland’s seminal Appalachian Spring (1944) is built on the same material, derived in turn from the opening figure to the traditional Shaker song Simple Gifts. These three notes, outlining what’s called a second-inversion triad, create a beautiful, open sound. It’s this open sound that Copland uses throughout Appalachian Spring to depict the vast openness of possibility represented by the story of young pioneer love in the original ballet, and it’s the same open sound that gives Amazing Grace the open heartedness that Obama was campaigning for in his words about gun violence. Back to Obama’s singing: another thing happens on “zing” – Obama sings a bit flat. Naturally, as a singer without formal training, who has had certain other things to attend to recent years, he may have just not have the best singing technique. Intonation insecurity and dubiously executed melismata were balanced by an undeniable connection to African American musical culture. That flatness was very likely Obama channelling the blues. These observations pale in comparison to the overall impact this part of the eulogy delivers. It is thanks to the way music lifts the words about grace out of the quotidian, that Obama can then ride a wave of emotion to the end of the eulogy. He goes through the names of the dead again, appending “found that grace” to each name, in a full and passionate voice. The soaring effect he creates builds on the music we just heard. “That grace” is a grace that’s had new and deeper meaning conferred upon it by the song. His reading of each name is a righteous call, in full sermon mode, and the audience responds each time in a cathartic final acknowledgement of the victims. The musicians continue to riff, accompanying the whole antiphonal interaction, commenting on Obama’s words right to the end. This subtle musical background ensures the emotional vibration continues and elevates the final moments of the eulogy. By this stage Obama has carried the congregation into the realm of truly powerful communication, underpinned by a musically-accessed emotional state. The way in which the Obama let music take over where “words left off” demonstrates music’s capacity for consolation in a profoundly important way. And it is salutary to consider that only a culture that understands music, that knows music, that values music, and that realises it needs music, will be able to benefit from it in this way. If people were moved by Barack Obama’s eulogy, it was ultimately music, as much as God’s grace, that made them see.

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