Emily Petermann. The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction. European Studies in North American Literature and Culture. Rochester: Camden House, 2014. viii + 242 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57113-592-6.
Reviewed by Alexander W. Cowan (Harvard University)
Published on H-Music (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Lars Fischer
A Foundation for Future Works of Criticism
Emily Petermann’s The Musical Novel attempts to offer a refinement of the concept of intermediality—the “crossing of medial borders within a given work” (p. 17)—and a detailed set of tools for its analysis. Being intermedial, the book is almost by default an interdisciplinary study, situated between media theory, literary criticism, and musicology. It is also, however, a book about one very particular form, the “musical novel,” which Petermann proposes is distinguishable by its structural, as well as thematic, musicality—books such as Nancy Huston’s The Goldberg Variations (1981, translated 1986), with its thirty-two chapters mimicking J. S. Bach’s Aria with Thirty Variations (1741) and da capo, or Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar (1975), the picaresque structure of which is seen to reflect the chugging choruses of a jazz performance. As a work of formalist literary criticism, The Musical Novel succeeds in refining prior reflections on the subject into a usable vocabulary and method for the identification and analysis of intermediality in the contemporary novel. Its limitations become more apparent, though, when considered as a model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Definitions of key terms from music studies are confused, and the depth of its engagement with specialist literature in semiotics and media theory is not matched in its musicological reading. The Musical Novel sets itself very tight parameters, and within them there can be no doubt that it fulfills its stated aims. But its limited frame of musical reference and unwillingness to engage with narrative and politics render its conclusions even more confined.
Petermann makes the case for the “musical novel” as a formal category: that the musicality of the works discussed operates on the level of structure, as well as content. This observation sets The Musical Novel apart from its forebears in the field of word and music studies, and the broader field of writing on intermediality, which Petermann characterizes as either too concerned with “plot elements, ideology, symbolism” (p. 6) or as swept up in the vagueness of postructuralist literary theory, to consider form with the required attention. Petermann uses the opportunity provided by the opening literature review to offer some definitions (or counter-definitions) of key terms in the field, negotiating contested interdisciplinary waters with a precision and clarity that distinguishes her approach from others.
The core of the text consists of two analytical examples: the first, a discussion of a selection of “jazz novels,” and the second, of novels modeled on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Like the “musical novel” itself, these case studies are implied to be chosen almost at random, simply as common examples of certain types of intermediality: novels mimicking a genre and novels mimicking a specific work. Questions of why these particular categories of musical novel are so well represented are gestured to but deemed outside the purview of the study.
The Musical Novel’s greatest asset is its precision. Petermann urges those thinking about intermediality to consider exactly the qualities being thematized and imitated, and the vectors by which these processes occur. The presentation of these intermedial relationships as diagrams in an appendix adds further clarity to the analytical process. While such texts as Irina O. Rajewsky’s Intermedialität (2002) and Werner Wolf’s The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality (1999) are major components of The Musical Novel, Petermann’s achievement lies in her refining their theoretical and philosophical arguments into a coherent framework, and a consistent vocabulary.
The book is a formalist exercise, and while this is not a weakness in itself, Petermann’s explicit foreclosure of certain areas and modes of inquiry—like the consideration of narrative, ideology, ethics, or history—has the result of limiting what is available to be said about form itself. Many of the questions Petermann runs into as barriers, questions of cyclical and linear time in variation forms, of micro-structure and macro-structure, of key symbolism, and of structure in improvised music, have been worked through extensively in musicological literature. The discussion of the “Goldberg Variations” is concerned with how literary form might mimic musical form, but its understanding of musical form is limited by a narrow frame of reference. For Petermann, form seems to be a fixed vessel to be filled with content, literary or musical. Recent trends in the analysis of tonal music have tended, instead, to see form as something articulated by musical material—in particular, through strong cadence points—setting up extended tonal gestures of tension and resolution. Form is thus, in effect, something a piece does, as well as something it has. In asking what techniques authors use to mimic musical form, the question of how musical form is itself created might prove a stronger starting point. The fact that Petermann’s pool of musical references is mostly limited to dictionary and encyclopedia entries—forms slow to reflect shifts in scholarly opinion—cuts off a more nuanced consideration of formal possibilities.
Nor does a desire to discuss form necessitate an avoidance of questions of politics and narrative. As shown in music analysis by writers like Susan McClary and J. P. E. Harper-Scott, and in literary criticism by figures like Terry Eagleton, consideration of form and consideration of ideology are by no means opposed. Form and narrative, too, are perhaps more easily separated in literature than in music, but in an intermedial environment the demands of all media involved must surely be taken into account.
Petermann’s terminological precision is another virtue not extended to the musical moments of the text. A typical example is the equivalence of the narrative device in media res (starting in the middle of things) with the musical instruction attacca (starting suddenly at the beginning of a movement), devices that might be related in these specific adaptations of the “Goldberg Variations” but are certainly not identical. The definition of a “break” in jazz performance is similarly extended to incorporate any unaccompanied soloistic flight, missing the structural role of breaks in marking the end of sections, or heralding the start of a new solo. These slips are infrequent, but further contribute to the secondary role allotted to specialist musical knowledge marring the book’s otherwise thorough interdisciplinarity.
The Musical Novel, then, is a necessary work of methodology, refining and clarifying prior attempts at intermedial analysis into a toolset that offers much as a foundation for future works of criticism. Yet its limitations, both self-imposed and accidental, obviate the full exploration of the possibilities inherent in those foundations.
. See, for example, Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Henry Martin, “Expanding Jazz Tonality: The Compositions of John Coltrane,” Theory and Practice 37–38 (2012): 185–219; and Ingrid Monson, “Riffs, Repetition, and Theories of Globalization,” Ethnomusicology 43, no. 1 (1999): 31–65.
. For an introduction to this “turn,” see James A. Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late Eighteenth-Century Sonata (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
. See J. P. E. Harper-Scott, The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism: Revolution, Reaction, and William Walton (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Susan McClary, “The Impromptu That Trod on a Loaf: Or How Music Tells Stories,” Narrative 5, no. 1 (1997): 20–35; and Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 2006).
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Alexander W. Cowan. Review of Petermann, Emily, The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction.
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