Grace Notes

Do you compose the music or does the music compose you? Where are the notes between the notes? Graces, grace notes or, as the French would have it, agrements. Are you a conduit for the music? Are you the nib or the ink source? (33)


I recently applied, was interviewed, and didn’t get a job at a bookstore called “2nd & Charles,” where people may bring in used and new media and “sell” them to 2nd & Charles for money or store credit. It’s essentially a pawn shop for book, movie and music owners. After visiting the store multiple times and witnessing the great volume and variety of all genres of literature, I was pretty convinced the store had a good selection of fiction—that they’d carry some authors that most people had never heard of. However, it struck me that the store would likely be lacking in the best fiction, because the best fiction, people don’t get rid of. 

The book I read this week, Grace Notes, by Bernard MacLaverty, is one such book. MacLaverty is Irish, he lives in Glasgow, and though he is well-known in the UK, his name is, I'd imagine, mostly unknown in the States. Grace Notes was shortlisted for the 1997 Man Booker Prize and MacLaverty has been featured on BBC4's Books and Authors podcast, "Open Book: Bernard MacLaverty on a literary life." Described as "sitting comfortably" with the likes of James Joyce and Yeats, MacLaverty is a man whose literary accomplishments are many and varied. A writer of short stories, novels and scripts, he's a writer who, at least by me, slipped well under the radar. I discovered him while preparing for a trip to Ireland last winter, and first read his collection of short stories, Matters of Life and Death. Why had I never heard of him before? But I imagine that most readers haven't. 

I have to ask myself the question: Does MacLaverty care? 

I ask for two reasons: because his book is about a female composer who battles anxiety about the validity and greatness of her work, and because as an artist—writer, musician, painter, etc—greatness or goodness or expertise is a factor for getting any money put back into one’s pocket. If time is money, artists are doling out cash like it might literally grow on trees, or perhaps on a basil plant sitting in the corner of an already sparsely-furnished kitchen. 

The book spoke to me on a lot of levels. For starters, it spoke to me as a writer. MacLaverty is one of the good prose artists who writes in such a way that you know he’s not concocted on a whim. What he’s made is from pure creativity: the characters, their dialogue, the places they go—these things are not pre-planned. I’ll give you a brief book summary. Catherine Anne McKenna, only daughter of two Catholic, Irish parents, returns to her hometown for the funeral of her father, whom she hasn’t seen in months, or perhaps years. Catherine is a pianist and also a composer, and is also a brand-new mother who has recently broken away from her drunkard boyfriend and their home on the island of Islay, off the coast of Scotland. She's a bit of a prodigy, and believes her purpose is to create music—symphonies, masses, fugues, short pieces, etc—and through the course of the book we follow her as she battles the disbelief and disapproval of her parents, post-natal depression, and neglect and abuse from her boyfriend. This is a story of triumph, of sadness, and of rising up from lost love. It’s beautiful. 

What’s more, it’s a little unconventional. The story is told in reverse chronological order; we start with the death of Catherine’s father, return to Catherine’s home and meet her toddler daughter, and in part two, begin with the birth of that daughter. From thence we move forward—toward her father’s death, essentially—and watch and listen as she deals with her depression and emerges from it, writing beautiful, life-giving work. MacLaverty describes Grace Notes (in the BBC4 episode noted above), as a story with alternate endings, one hopeful and the other not so much. The way I see it, the beginning is essentially the ending, and the ending is merely the middle. Rather like his description of "grace notes." The notes between the notes, what's written between the lines and what isn’t told. Where is the story that most people around us—even those close to us—don’t hear? The stories are there, aren’t they? Aren’t we all products of events and moments and hidden circumstances that mold and shape us? What we do on any given day does seem to be a result of what has happened to us in the past, or what mistakes (or successes) we may have enacted.  Though, that's rather fatalistic. We are beings of free will. We can choose to act in a way that is entirely other than what history would dictate. But the story will continue to be written--with various cascades of grace notes. 

The beauty in the in-between, no? Even in-between symphonies?  

I am a reader who does her best to finish a book and not give up on it. There were moments in this book when I didn’t understand what the “point” was. MacLaverty is an in-the-body writer. He doesn’t summarize and doesn’t let the reader get lazy: by that I mean that he expects you to be interested, he expects that you’ll read to the end. Maybe it’s an Irish thing—their literary standards do seem a little higher than ours, maybe. Maybe not. (It’s something to consider, at least). I admire MacLaverty for his commitment to the art of storytelling. Just like Grace Notes’ heroine, he writes what's inside him; and that’s all any artist should ever do. That’s what artists should do. That’s art, and expression, and the nature of living. It’s creation. It’s the attempt at beauty.  Does MacLaverty care that many people don't even know his name? I really don't think he does. I hope he doesn't. 


next week's book: Peace Like A Riverby Leif Enger