Music in a novel? Well, if Ann Patchett uses it in Bel Canto, then I’m on safe ground. But am I fooling myself when I weave a piece of music around a scene in my novel Cairo Mon Amour? Just because I get an emotional charge as I bash the keyboard, headphones clamped on my ears, is there any way my readers will share my response?
Well, it depends. Picture my exiled Egyptian actress Zouzou, marooned in a flat in damp London. She sings Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly as she passes the hours. My intention is that the impact of the song is subverted: The words are about the pain of a lovelorn woman listening to a singer. But it’s the gloom of exile that is slowly killing her. Of course, everyone knows this song, and I hope that at least some of my readers will hum along.
But what about the Arabic music? Here’s a passage where I give the reader a little help:
But the last record in the stack was Umm Kulthoum’s The Ruins. He put the record on and let the exquisite Classical Arabic stanzas caress his wary heart, almost against his will. The words told of the capriciousness of fate, the powerlessness of the lover’s heart to follow its destiny. The song – the performance was half an hour long – ended on an ambiguous note, somewhere between hope and resignation.
The truth is that while Arabs swoon over the music of this revered singer, most Western readers would just wouldn’t get it. In this case, I hope my description conveys the emotional impact of the song without the reader having to listen to it. But if anyone is curious, the endnotes to the ebook include a link to a YouTube video. In fact, there are YouTube links to all to the music in the book.
The movie Solaris (the original Soviet version, not the US remake) features in the book, and I’ve referenced Tarkovsky’s arrangement of a J.S. Bach choral prelude.* I use the piece of music as an icebreaker between two characters who are thrown together against their will (no spoilers). One begins to hum the melody, and the other recognises it: They discover they have both seen Solaris; there is a point of connection. If Solaris is on your list of top ten movies, you’ll get it. But even if you know only a little about Bach, what I hope is that you’ll think organ+church, and you’ll be half-way there. And there’s a YouTube link!
Happy listening, even if the music is in your head.
*BWV 639 Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.