Young Man with a Horn – Dorothy Baker

I’m enjoying the #NYRBWomen23 reading project this year, hosted by Kim McNeill, and have read a couple of wonderful novels as a result – Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel. Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn was slated for the second half of February; I was impressed by her Cassandra at the Wedding, and so was really looking forward to this one. I liked it, didn’t love it, and yet there is much to enjoy in the novel, particularly Baker’s terrific writing on jazz and music.

Part 1 Chapter 6 of Young Man with a Horn is a special chapter and a turning point in the way the story moves forward and Rick’s music path branches out. It’s late into the night and after the clientele of the Cotton Club has left, Rick Martin and his friend Smoke Jordan enter the club to meet pianist extraordinaire Jeff Williams and his jazz band, a group of black musicians. They are friends of Smoke’s, but Rick is meeting them for the first time, experiencing both anticipation and awe. Rick is introduced, one of the band members brings in bottles of alcohol, and the rest of the night until the wee hours is devoted to nothing but jazz; Jeff and his band artfully play various numbers in a continuous stream punctuated by breaks filled with banter and chat. In between, the bottle gets passed around, Rick keeps suggesting pieces for the band to play which highlights his musical knowledge although he is yet to master the technique of actually playing, and Smoke is given a chance at the drums by Ward, the original drummer.

It’s this portrayal of music, banter, and camaraderie between friends, who are also serious practitioners of their craft that forms the nucleus of Young Man with a Horn, the kind of writing that makes the book unique despite certain shortcomings (elaborated later on).

Young Man with a Horn has been inspired by the “music of Bix Beiderbecke”, an influential jazz soloist and composer in the 1920s, although the life and music trajectory of its protagonist Rick Martin has not been modeled on Bix’s life.

The prologue at the start of the novel gives the reader a fair idea of Rick Martin’s short but dramatic career as a jazz musician – his gradual ascent in the world of music to become the golden boy of jazz only to culminate in a string of disappointments, heavy drinking and death.

Our man is, I hate to see it, an artist, burdened with that difficult baggage, the soul of an artist. But he hasn’t got the thing that should go with it – and which I suppose seldom does – the ability to keep the body in check while the spirit goes on being what it must be. And he goes to pieces, but not in any small way. He does it so thoroughly that he kills himself doing it.”

Rick is first introduced to us as an eight-year-old orphan residing in Los Angeles with his aunt and uncle (“brother and sister and not husband and wife”). Not much information has been given about his parents, but at the outset, Rick is an increasingly lonely child, left pretty much to his own devices with his aunt and uncle leading “their own lives.”

From the very beginning, Rick displays talent and flair for music with not much opportunity to harness that passion largely because of his circumstances. He manages to somehow trudge through grammar school and high school but only because he is forced to; studies are of no importance to him whatsoever, his interest clearly lies elsewhere – in music, in jazz.

One day hanging around pawnshops, Rick is enamoured by the array of musical instruments on display in windows, particularly a series of trumpets, and this sparks an idea in his mind to get a job so that he can afford to buy one. Initial attempts to find employment mostly fail but his persistence is finally rewarded, he gets hired on the spot at Gandy’s Pool Hall, Billiards and Bowling (“It gave him something to get away from and come back to, the tie that makes freedom valuable”). There he meets Smoke Jordan, a black aspiring drummer and a tentative employee; he is frequently fired but also subsequently rehired because he just happens to be around when Gandy needs an extra hand.

Smoke and Rick immediately slide into an easy friendship, fuelled by their love for music and Rick expresses his wish to master the trumpet, while Smoke talks about his dreams of being a drummer. Meanwhile, Rick and Smoke’s family could not have been more different. While Rick’s is pretty much non-existent, Smoke complains about being surrounded by his extended family all the time, with no room or time for himself or to practice his music, although Rick comes to like Smoke’s family, envying the closeness between the family members, an anchor in his own life that is sorely missing.

As they get talking, through Smoke, Rick learns about the great pianist Jeff Williams and his band which includes the trumpet player Art Hazard, and their series of performances at the Cotton Club. Wishing to hear their music and familiarize themselves with their sound, Rick and Smoke are hesitant at first about actually being present at the jazz club, and so most evenings, post work, they sit outside listening and marveling at the sound of music streaming to them outside. Smoke is close to Jeff and his band members so that eventually they meet, and Smoke introduces Rick to them. After some initial awkward moments on account of racial differences (Rick is white, while Smoke and the rest are black), Rick begins to gel very well with Jeff and Art; the two are deeply impressed by Rick’s potential talent and struck by his ability to learn fast. Under their training and guidance, Rick begins to gradually master playing the piano and trumpet.

These are some of the most transformative days in Rick’s life; the crucial stepping stone that will catapult him into the world of jazz, as well as deep, solid friendships that will last a lifetime. In a way, this becomes a new and welcoming family to Rick, who otherwise hardly has a real family to boast of.

That absence of familial bonds does affect Rick’s ability to communicate on matters or life generally unrelated to music. For instance, early on, when Jeff’s drummer Ward dies, his post is immediately offered to Smoke, but Smoke is deeply affected by that death, guilty about replacing a man whom he considered a friend; a stance that Rick fails to comprehend.

He did the best he could, considering that this was the first time he’d ever handled any tenderness directly. His knowledge of the jargon was limited to the lyrics of popular songs. He made it work, though, well enough to make Smoke stop crying.

As the book progresses, Rick goes on to play the first trumpet in a couple of bands and as news of his talent reaches far and wide, he travels from Los Angeles to the jazz dens of New York re-uniting with his friends and mentors, and also forming new friendships and finding love (where Amy North makes an entry)…until a fatal slip-up occurs from whence things begin to go wrong.

Young Man with a Horn, then, is an exploration of music, male friendship, ambition, obsession and transcending racial boundaries.

Whether she is describing practice sessions or live recordings, Baker writes brilliantly about music, jazz in particular, its rhythms and improvisations, whether it’s the piano or the trumpet, the instrument Rick eventually settles on. The theme of male friendship is wonderfully depicted in the way Rick and Smoke bond and this to me was the highlight of the book. I liked the comfortable, warm rapport between the two, the way they could easily talk about their primary passion (music), and the way they could be themselves in each other’s company with no pretense involved. 

The book is also a meditation on ambition, the desire to become the best in the business. Even though Rick’s ascent as a jazz musician par excellence brings him much fame, he is not content with resting on his laurels. An obsession to hone and perfect his craft persists; that single-mindedness to innovate, to manufacture something entirely new even at the risk of likely failure. It is this overzealousness that ultimately precipitates his downfall (we are informed of this in the prologue), but while the world is quick to write him off, only Jeff and Smoke understand the real value of Rick’s ambition and what he was striving to achieve even if the result was a fiasco.

It never occurred to anyone that he really wasn’t slipping, he wasn’t played out: he was only getting so good that he couldn’t contain it. Nobody but Jeff Williams realized why he’d mugged up the record.

We now come to the race aspect of the book. Throughout the novel, there were racial terms used that made me uncomfortable, but I was reluctant to judge Baker by today’s sensibilities given that the book was published in 1938. It’s dated in that sense, but I do think that the message Baker ultimately wanted to convey was how racial backgrounds were unimportant when it came to making music; how talented individuals and artists (in this case Rick, Smoke, Jeff, art et al) aiming for perfection in jazz managed to overcome race barriers.

Another interesting feature in the book is the narrative voice; the slangy tone and manner of speech suggest a musician narrating the tale or someone who was abreast of the jazz milieu and who’s who of the music business at the time. At first, I thought the narrator is possibly a character in the book, but that turned out not to be the case and so it may be Baker herself who is donning the persona of a musician, or she has just created an omniscient narrator.

Rick’s relationship with Amy North was to me the least interesting aspect of the book; Amy somehow didn’t come alive in the way other characters did, and those pages devoted to their relationship felt a tad clichéd.

In a nutshell, Young Man with a Horn is not always perfect, but Baker’s rendering of the jazz world – practice sessions, recordings, the kinship between musicians – and her beautiful portrayal of male friendship alone make it well worth reading.

“The good thing, finally is to lead a devoted life, even if it swings around and strikes you in the face.”


Villa Amalia – Pascal Quignard (tr. Chris Turner)

I have had a great run so far with the novels published by Kolkata based Seagull Books. In 2016, Florence Noiville’s Attachment made it to my Best Books of 2016 list. And a couple of months back I loved and wrote about Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners.

Looking for something more from their catalogue, I was intrigued by Pascal Quignard’s Villa Amalia. And what more, the book cover was stunning.

Villa Amalia
Seagull Books

When the book opens, the protagonist Ann Hidden (a musician), is hiding in the bushes to spy on her partner Thomas who she suspects is cheating on her.

‘I wanted to cry. I was following him. So unhappy I wanted to die.’

But she is caught doing so by a friend from her past – Georges Roehl. He berates her for spying and soon he becomes Ann’s confidant in the drastic plan she is going to put into action.

Ann Hidden decides to ditch her partner (whose affair is confirmed), give up her old life in the Paris suburbs and altogether disappear. But she is intent on keeping Thomas in the dark of what she is about to do. Thomas, meanwhile, desperately tries to hold on to Ann, but she is indifferent and quite set on radically altering her life.

When Thomas is in London for a week for a business meeting, Ann successfully sells off their home and furniture, withdraws money from the bank, and decides to spend some time travelling.

Her friend George is privy to her new plans, or is he? Ann tells him that she will be heading to Morocco. Instead, she travels to Switzerland, and Italy, and finally enamoured by the volcanic island of Ischia off the Italian coast, halts there.

Days are spent in a hotel (with a sea view), swimming, walking and reveling in solitude. But hotel life soon begins to grate on her.

It is then that she comes across an abandoned villa atop a cliff that is surrounded by the sea on all sides. It’s a villa she immediately falls in love with. After a meeting with its aged owner, she rents the place and settles in her new home.

She was passionately, obsessively in love with Zia Amalia’s house, the terrace, the bay, the sea. She wanted to disappear into what she loved. In every love there is something that fascinates. Something much more ancient than can be indicated by the words we learnt long after we were born. But it wasn’t a man now she loved this way. It was a house that called out to her to be with it. It was a mountain wall she was trying to cling to. It was a recesses of grasses, light, lava and inner fire that she wanted to live in.

It’s a new phase in her life and promises all the solitude that Ann craves for. There is also all the time in the world to compose music.

She re-learnt how to be without a man, not having anything to prepare, not having to wash herself, not having to dress with care, taste or attention, not out on make-up or do her hair. The pleasure of collapsing into an armchair, lighting a marvelous cigarette and closing her eyes without anyone shouting, humming in the distance, coming up to you, speaking commenting on the weather, the day or the passing hour, tormenting you.

And yet ironically, even though her past relationships with men have left a bitter taste in her mouth and she yearns to be alone, she doesn’t really shut off people.

On the contrary, once settled in Villa Amalia, Ann Hidden actually begins a new life, forging new relationships.

Will this new phase give her satisfaction, or will she remain a restless soul aching to move on?

Villa Amalia is a beautiful book (both the cover and the content), and Ann’s story – especially the sections of her life in Ischia – is immersive and engrossing. Quignard’s prose is spare and poetic, and there is an enchanting quality to his storytelling (wonderfully translated by Chris Turner).

There a couple of themes that are dominant in this novel. The first that comes to mind is how we choose to deal with loss and abandonment. Her partner’s betrayal, of course, disorients her, possibly making her feel anchorless. But we learn that she has been abandoned by her father earlier leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves (Mind you, mother-daughter do not have an easy relationship either). And even in the new relationships that she forms when in Ischia, there comes a point when she is confronted with loss.

Villa Amalia is also about transformation, about breaking the shackles of convention and choosing to live life on your own terms. We live with this perception that the older we get, the more difficult it is to change our thinking or our way of life. But that does not have to be necessarily be so. After all, Ann Hidden is middle-aged when she decides to live her life differently.

Ultimately, in Ann Hidden, Quignard has created a fascinating character. Her metamorphosis from a woman leading an ordinary existence to a life filled with adventure and new possibilities was fresh and invigorating adding another dimension to her personality.

She was a complex woman.

As Magdalena saw it, the mistress of the storms was, in some deep way, a magical being, a fairy creature.

In the eyes of Leonhardt, Ann was an extraordinarily inward artist, almost indifferent to those around her, strong, wild or at least relatively untamed, solitary.

In the eyes of Giulia, she was a great gentle body that was silent, sensual and reassuring, a bundle of bones, evasions and elusions.

In Georges’ eyes, she was a little girl who was proud, rather hostile, always on her guard, easily upset, fragile, worried, mysterious.

In my eyes, she was a genius of a musician. I very seldom heard her play. Yet I did everything I could to do so.

The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici

The Goldsmiths Prize is awarded every year to the most innovation fiction in Britain and Ireland. It is for fiction that ‘opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. It is a prize I look forward too and those looking for something different than the usual fare (read the Booker Prize), can always find something interesting on this shortlist, irrespective of who the ultimate winner is. In the last many years, certainly, the books on the Goldsmiths shortlist have been much stronger than the ones on the Booker list.

I had never heard of Gabriel Josipovici’s novel The Cemetery in Barnes until the shortlist was announced. But boy, I am so glad to have read this one because it was brilliant. It will surely cement a place on my Best of the Year for 2018 list.

Cemetery in Barnes
Carcanet Press

The Cemetery in Barnes opens quietly enough to deceptively give you the impression that this is going to be a straightforward story…

He had been living in Paris for many years. Longer, he used to say, than he cared to remember.

When my first wife died, he would explain, there no longer seemed to be any reason to stay in England. So he moved to Paris and earned his living by translating.

Our narrator is a translator who is living in Paris alone. We learn that he is a creature of habit and quite successful in his profession.

We also know that his first wife has died. Perhaps that is why he settled in Paris to heal his wounds and busy himself in work?

After the death of his first wife what he needed most was solitude, he said. Not that he wanted to brood on what had happened, he just wanted to be alone. I suppose I took on more work than was strictly necessary, he would say, but I think I needed to feel that when one book was finished there was always another waiting for me, and then another.

But this phase of solitude is not permanent because very quickly it becomes apparent that he married again and has been living with his second wife in a farmhouse in Wales.

So essentially it’s a novel in three parts across three time frames – the translator with his first wife in Putney London, the translator alone in Paris, and then the translator with his second wife in Wales.

The narrator and his second wife often have friends and acquaintances who drop by at their farmhouse.

Because his wife – his second wife – knew how to make them comfortable and welcome, it was a pleasure to sit there in the old converted farmhouse in the mountains, sipping good wine  and looking out over the rolling hills and valleys spreading out below them. Most of the time he talked about his life in Paris.

In a way they form a chorus for the story as the couple engages in friendly banter essentially touching on the narrator’s life before he married her, his passion and work (music and translation), and the life they are leading now.

I’m so uneducated, she would say. When I met him I thought a saraband was something you wore round your waist.

You had other qualities, he would say, smiling.

But an appreciation of classical music was not one of them, she would say.

Gradually, some tidbits from each phase of his life are doled out to us.

In London for instance, his first wife was a ‘trainee solicitor and amateur violinist’. They had a routine wherein he would pick her up once her work was over and both would, hand in hand, go strolling in the park or walk through the city streets.

But were they happily married? It would seem so given that the narrator chose to relocate to Paris once she died to blunt his grief. It is also appears so from the conversations between him and his second wife wherein the latter emphasizes on how lonely he was (which the narrator denies) and in a way needed to be rescued from himself.

And then we come across these paragraphs which makes us question the nature of his relationship with his first wife.

He felt at times as if he did not understand her at all. She was there and yet she was not there. He held her and yet he did not hold her. As they walked, hand in hand, he sometimes felt he was walking with a stranger.

And it only gets a bit eerie later…

Occasionally, in Putney, he would wait outside Putney Bridge tube station, but not in his usual place. Hidden behind a newspaper stand he would observe the commuters streaming out of the station, heads bowed, eyes blank with weariness. Then he would see her. She would stand for a moment at the exit, not looking round for him but simply waiting for him to come up to her if he was there.. After a few seconds, when he did not appear, she would start off across the street and disappear under the shadow of the footbridge.

He would give her time to climb the stairs, then slowly follow.

In Paris, the narrator is a man of habits, and a well-defined routine, which he seems to be following to the tee, deviating from it once in a while.

Most of the time he stuck to his routine without a thought: rise, shave, dress, Pantheon, breakfast, work steps, coffee, shopping, lunch, steps, work, tea, steps, supper, steps, music, Pantheon, bath, bed.

He relishes his moments of solitude and finds joy in his work of translation. Indeed, we are given a glimpse into his craft – its pleasures, pitfalls and challenges, be it translating tedious works or beautifully constructed poems (particularly du Bellay’s rhymes).

In Wales, he lives a harmonious existence with his second wife in their spacious farmhouse, possibly envied by their friends and acquaintances although the couple do not have many things in common but have gelled well in their relationship despite this.

That’s the overall story arch. To reveal more would be to spoil the experience.

So let me touch on what makes The Cemetery in Barnes such a wonderful, compelling tale. First, at a mere 100 pages, there is so much that Josipovici packs into the story – the three plots, rumination on the art of translation, references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – without making it all seem complex and knotty. I must admit that even though the Orfeo and Monteverdi references sailed right above my head, in no way did it diminish the pleasure I derived from this book.

Second, although there are three distinct plots, these do not follow one another in any strict linear fashion. Instead, the three story threads are expertly woven into each other to form one seamless narrative. In other words, there is nothing disorienting about it, which is testament to Josipovici’s storytelling skills.

Third, the prose is elegant and gorgeous. It maintains a quiet undertone throughout with enough hints of something dark simmering under the calm surface. Sentences and episodes are often repeated and retold, like the chorus in a soundtrack (our protagonist loves music, hence the music references above), building up to an effect that is hypnotic and mesmerizing.

But what’s most striking about this novel is how wonderfully ambiguous it is. Lean, spare and quite unsettling, the tension steadily mounts, but you are not really sure what happened or what is about to.

It is a nuanced and layered narrative ripe with many meanings and open to multiple interpretations giving each reader a chance to come up with his/her own take on the novel.

Highly recommended!