Skip to main content

Orfeo by Richard Powers

A wonderful, noisy novel
I'm in a rare state of euphoria. This past week I've had a few epiphanies, most of which might be pretty unremarkable, mundane and trivial and with none of which I will annoy or bore you. I've also watched what might be my favourite film (which isn't The Big Lebowksi) and read one of my new favourite books. To this end, please forgive the trotting out of superlatives that is bound to follow. 

Firstly, before we begin, I urge you to find and watch Synecdoche, New York, a 2008 film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (also of The Big Lebowski), written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and rather amusingly mis-labelled by iTunes as a comedy. Mind-blowing.

Secondly, here come the superlatives. Richard Powers' Orfeo is the best book I've read this year by a significant margin. Similarly mind-blowing, I'm indebted to whomever it was suggested I splash out 99p on the Kindle version , and who has both gifted me great joy and also robbed me of the delight of reading this in hard copy. The story, to trivialise it with a clumsy synopsis, follows avant-garde composer Peter Els, ostensible Orpheus referred to in the title, whose life's works moulder and decay unplayed and overlooked, while he searches for something beautiful and beyond his grasp. He is also on the run from the police, the FBI, the FDA, and NSA for acts of bioterrorism. 

Punctuated throughout by what sound like short passages from a confession of sorts, and which are explained very late on in the novel, Els' life is charted from youth through to dotage by an omniscient narrator, only switching to a sort-of second person view in his final moments. His messy love life, his family - traded for the pursuit of music - his compositions and collaborations are traced over the map of world events, global disasters, wars, assassinations, deaths, political upheaval and social change. In a linear recap, his early life flirtation with composition in chemistry as an alternative to pencils and blank staves leads to a later life fascination with biochemistry and his creation of a microbial menace, by accident. However, the narrative unfolds alternating between present and past events. Only the power of Powers' storytelling leaves the final twist, unseen by me as I was swept along, a very enjoyable surprise. Through it all is a constant soundtrack, music in every passage, on every page. Descriptions of pieces, dribbles of the lives of composers, including some so moving that I spent a lot more than the seven pounds I would have spent on a paperback on downloads of things like Olivier Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time, abound, sometimes dissonantly, perhaps deliberately so, but always apposite, and Powers' apparent depth of understanding translates into a love that shines through, even when criticising movements, pieces, critiques, composers. It's an infectious, cacophonous novel; a deeply moving novel covering friendship and love, music and technology, fathers and daughters, government and the media, art and consumerism. Els is a deeply flawed, wonderfully human character, empathetic and identifiable. And the title hints at poetry, prophecy, deep love and the power to make the world move, referencing Pindar's 'Father of Songs' and the anonymous Middle English poem Sir Orfeo

Powers is a novelist to whom I will be returning again and again on the strength of this one. He left me sitting still, awaiting the music that would find me.

Comments

How's about that then?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…

Augustus Carp, Esq., By Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, by Henry Howarth Bashford

So it goes that, for one reason or other, I was asked recently* to recommend a list of classic British comic novels that one might take on holibobs, to be read at the pool, on the beach, or in this case at a sprawling, crumbling ancestral seat in the heart of Ireland during a month-long fishing expedition.
Unfortunately, every suggestion I made was knocked back, either for reasons of personal (bad) taste or because it had already been read. I thought long and hard** and serendipitously, most likely due to having read this post from the most excellent Neglected Booksblog, but equally likely due to a ringing endorsement from Anthony Burgess at some point or other, I came upon Augustus Carp Esq, a book I noticed I had on my e-reader, although how and why it was there is anybody’s guess.
Penned by a notable English physician, one which any blog of note would not neglect to mention once was physician to a contemporaneous English King (George the something?), it is ill-in-keeping with any of …

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

It’s hard to say, when asked as I was recently at a meeting of local writers (who you can follow on Twitter if you wish), who might be my favourite author. If you look at my book shelves, you might see groupings of books by modern authors such as (WARNING - gratuitous alphabetical roll-call):
Paul Auster, John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Bernhard, Jim Bob, T.C. Boyle, Karel Čapek, Jonathan Carroll, Stephen Donaldson, Glen Duncan, Tibor Fischer, Peter Høeg, Michel Houellebeq, Bohumil Hrabal, Ismail Kadare, Andrey Kurkov, John D McDonald, Harry Mullisch, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Victor Pelevin, Thomas Pynchon, Jon Ronson, and Kurt Vonnegut (my usual go-to favourite when I don’t have the energy to explain).
In addition, you might just spot every book ever published by one William Woodard "Will" Self (minus Sore Sites which mysteriously vanished while moving house a few years back). Whilst a fan, and also willing to admit experiencing an embarrassing and sometimes di…