It is generally acknowledged that where words fail, music succeeds. The great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham went so far as to describe music as “A respite, however brief, from the tyranny of conscious thought.” This maxim proved true until about a year ago, when I first encountered the fiction of Allan Gurganus.
Gurganus, author of the celebrated novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, writes prose that is so rhythmically conceived and ordered, so inevitable in its movement through time, that the reader must agree to a sort of captive abandon—the suspension not only of disbelief but any pretense at control.
The more I read Gurganus’s work, the louder and clearer its music sounded. Though American fiction often refers to jazz recordings or current popular songs, such references seek to describe or evoke the mood of such music or the lyrics of a song. But in Gurganus’s stories, music is not merely the occasion for name-dropping. The sounds of words contribute to both the sonority and movement of his linear narrative style. The finely honed internal rhythm of his prose seduces and transports the reader. His is, I started suspecting, a sense of timing evolved not just at his desk but in the opera house.
Our subsequent correspondence about the role of music in his work led to a conversation at Gurganus’s North Carolina home. We sat in his gothic library to discuss the music audible in all his works. Surrounded by a formidable ensemble of three dozen busts, and murals of the Elgin marbles (painted by the writer), our hours-long conversation took surprising turns through life, past craft, and on toward art.
SR: Your writing is informed by both the mood and movement of music. What music did you grow up with?
Gurganus: My parents owned LPs. They would sometimes sit and listen to what my mother called “semi-classical” music. I think that meant Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and some Rachmaninoff. My parents’ “song” was Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Their record collection had, I’d say, one third classical recordings, those big, old, waxy 78s. And there was a lot of upbeat Bing Crosby and moody Rosemary Clooney.
I also sang in a Presbyterian youth choir. Then as now, I thought music was the best thing any church ever offered. I had a clear boy-soprano, and—a great bonus in art and life—I was a pretty good mime. They gave me a few solos with regional choirs. That felt exciting. But I remember at the age of twelve, I was rehearsing with the choir director when my voice changed. I went from, you know, soprano to basso profundo to frog—and back to soprano again. My poor coach put her head down on the keyboard and cried.
But, because I was born in 1947, I lucked out. Folk music became the rage just as my voice changed. Only lately have I realized how important hootenannies would be to my writing life. Owning a guitar and singing traditional English ballads taught me so much about structure, action, and narrative simplicity. I’ve loved the way Dvorˇák or Grieg or Copland can take folk melodies and spin them into something new that might come to characterize a nation—or our species.
SR: Folk melodies are almost a distillation. They are hardly complicated by rhythm or even by dramatic vocal range; they are easy to sing or hum on a note-to-note basis. It’s all about the contour of the melodic line.
Gurganus: Exactly. I remember listening to Joan Baez at home, and my father said, “Will you turn off this new banshee music, it’s driving me crazy!” And I got to say, “This folk song is four hundred years old, Daddy.” We all grow up resisting something, and my father provided such an isometric Berlin Wall! But I was always fascinated with how music can inspire such varied emotions, how those little squiggles on the five-line staff—seeming so abstract and German-mathematical and distant—could stir Nazi nationalism or angelic tenderness.
SR: And from the beginning?
Gurganus: I really think so. I’ve never been smarter than I was in third grade. I studied piano with an unhappy woman named Miss King. One strict disciplinarian, she sat with her ruler in her hand. She slapped my knuckles whenever I misplayed, which I did the more times I was hit. Music was then presented as a joyless, Calvinist undertaking.
The first 45 record I bought was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens. Their close harmony thrilled me. After puberty, I was relieved to have no solos, but I loved the magical combination of voices. I prefer chamber music and a cappella choral music. Choral music remains important to me. Some choir of amateurs is a thematic resting-place in my work—untrained, unaccompanied voices straining for unity. That seems a profound democratic ideal. Friends and I still own about forty old hymnals, and a few times a year we gather around a piano and sing whatever page number someone hollers. It always seems that we are achieving the quantum, reaching some cloudy zone beyond what any of us could find individually. And all that expenditure of air leaves you light-headed, ecstatic.
SR: When I finished “Blessed Assurance,” the novella that concludes your 1991 story collection White People, I was left with a light-headed tenderness for humanity itself. The hymn tune is almost a lullaby. And the hymn text plays a significant role in the story. Especially with wordplay between “blessed assurance” and “blessed insurance.” When you write, does the nature and shape of a tune get mixed in with the personalities of the characters?