Literary Concertos: A Reading List of Novels Inspired by Other Art Forms
Julia Fine Recommends Alexander Chee, Sara Sligar, Kazuo Ishiguro, and More
I’ve always loved art that leans into its medium: literature that resists film or television adaptation, theater that breaks the fourth wall. The economy delights me, no piece out of place, not only structure but form a major pillar of the work. What can one art form do that another cannot? How can an artist harness those faculties and challenges?
In this vein, I’m fascinated by the ways in which writers use the assets of the novel to reflect on other art forms, playing with prose to recreate the experience of another kind of art. How can a novel feel like a play or a painting, chamber music or a film, while also fully itself?
In my new book, Maddalena and the Dark, I set out to write the novel as concerto. Turning to eighteenth-century Venice, I studied the music Antonio Vivaldi wrote for the young women of the orchestra at the Ospedale della Pietà throughout his tenure as violin teacher. Aside from the jungle of teenage emotion and the lush historical detail, this topic gave me a replicable structure.
In classical music, the same basic melody is often repeated among different instruments. First the violin will take it, followed by perhaps the clarinet, but with a turn. How could perspective in the novel mimic this repetition and variation? I wanted to replicate that feeling of discovery—what had been one thing was also another, and together they created yet a third.
I envisioned two girls living through the same moment and interpreting it differently, a narrative that followed the structure of a piece of classical music. Initially I was greedy: could I structure the novel like a concerto, the pace allegro, then adagio? Could I write the story twice, and interweave it as duet?
The answer, unsurprisingly: I couldn’t. As music has its own set of rules and expectations, so does the novel, and to write something engaging I had to dispense with many of my repetitions, sacrificing concept for the quality of the project itself. No one wanted to read the same scene, slightly tweaked, because the experience of literature is not the experience of music.
Momentum operates differently in different forms, and I’ve been lucky enough to have an editor willing to regularly remind me that a novel is first and foremost a novel. Still, enough remains of my original concept to excite me: the same events played out on two different instruments, a book about an orchestra told like a piece of music.
For other art novels that follow Stephen Sondheim’s missive “content dictates form,” I recommend the following.
Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night
For me, this book is the holy grail. A book about opera that reads like an opera, from the decadence of 19th century Europe to the revolving cast of larger-than-life characters to the fickleness of fate. Add to that sentences that glitter like the voice of a falcon soprano, and you have yourself an operatic novel.
Sara Sligar, Take Me Apart
Photography is fertile ground for the kind of philosophical questions I always want art to be asking, and here, Sligar delivers. This dual-timeline tale of photographer Miranda Brand and the archivist hired to handle her posthumous artifacts uses the camera lens as a tool to examine perspective and recast our idea of an artist’s truth.
Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring
The story of Griet, a girl who goes to work as a maid in the home of painter Johannes Vermeer and ends up posing for one of his most famous works, this novel mimics the feel of a Vermeer painting. Chevalier’s prose recreates the domestic spheres of Delt with special attention to light, placement, and the quiet restraint of one of my favorite Old Masters.
Toni Morrison, Jazz
Morrison’s novel of a deadly love triangle in 1920s Harlem is jazz. Polyrhythmic and crackling with life, this book jumps around in time and perspective like instruments taking turns at solos, a glorious outpouring of passion and improvisation and return.
Mikhail Bulgakov, Black Snow (A Dead Man’s Memoir or A Theatrical Novel)
This book about a failed novelist turned playwright mounting a production of his surprise hit announces its project succinctly: “What I saw I wrote down, what I didn’t see I left out.” A backstage novel with a bite, Bulgakov’s sendup of the legendary Stanislavsky is not to be missed.
Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones and the Six
Reid’s rock and roll story of a band’s seminal record requires multiple points of view, and the oral history lets her access each perspective just when she needs it. It feels like the transcript of a documentary about your favorite band, while at the same time giving us a fully built narrative.
Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World
Masuji Ono is an aging Japanese painter reflecting on his role as both artist and propagandist with an elegance of gesture that suggests the very brushstrokes of his work. Through Ono, Ishiguro writes about Ono’s allegiance to and break from the Japanese tradition of ukiyo-e, privileging technique over subject matter in an echo of Ono’s own attempts to look away from the consequences of his artistic decisions.
Maddalena and the Dark by Julia Fine is available via Flatiron Books.