Partly now, partly remembered: Russell Hoban article from BBC Music magazine, March 1996

Thanks to Chris Bell for finding this piece and transcribing it.


View from a Novelist’s Study

The writer RUSSELL HOBAN finds inspiration in music. Indeed he listens as he works. Here he reflects on the power of music to unlock memories


LIKE A SNOWFLAKE MELTING ON THE TONGUE, each moment of music is gone as we hear it; yet we experience the pleasure of whole songs, sonatas, string quartets, symphonies, even operas that last for several hours. What we hear is always partly now and partly remembered, a succession of notes held together as a coherent whole by the magic web of memory that also holds together the sensory data that we recognise as the world. It is for this reason that Mnemosyne, Memory, is the mother of the nine Muses; all of the arts depend on her in one way or another.

Life is a flickering of Nows, each one vanishing like moments of music. But these moments, with what was in them – such things as the smell of fog, the sound of the sea, the taste of a lover’s skin, the look of dawn, the feel of wet sand under bare feet – return with the notes of a Chopin mazurka, a Verdi aria, a Beethoven quartet.

Marcel Proust, in Remembrance of Things Past, describes in great detail the effect on Charles Swann of a ‘little phrase’ in the Andante movement of a sonata for violin and piano by the fictional composer Vinteuil:

It had at once held out to him an invitation to partake of intimate pleasures, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing but this phrase could initiate him; and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.

Translated by CK Scott Moncrieff

Those are among the first of many words that Proust devoted to the little phrase which becomes for Swann the entry to a new world of thought and feeling and for the reader a haunting memory.

One of Proust’s sources for the Vinteuil sonata was the Sonata in A for violin and piano by César Franck. I’m listening to a recording of it now, and at the very beginning of the first movement, Allegretto moderato, I hear, emerging from the shadows, low and quiet, the violin with a phrase that it will remember and return to – a phrase that is tentative and uncertain, as if wondering what it is and seeking, like Swann, a self as yet unknown.

This recording, Violin Sonatas by Franck, Debussy and Fauré, performed by Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug (RCA Victor Red Seal), is interesting in that all three composers were contemporary with Proust (1871-1922); all might have been sources for the music of Vinteuil and all of them evoke, as well as rooms with oriental carpets, dark varnished furniture and lamplit objets d’art, that peculiarly modern and intense exploration of the human condition with which Proust has heightened our perceptions and given us more world.

These explorations are quite different from equally introspective chamber works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The rational explanation is that they arise from a different sort of life in another time and place but I find myself  thinking of music as a protean creature that has its own existence independently of us; it has its needs and its occasions and for those it invents the composers it requires. In doing so it compels poets and novelists to put it into words and painters to image it. It’s impossible for practitioners of the other arts to keep away from that becoming which is music; it’s a mystery that seems to echo that other becoming which became everything and all of us.

Mnemosyne has many dwellings; she lives in my Sansui CD player and in the Apple computer on which I’m writing this. For many years music has been my constant work companion; as such, one of its functions is to insulate me from the rest of the world; another is to help me make it through the day and night.

The house of myself is built on rock and the rock is made of panic. An ordinary level of panic is a solid base for writing but in times of chaos, when I’m far behind with everything, when life is more than usually unsorted and the needle on the gauge is well into the red I rely on Johann Sebastian Bach and Glenn Gould (The Well-Tempered Clavier on CBS Masterworks) to start the day. Bach and Gould between them foster the illusion that there is such a thing as order and it may even be attainable.

When I hear that well-tempered music, the panic ceases and there seems to be time for everything and no hurry for anything. Marvellous, that a piano should be able with crystalline girders of Bach to prop up a falling-apart world! And of course Glenn Gould’s humming is very reassuring.

Naturally there are mornings when I’m too worn-out and sluggish for a normal working panic, and on those mornings I might well reach for Madar (ECM), with Jan Garbarek on tenor and soprano saxophones, Anouar Brahem on oud, and Shaukat Hussain on tabla.

Instantly the oud, with a ripe and twangy sound both tart and mellow, flings up mystical bamboo ladders and walkways by which I make my bouncy way to that place in my head where work happens.

As the day wears on and I feel more solidly established in it I might turn to the three-CD set, Astor Piazzolla, The Late Masterpieces (American Clave), which includes Tango: Zero Hour, The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night and The Solitude of Passionate Provocation. Life is a spooky business, haunted by ghosts of self and others past and future and attended by shadowy presences just beyond one’s field of vision. Piazzolla (1921-92) was well aware of this. A bandoneon virtuoso, he composed and performed with his orchestras spooky tangos, obsessional tenebrous Proustian tangos that look over their shoulders and draw back even as they move forward, tangos of smoke and mirrors, illusions and realities. Julio Cortasar (1914-84), by the way, in ‘Gates of Heaven’ (Blow-Up and Other Stories, Pantheon 1967) is Piazzolla-like in his magical evocation of a tango revenant returning to the dance hall where in her lifetime she felt most alive.

Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Fauré, Hindemith, Mendelssohn, Monk, Monteverdi, Piazzolla, Puccini, Ravel, Schubert, Verdi and many others have come into my fiction. My new novel, Fremder, set in the year 2053, begins with a deep-space navigator managing to hold on to this universe when his spacecraft disappears into a parallel one. One of the things he holds on by is The Art of Fugue. Here he is with the head of the Physio/Psycho Department at Hubble Straits Space Station, viewing a videotape of himself drifting unconscious in space:

As we watched me tumbling over and over in frozen stillness she advanced the audio beam to its next track and ‘The Art of Fugue’, performed by Marie-Claire Alain, came stalking into the room on its centuries-high legs. It was as if Bach had with spells and numbers called forth some cosmic monster that would eat me up, eat up the world with its implacable and insatiable logic. And yet the terror in that music was what I’d held on to when ‘Clever Daughter’ disappeared from around me.

I listened to that recording of The Art of Fugue (Erato)* over and over while working on Fremder; each time the music took me through its permutations back to that point of primal terror where, out of no-time and nothing, everything and all of us began. And each time there was comfort in the terror of that becoming. Comfort – an odd word to use in that connection? Now as I listen to The Art of Fugue the same thing happens: each hearing is as the first time.

This terror/comfort phenomenon is compounded with a second one in my mind – I think they’re both part of the same ungraspable thing. Here’s another passage from Fremder; this time he’s looking at a hologram of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring while listening to Labyrinths – Recognitions for Organ by the fictional composer Gislebertin:

Gislebertin had by now reached The Terror of Becoming. Listening to the music I opened my mouth to the twilight and looked at the hologram of the girl with the pearl earring. Vermeer, born four centuries before Gislebertin, had like him noted the flicker at the heart of things; looking past the illusory continuity of image he had seen the alternating being and not-being of his model. Now, high above the clamour and reek of the Fungames she hovered in the dusky room and no matter how steadfastly I looked it was impossible to see her continuously; she was here and gone, here and gone, her questioning face, like the music I was hearing, always partly now and partly remembered.

Russell Hoban’s new book, ‘Fremder’, is published by Jonathan Cape on 14 March, price £14.99.


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* A YouTube video of Marie-Claire Alain playing the correct piece could not be unearthed for this piece; should you know of one please get in touch. What was discovered however was Marie-Claire Alain playing "Prelude Fugue and Variation Cesar Franck", a curio which may be of interest.

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