Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Bryan Walpert: Late Sonata Launch (7/12/20)

Bryan Walpert: Late Sonata blurb (2020)

With his wife suffering from Alzheimer's, Stephen reluctantly edits her final book, a study of Beethoven's sonatas, even as he still grieves the loss of their son.

Each day he escapes into his own work: a novel about an experimental treatment that reverses ageing. But when he discovers in his wife's papers a clue to an unwelcome secret, Stephen is forced to confront his past and reconsider the truths about his family.

Bryan Walpert's novella is an intimate portrait of marriage, infidelity and the legacies of memory.


Bryan Walpert: Late Sonata (2020)

Here's my launch speech for Bryan Walpert's new, prize-winning novella, at the Open Book bookshop in Ponsonby:

I have to begin by stating an interest. I love novellas. I've written a number of them myself, and I adore the form. It's my belief that novellas are the jewel in the crown of New Zealand fiction - Katherine Mansfield’s The Aloe (1918), Frank Sargeson’s That Summer (1946), and Kirsty Gunn’s Rain (1994), to name just a few of the more obvious examples.

Not that there's anything wrong with novels. It's just that quite often all the real inventiveness and interest comes in the first hundred pages or so, and the rest serves mainly to protract the plotlines. It's in those cases that one suspects that a commercial motivation may have entered into what should have been a purely aesthetic decision.

Academy of NZ Literature: Bryan Walpert

Viva la Novella, then! It's great that Bryan Walpert has won this prize, offered by Australian publisher Brio Books, thus avoiding the curse of the short novel ("Novellas … boy, as far as marketability goes, you in a heap o’ trouble," as Stephen King, himself a distinguished practitioner of the form, so memorably put it).

Bryan's novella is concise, clever, and beautifully paced. His characters have all the depth and complexity to be expected of any fictional creations, great or small, and it's plain that no other form would have permitted him to shape them so well.

Joseph Karl Stieler: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Which brings me to Ludwig van Beethoven. Bryan is by no means the first to base a literary work on a musical composition. Anthony Burgess's Napoleon Symphony is probably the most famous example, but they're not hard to find. The point is that it's a sonata he's chosen.

To quote from Wikipedia (we Academics used to tell our students never to do that, but a few of us have given up and started to do it ourselves):
Sonata form ... is a musical structure consisting of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. It has been used widely since the middle of the 18th century (the early Classical period).
Mozart and Haydn brought the sonata to a technical perfection which seemed almost to preclude further development. Then along came Beethoven. He was, of course, Haydn's pupil for a time, and the two maintained a kind of jealous rivalry as a consequence. But Haydn could never have foreseen - let alone approved of - the passion and imagination Beethoven's enlarged sense of the form brought, in particular, to his late sonatas.

A sonata has three movements. Bryan's novella is in three parts. To return to Wikipedia: "There is little disagreement that on the largest level, the form consists of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation." It sounds like any standard guide on how to construct your screenplay. But Bryan is playing with the conventions of the novella just as much as those of the sonata as he introduces his carefully prepared themes one by one.

And why shouldn't he? His protagonist is a writer, editing a book on musical theory by his own wife, who's been prevented by Alzheimer's from doing it herself. Simultaneously he's writing his own admittedly mostly therapeutic story - "'wish fulfilments,' Talia used to call my books, or once or twice, 'your little redemptions'" [12] - which also forms part of the narrative.

If it sounds a little mechanical and over-plotted, that's the point. It's Stephen, Bryan's spokesman, who's arranging it that way, with the maximum self-consciousness to be expected of a card-carrying fictionista. Of course, it's actually Bryan, since Stephen doesn't exist, but it's a Bryan-filtered-through-Stephen. "Like the God of the creation," Bryan himself can continue to "remain within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails", to quote James Joyce's own Stephen, Stephen Dedalus.

It can sound like a bit of a backhand compliment to call someone a writer's writer. Certainly Joyce was one. Any fiction writers who think they have nothing to learn from his elegant structures are, in my opinion, deluding themselves. Bryan Walpert is certainly a writer's writer. His book is clear and poised, but also passionate and moving. When it comes to savouring the details, though, observing just how nicely he's played his hand, how elegantly - and yet with the appearance of accident - it's all come together, it probably helps to be another, jealous writer.

The two of us work together as Creative Writing teachers at Massey University. His instructions for what I should say in this speech were pretty clear: "Just tell them I walk on water."

As I read my way through his novella, though, I began to think that he really does walk on water. Trust me, this kind of thing is not easy to do. However, as Yeats once put it, "if it does not seem a moment's thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." Don't for a moment think that this kind of apparently casual perfection happens by accident.

There's really not much left for me to say but to exhort you to go off and read Late Sonata. I don't know if it's necessary to have heard the actual piano sonata that inspired it beforehand, but - if so - the organisers of this launch have taken care of that for you, too. All I can say is that I've listened to quite a few different performances of it on Youtube since I first read it, and it's certainly been quite a help to me.

So congratulations again on winning the prize, Bryan, but deeper and more sincere congratulations on the sheer beauty of your novella. Nice one, buddy! Way to put the rest of us in our place ...

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