Linda Olsson – Penguin Books – NZ$37
I have no idea really how many book launches I have attended over the past forty years but my guess is that it would be well past a thousand. During my bookselling and publishing days I was often the organizer and/or speaker but in recent years as a book reviewer and book blogger I have the luxury of going along as a guest. I am selective and only attend those where I am reviewing the book being launched.
During September and October I have attended 14 such events. It seems to be the season, not surprising I guess as a fair chunk of locally published titles come out in the September/November period to catch the Christmas market.
Last night I attended a book launch at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland city that was different to any other.
Linda Olssen’s protagonist in her new novel is Adam Anker who has taught music at university but is now a composer.
So following introductory remarks by Penguin Publisher Geoff Walker, (his eleventh launch of a Penguin NZ title in six weeks!), and a thoughtful launch speech by noted NZ writer Witi Ihimaera, (a copy of which I have and will reproduce below), our author of the moment (pic left by C Kathrin Symon) explained that music played a major part in Sonata For Miriam and she surprised us by introducing:-
Mikhail Tablis, who played Chopin Waltz Op.69 No.1.
Then came prominent NZ actor and theartreperson Simon Praast who did a reading from the book.
He was followed by
Mikhail Tablis, piano and Lilya Arefyeva, cello, who played Passacaille for piano and cello by Szymon Laks’
Then came noted actress Donogh Rhees (pic left) with another reading with the whole show concluding with
Mikhail Tablis, piano and Lara Hall, violin, playing Adagio from Sonata for Miriam by Alexander Ekroth-Baginski, a piece of hauntingly beautiful music especially commissioned for the novel
So as you can see it was not your normal book launch.
Actually I was sitting there with the beautiful music wafting over me and my mind went back to Vikram Seth’s superb 1999 novel, An Equal Music, which also had music at its centre. Incidentally a CD was issued featuring all the music mentioned in Seth’s novel and later Linda told me that the same happened for her book when it was recently published in Sweden. Penguin Publisher Geoff Walker is following up on this.
Annie and I went out for dinner after the launch and were quite late getting home but I decided nevertheless to start Linda’s novel and managed 50 odd pages before sleep claimed me. In these first 50 pages the story is a sad one with our protagonist attempting to cope with the death of his beloved teenage daughter Miriam. Beautifully written, quite poetic in fact, and I can’t wait for tonight when I can get back to it.
More about the story after I have finished it.
Meantime here for your interest is Witi Ihimaera’s launch speech:
When you’ve finished reading Linda Olsson’s “Sonata for Miriam”, published by Penguin Books, you’ll want to read it again.
She tells the story of a man named Adam Anker, a composer, living in Krakow, Poland who picks up a hairpin, a rusty hairpin in the park. He remembers back to a day, just before his daughter Miriam left their Waiheke Island beach home to visit a friend; on that day, he picked up a shiny hairpin,
One tangible object, two tangible occasions - and they are sufficient to begin a journey of memory as Adam Anker leaves Waiheke Island and embarks on a voyage that takes him eventually to Krakow, but then onward from there to an island in Sweden.
What’s important is that we recognise the voice: it’s the voice of Linda Olsson, and it affirms that she has become a major novelist. As those of you who have read “Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs” will expect – it’s written in such poetic and spare language and, as with that book, drenched with tears. It’s also structurally astonishing, like a sonata itself. Linda takes us through an introduction which contains material which is later stated in the exposition.
From Waiheke Island, we follow Adam Anker as he begins to piece together fragments of memory which reveal him to be a complex man with a complex history deriving from Europe during and following World War II and the history of survivors of the Holocaust.
The exposition contains prominent harmonic and thematic parallelisms as he hears the stories – there are so many other stories in “Sonata for Miriam” – of others as they offer their fragments of memory: a woman named Clara Fried in Wellington, a man named Szymon Liebermann in Vienna. As they speak I kept hearing – and you will forgive me, Linda, if I indulge in my own interpretation of your work, Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Piano and Violin as both weave in and out of the principal melody.
There are cadences that bring us to a codetta which springs us into the development of the sonata: the moving through different keys and new materials and themes as more stories are told: those of a man named Moishe Spievak in Krakow, married to a woman named Wanda Maisky whose sister Marta haunts the book. There’s also a woman named Cecilia Hagg on an island in Sweden and she has made what to some readers might consider to be an incredible choice.
What’s interesting, from a musical point of view is that her choice brings us back – in the way that the sonata form does – to the recapitulation and the coda: through an act unknowingly suggested by his daughter, Miriam, Adam Anker is able to reconcile himself with his worlds Old and New, public and personal, spoken and unspoken - and all his histories.
“Sonata for Miriam” is stark. It’s also incredibly rich. It’s evanescent, has sinewy strengths as well as fragility, it opens up to pain, to joy, to catharsis. It
offers up the opportunity to discover silence on one hand, music on another, and always the gift of the humane – and the need to always hope.
Linda has written in her author’s note: “When Adam Anker first appeared in my thoughts I knew virtually nothing about him. This proved to be fortunate. I think if I had known more about the challenges involved I might not have followed him on his journey.”
Readers not only in New Zealand but around the world will be glad she did.