Pre-note. From some of the comments received, some people misunderstand the point of this posting. It is not to show I used to go to pretentious dinner parties, though I did before I was cured. Or that I sometimes fall for the sucker punch: I love to because I am fascinated as to why some people put other people down. But that I like to invade subjects I know little about and blunder round a bit, and then go find out about it if it feels interesting. So here is the story:
I have always struggled with people who only see reality one way. Who think they have a lock on the correct, orthodox way to see things. Reality always seems to have many facets to me, and not a lot of stability. Concepts are pragmatic, and work or not according to context. Many years ago, this struggle was brought home to me in two dinner parties with the chattering classes of North London, UK. I had always rather enjoyed the shock at such parties, when I said I worked in a manufacturing plant. It was like saying I worked in the sewers I suppose. (Me arriving for a smart London dinner party in the minds of my fellow guests:
But one evening, after such shock, I had found myself talking to the professional opera singer sitting beside me. We talked about books, and we seemed to be interested in the same authors. Then, as she was a musician, I told her I had read a book once, that suggested the novels of the German author Herman Hesse were all in different musical forms. She froze and said rather harshly: ‘What musical forms‘. ‘Well’ I said, ‘I think he suggested Steppenwolf was in sonata form’. ‘All novels are in sonata form’ she almost shouted to a now silent dinner table. ‘They have a beginning, a middle and an end!’ (sub-text: you idiot!). ‘Hmm’, I said, ‘well I have never thought of a novel as a sonata. Is War and Peace a sonata? How about James Joyce? And I guess Steppenwolf has a book within a book in the middle, so it’s like setting a theme, development of the theme in another key, then recapitulation of the theme…Actually I didn’t say the last sentence; I only thought it later when I had gone back to the book. I just shut up and she turned away in triumph. Thus are ‘sewer workers’ who have strayed into the demi-monde brought low.
Two weeks later at another dinner party with different people, I told the story of what had happened at the previous dinner party, though at least this time I had a defence ready for the ‘All novels are in sonata form’ attack. I had just reached the end of the story, when a self-styled ‘conceptual artist’ literally shouted at me: ‘No novels are in sonata form!‘ as if I had said the opposite. So I said: ‘How do you know this?’ Did you go up a mountain and come back with some tablets of stone with ‘no novels are in sonata form written on them’?’ And he said: ‘Stop talking out of the top of your pointed dilettante head before it blows off. What are you? Some sort of boring accountant?’ (Cross cultural note: to call someone an accountant in Britain is tantamout to calling them a Nazi war criminal. And a boring one: clearly a reference to the banality of evil?) The table fell into complete silence as the absent hostess returned to the room, totally mystified as to what had happened. Silence lasted for a few minutes, when someone said: ‘Surely some novels are in sonata form?‘ And I said: ‘Possibly’ and the conceptual artist snorted with contempt.
The moral of this story: watch your back with opera singers, conceptual artists, and sonata form in novels. And also all those who say ‘all X s are Y’ or ‘no Xs are Y’ in situations of ambiguity. So know your place in the world, and stay down there in the Underworld, like Sisyphus rolling your rock, and don’t haunt the salons of the chattering classes.
Oh, and I do wish I had used my late Dad’s ‘attack is the best form of defence’ tactic and simply said: ‘Rubbish’ to both ‘experts’ on sonata form.
By the way, if anyone has seen any novels structured like the diagram below, please post a comment. I can assure you this is exactly how ‘Steppenwolf’ and, as far as I know, no other novel is structured: 🙂 Oh and if you want to be a real geek, the book on Hesse is called: The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure by Theodore Ziolkowski. And yes, this posting may be in sonata form too and it is posted with humour, some self mockery, and no doubt some pretentiousness is present on the part of all concerned. As my friend Pavi would say: it is all ‘performative.’
Footnote: This posting is for my musician friends, including Evelyn, who too late for these incidents, traded me lessons in sonata form for swimming lessons; Piotr Malinowski, impro saxophonist extraordinaire, and whose Dad almost brokered peace in Vietnam in 1966 (think about that); and famous impro and classical cellist Abby Alwin, whom I just met in the Co-op, and told about my blog, so here she is, surprisingly, in it. Oh, and I suppose for Colin Davis, the conductor, who lived next door to me for 25 years, and whose knowledge of sonata form did not penetrate our shared wall by osmosis, unfortunately.