Can’t it be me?

Glyn Maxwell

  • The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri
    Picador, 407 pp, £16.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 330 45580 0

There’s nothing like a book about music to remind the reader of the silence. Nothing else insists so emphatically on what we are usually happy to forget: that, during the hours we read, our lives have gone quite still, and we are taking a stranger’s word for the world. A landscape, a face, a building, a painting, even a taste, an odour, an emotion: we will readily accept words for these, because we feel able to usher words into the space we’ve cleared for them. We are not resistant to descriptions of sound, from traffic to birds to sea-surf to tones of voice: we have rough ideas of all these things, and will gladly let a talented stranger mould them in the service of a story. We don’t even have a problem with being told that a stream of pop music or jazz or classical fills the background: we have our own playlist on hand to individuate such moments; the deep quiet recedes.

It is the presence in fiction of music that is at once beautiful and at the same time profoundly significant to the protagonist that floods the mind with silence. The reader comes to a standstill, but it is not so much the frustrating halt of confusion or fatigue, but the standstill of a traveller reaching a frontier. If it is in the gift of the writer to harness this power, then this terminus, this true north, far from being the point at which fiction fails or quits, can be as sublimely expressive of the human condition as any words the writer brings to our hospitable quiet.

Gabriel Conroy, in ‘The Dead’, suddenly hears singing from upstairs as he waits for his wife after the Misses Morkans’ dance:

Gabriel held up his hand for them to be silent. The song seemed to be in the old Irish tonality and the singer seemed uncertain both of his words and of his voice. The voice, made plaintive by distance and the singer’s hoarseness, faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief:

O, the rain falls on my heavy locks
And the dew wets my skin,
My babe lies cold …

Joyce doesn’t begin this episode with the lyrics, the surest way to get a tune going if words are all you have. He doesn’t need the right song to get the right effect; he needs only to shade in the sudden presence of a song. If anything, he drives us as far as possible from familiarity or recognition (the song ‘seemed’ to be in ‘the old Irish tonality’, the voice was ‘uncertain’ and illuminated ‘faintly’) and, for those who don’t recognise the air from the few words he gives, it’s two whole pages until we have the title, when Bartell D’Arcy, who was singing, says it’s called ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. Held back even longer is Gabriel’s dawning sense that the song means a great deal to his wife, Gretta, and longer still the essential truth, that Michael Furey, her dead first love, used to sing it to her. These layers of Gabriel’s unknowing are hardly different from our own (‘What about the song? Why does that make you cry?’ ‘And who was the person long ago?’), and at the end of the story, when Gabriel looks down at his sleeping wife, he stands at a soundless border to which music has brought him in his ignorance and helplessness, and to which Joyce has brought us in ours. Gretta Conroy, perhaps dreaming, and so inhabiting the one place where the dead can seem to be living, might as well be on the far side, and the famous end of the story simply shows the whole of the silent landscape, this side of the border and that.

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