Alex McElroy reviews Concerto for Sentence: An Exploration of the Musico-Erotic by Emiliya Dvoryanova

Translated from the Bulgarian by Elitza Kotzeva (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016)

Instructions for Listening

Over the past twenty years, the Bulgarian novelist Emiliya Dvoryanova has established herself as one of Bulgaria’s most respected authors and as emblematic of its écriture feminine. After the fall of communism, Dvoryanova became one of the first novelists to seriously consider the scope of contemporary womanhood in Bulgaria. She is also a trained musician whose fragmented, lyrical books borrow heavily from musical structures. Though it would be too much to call her work surreal, its rich language and Christian undertones give Dvoryanova’s writing something of an allegorical quality. Her books are known to incorporate Christian mythology in order to challenge its patriarchal foundations. Passion, or The Death of Alice, for example, reimagines the Christ's resurrection with a woman at its center, and The Virgin Mary’s Earthly Gardens condemns the total exclusion of all female creatures from the monasteries at Mount Athos in Greece. However, Dvoryanova’s latest novel, Concerto for Sentence: An Exploration of the Musico-Erotic, signals a shift away from religious themes and toward the relationship between music and prose.

Excerpts from Dvoryanova’s novels have appeared in English in a few small online publications—and two of her books have appeared in French—but Concerto for Sentence is her first full-length book to appear in English. This is quite a feat, as the idiosyncratic rhythms of her syntax make translation a daunting task. Great credit is due to Elitza Kotzeva for preserving the musicality of Dvoryanova’s prose in this English translation, which carries over the syntactical fragmentation and rhythms of the Bulgarian original.

Concerto for Sentence tells the story of Virginia, a brilliant violinist plagued by hearing loss and artistic disillusionment; but the book is much more than a character study. The novel aims to create a concerto out of prose, and its characters, for the most part, are the instruments used to perform the piece. Organized like a concerto, the novel moves through five separate monologues (labeled as “movements”) delivered by narrators attending the concert. It also features an intro and a coda, like a Roman Mass. At the center of the book is a novella-length section, written in the third person and titled, “The Chaconne,” which focuses solely on Virginia. The other five speakers all know Virginia, but while their sections cast some light on her, they are not meant to tell her story. Instead, they are deliberate digressions: in each monologue the speaker attempts to concentrate on the music but is repeatedly distracted by idle thoughts and petty concerns. Dvoryanova uses these speakers to explore how we listen to music; in particular, the Chaconne of Bach's Partita no. 2 for Violin.

The main interest for the speakers does not appear to be the Chaconne itself, but how one ought to listen to the Chaconne—how to be in the presence of an exquisite piece of music. The novel opens with a fractured assessment of the type of violin being played:
. . . it must be an Amati, because the sound is engrossed in itself, muffled and inverted, carrying that strange patina the E chord never makes unless it’s made on an Amati, otherwise this trill would have sounded silvery, instead it dives into opaque whiteness, like a creamcolored lace, as though played in D . . . but it could also be a Guarneri, especially if the softness of the A is leading me astray and is actually due to his magic fingers drawing out the tone so voluptuously, caressing the violin . . . it’s so wonderful, it’s divine . . . though if it had been a Guarneri, the sound would have sparkled in light blue . . .
The narrator is not as discerning as she seems. Later, when the violin turns out to be a Maggini, her apparent expertise reads more like naïve pedantry. Through this speaker, Dvoryanova points out listeners’ desire to listen correctly—rather than just listen—an impulse that, in this and other speakers, produces anxiety and tends to distract them from listening at all. One character, for instance, spends the majority of the concert chastising a woman for breathing too deeply, and another, a violin student, criticizes his date for asking him about a magazine survey after the concert. Though they claim to be there for the concert, the speakers all share some form of buffer between themselves and the music. The performance comes second to them. It fades amid the fleeting distractions of everyday life.

It is no accident that the piece of music at the center of the novel is Bach's Partita no. 2 for Violin. As Michael Markham notes, in his essay “The New Mythologies: Deep Bach, Saint Mahler, and the Death Chaconne” for The Los Angeles Review of Books, this piece has become better known for its surrounding story than for the music itself, weighed down as it is by narratives about Bach’s grief during its composition and prescriptions for how one should feel about it. Likewise, Concerto for Sentence’s narrators are preoccupied by the correct way to listen. And as their minor annoyances accumulate, their relationship to music appears increasingly superficial.

Dvoryanova takes much inspiration from the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, who made a career out of exposing the hypocritical philistinism of Austrian culture in his novels. Like Bernhard, Dvoryanova is captivated by artistic greatness and the demands art makes on its creators. As the violinist, Virginia, tells one of her students, “When it’s about music, it should only be about music, about that moment when the notes are driven deep into us; or, better said, when the notes drive themselves deep into themselves, the imminence and immanence they contain and imply . . .” Dvoryanova and Bernhard both understand the immense difficulty of reaching that state of concentration. However, Bernhard’s narrators are paralyzed by an inability to concentrate or to produce art. He is a writer of the unfinished—in his novels, one can only strive to create—whereas Dvoryanova is a writer of the aftermath. She is interested in the ramifications of greatness, how accomplishment contains the seed of an artist’s future collapse.

In Concerto for Sentence, Virginia represents the authentic path of the artist, living with a pure commitment to music and suffering for it. She serves as the protagonist of the book’s longest section, “The Chaconne,” and when she first appears, she is waking from a dream of Vienna. A month earlier, she accompanied her best student there for a competition, and fell in love with the city. Her love is excitedly synesthetic. She discovers the rhythmic patterns in Egon Schiele’s paintings, the musical structure in the Schönbrunn maze, and believes that Sachertorte “has the taste of a sentence out of Bernhard.” While the real-time narrative takes place in Sofia during a blizzard, italicized dreams and memories slice through this narrative, situating Virginia between two worlds: the beguiling romance of Vienna against the chaos and anxiety of life in Bulgaria.

In Sofia, she is suffering from a loss of creative purpose and energy. The petty complaints of earlier narrators are swapped out for Virginia’s increasing panic, much of which is caused by the onset of Ménière’s disease, which threatens to permanently impair her hearing and put an end to her career as a musician. Ironically, it is suggested that her own success has contributed to the onset of the disease:
Baroque, rococo, the Vienna Secession, our accidentally misplaced seventeenth century, gardens, fountains, and streets, streets filled with busy people . . . and the music was all still the same as ever: her ears had been desensitized after so many years of precise, critical analysis—all those notes, all those sounds, sharp and precise, driven deep into her eardrums—that it would take something truly amazing to excite them now.
Struggling with bouts of Ménière’s disease and with her consequent artistic disenchantment, Virginia grows increasingly isolated. Having bought two tickets for the Bach violin concert, she ditches the student she planned to accompany. Alone, she burrows deeper into her thoughts, into memories of a recent tour where she encountered a mysterious violinist who, according to Virginia, most “unmetaphorically” made her bleed. At once lover, colleague, fan, and demonic figure, the man serves as the agent of Virginia’s musical collapse. He seems both to bring on the disease and, through an act of violence, strip her of her passion for music.

Like much of the book, “The Chaconne” discards conventional narrative structure, aiming, instead, for lyrical prose that builds through association and rhythm:
. . . here is Schiele. And the Schönbrunn Maze . . . And the rhythm of the city. A drop of blood, covered in sleet, and another drop, and again sleet . . .
A magnificent well . . . 

I dreamed of Vienna. 

. . . There is a concert tonight.

. . . but the concert doesn’t excite me. My ears are falling apart, it started right after Vienna, it started happening gradually, the wind is to blame, and it’s only the Chaconne that I want to hear, I’m excited by its impossibility . . . because it’s impossible to enter the maze . . .

The refrain “I dreamed of Vienna” and references to snowfall form thematic touchstones that provide stability within Virginia’s harried psyche. This doesn’t make for straightforward reading, but the syntax is not arbitrarily complex. As Kotzeva notes in her master’s thesis on the book, Concerto for Sentence uses fragmentation, ellipses, and other forms of unorthodox punctuation to designate “the beginnings, the flows, the pauses, and the ends of the musical units in the concerto.” These sentences are meant to be felt before they are understood. Prioritizing music over clarity might have undermined the novel had Kotzeva’s translation been subpar, but the turbulent lyricism of the prose proves rewarding both stylistically and as a means to capture the anxious vulnerability of its characters.

Concerto for Sentence is an ambitious, poetic novel that deftly depicts the plight of a gifted musician and explores the narratives we impose on music. Is there a proper way to listen to music? What sacrifices does greatness demand? Dvoryanova attends to these questions by pitting the authentic passions of the artist against the superficiality of dilettantes. But each way of being, Dvoryanova suggests, is uniquely perilous. The result is a novel that, like the Chaconne itself, inspires a chaotically beautiful mix of passion, love, grief, and horror.