Thursday, December 3, 2009

Body & Soul

Body & Soul by Frank Conroy

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

For the coming season of gifts, I recommend this beautiful, uplifting, and moving novel about music, New York City, genius, and love. The preface to Body and Soul is a line from Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.” Keep this quote in mind as you follow the life of Claude Rawlings from his humble and mysterious origins to celebrity concert pianist.

The story takes place in New York City in the 1940s – 1960s, and as Claude grows from a toddler to a child to an adolescent to an adult, the city changes profoundly as well. In an early chapter the author, Frank Conroy, pays homage to Alfred Eisenstadt’s famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, giving us a time stamp for Claude’s childhood. The crowds of soldiers and sailors returning home to celebrate the end of the second world war reminded Claude to ask his mother about his father, who was, she said, a soldier. Claude sensed that his mother had a story she didn’t want to tell, because she refused to give him any information, other than to say he was probably dead. Unlike some fatherless sons, Claude was not ashamed of who he was or where he came from, but throughout his life he did wonder about his absent father.

Claude Rawlings’ mother was a troubled alcoholic, often too drunk to care for him properly, so Claude became self-sufficient at a very young age. When sober, Emma Rawlings drove a taxi cab and occasionally made Claude ride along with her during the earliest hours of morning when she would take mysterious passengers to shady destinations. By having Claude in the cab, Emma could keep her meter running and refuse passengers while she waited for her clandestine clients to return. This plot line explores how easily innocent people became entangled in the culture of suspicion and fear that threatened the American way of life in the era following the end of World War II.

Meanwhile, Claude discovered music in the form of a small, sixty-six key piano stuffed into a corner of the storage room where he slept. With nothing to do and no one to talk to, Claude became fascinated with the white and black keys and how each was a precise half-tone different from the ones next to it. While his mother drove her taxi, Claude had nothing but time and soon discovered that he had a gift for music. That discovery also led him into a deep and abiding friendship with Mr. Weisfeld, the owner of a music store on 3rd Avenue, hidden under the shadow of an elevated train track, in New York’s upper east side.

Mr. Conroy, in describing Claude’s discovery of the piano and his intuitive understanding of musical sound, provides a concise tutorial on the Western twelve-tone chromatic scale. If you remember “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do” from The Sound of Music then you know what a musical scale in a major key sounds like. On a piano, the C-major and A-minor scales use only white keys. All the other major and minor scales – D, E, F, G, A, and B – use one or more black keys. Within an octave, moving left to right, there are twelve tones: c, c-sharp, d, d-sharp, e, f , f-sharp, g, g-sharp, a, a-sharp, and b. Moving right to left, the tones are called c, b, b-flat, a, a-flat, g, g-flat, f, e, e-flat, d, d-flat. Each key has a discrete sound wave frequency which pleases the human ear and can be identified by those rare people with perfect pitch, of whom Claude was one. Claude, a young child, figured all of this out without the benefit of knowing what any of the keys were called, to the amazement of Mr. Weisfeld.

The story of Claude’s musical education is a fascinating glimpse into the rarified world of a child prodigy. Some critics of this book feel that Claude’s character is too one-dimensional. I disagree. Gifted people are often clumsy in social situations and many have difficulty with intimacy. Even as a tiny child, Claude was unusual and moved through life as if he were an omniscient observer. As he began exploring the world around the small apartment he shared with his mother, Claude made friends with a maintenance man at a large and beautiful apartment building. This man, Al, put the boy in a potentially threatening position but ultimately redeemed himself by becoming an important figure in Claude’s life. It was Mr. Weisfeld, however, who served to guide Claude through life both as a prodigy and as a boy growing up in the Jazz Age. When Claude shows Mr. Weisfeld, at the music store, where he would begin his musical education, how well he completed his first lesson in the beginner piano book it is, to borrow a phrase from “Casablanca,” the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And yet, as close as Claude and Mr. Weisfeld become across the years, while the boy grows into an adult, there is much about himself that the older man never shares. It is only at the end of the book that Claude discovers the truth about his best friend, mentor, and surrogate father.

Fatherhood is an important theme in Body & Soul. The mystery of Claude’s biological father slowly reveals itself, as Emma Rawlings learns to live without alcohol, and is a surprising and poignant coda to the book. Mr. Weisfeld, Al, and a series of music maestros who help shape Claude into a man as well as a great artist, serve as father figures. Claude tries and fails to father a child, himself, and this failure breaks the heart of his wife and college sweetheart. It is through his father-in-law that Claude learns another side of fatherhood: that fathers have the power to destroy their children through cruelty, abuse, and humiliation. Claude’s birth father, unable to have a role in his son’s life, does no harm, in the Hippocratic sense. When they finally meet for the first and only time, it is as if they had always been together; and in a way, they had.

Meanwhile, in the economic boom following the Great Depression, New York City changes from a place built and populated by immigrants into an economic Mecca. Skyscrapers replace three and four-storey walk-ups, tenement houses give way to high-rise apartment towers, and unsightly elevated train tracks yield to construction cranes. Developers and speculators ride the irresistible force that changes the face of Manhattan and eventually meets with the immovable object that is Mr. Weisfeld and his music store. It is an ancient story of how greed and corruption run rampant while taking advantage of free markets, of how easily the powerless are swept aside, and of how difficult it is to resist the powerful forces of progress.

Today, the population of Manhattan houses roughly 71,000 people per square mile. On New York’s Upper East Side, the median income approaches $100,000. In contrast, residents of crowded and decaying housing projects and slums barely get by and live in constant fear of criminals. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times, depending on your address.

If Claude were born today to a single mother in a rough inner-city neighborhood, would he ever venture beyond his door? Would he transcend his circumstances or join a gang and cycle in and out of prison? Would he survive into adulthood? It makes me wonder how many tremendously gifted children, geniuses, or potentially great leaders are hidden away, too afraid to leave home, numbed by hours of mindless television, and nourished by cheese puffs and soda. I also wonder whether there is a goldmine of human potential rotting in the juvenile justice system, children who will never have the opportunity to realize their potential, or even to live without fear of being caught by a stray bullet. Mr. Conroy’s novel is not meant to be a social commentary, but these are some of the questions that occurred to me after reading Body & Soul.

Body & Soul is a celebration of music, the universal language. It is also a rich, many-layered and very American story about uniquely American music. To some listeners, jazz is a formless mish-mash of musicians playing whatever they want with no coherence. Mr. Conroy’s book explains that jazz is a very complex musical form which builds on chord structures from classical music while borrowing rhythms from other cultures. Jazz musicians don’t work off of sheet music, for the most part; each ensemble functions as a team, improvising around a particular key and rhythm. Jazz and blues use selected notes from a given key rather than the entire octave which gives these genres their unique tonal qualities. Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Mozart, and the other great composers of western music gave the world a body of work which reveal the beauty of the human soul at a time when humanity was actively reaching for divinity through great art and architecture. Beethoven, Italian architect Brunelleschi, and artist Michelangelo came very close. Classical music provided a foundation and a rich trove a material for future musicians to mine in the creation of new musical forms. While much of today’s popular music is cranked out of digital studios, there remain great musicians creating pieces which we will listen to for the next one hundred years. Mr. Conroy, in Body & Soul, provides a basic understanding of how symphonic music continues to evolve in its complexity and its ability to describe, musically, our collective psyche.

Read Body & Soul and end 2009 on a high note.

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