Bel Canto: I may be tone deaf, but I know good writing.

The only thing I remember from first year English is a lecture that argued that all creative writing (whether poetry or prose) is about the urge by authors to create something which will outlast them. That every poem or story is, in the end, a valiant gesture toward immortality. And that readers should read with an eye to the way the author intentionally and accidentally imbues their work with this impulse; that is, that the discerning reader will always be able to find evidence of the author’s vanity, of their arrogance in thinking their work will endure. At the time I found the argument moving and persuasive. Since then I think back on it more as an example of excellent teaching, it was a well paced lecture with convincing examples and analysis. Which isn’t to say I now thinking writing isn’t about immortality, just that I haven’t had cause to declare an allegiance in the great What is Writing For debate of humanity. 

Enter Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. It is a novel – ostensibly – about opera. My edition even includes an addendum “Ann Patchett’s Guide to Falling in Love with Opera.” The story follows the failed kidnapping of a president and the subsequent hostage-taking of sixty odd people from a smattering of European and Asian countries. One of the hostages is a world renowned opera singer, and over the course of the deliciously slow paced story, we witness the power of her voice to cross language, political allegiance and religion in uniting people and propelling them toward love.

Patchett is masterful in telescoping the narration around one character and then shifting with such delicacy that I didn’t notice the turn toward another point of view, just that I was now occupying another set of circumstances. The effect is to invite the reader to see a sort of common humanity in the similarity of concern: we are all, regardless of race, class, language or politics, moved by a desire for safety for ourselves and those we love, and by a yearning for connection and understanding.

It is a novel that meditates explicitly on the function of art, specifically music, in the making of meaning and the satisfaction of a well lived life. Characters explore how they carve out small moments for beauty in their lives, and how – as a consequence of their experience in the hostage situation – they have fresh perspective on the hierarchy of what matters, that perhaps wealth and success are less important than human connection and beauty.

This for me, then, is the point of the novel. It is exquisitely beautiful writing. The sort that makes you stop and remember that one of the reasons we read it to simply be moved and affected. It helped me understand, and extend empathy, to those who don’t love reading (hard as that might be for me to understand), because if I am tone(ish) deaf and have little appreciation for great music, there must be those who are… narrative(ish) deaf and just don’t see the extraordinary beauty of great writing. I suppose I must have known this before, but if I did it was with an arrogance that these folks just weren’t reading the right things. And so it is a novel that is about writing itself, about the power and persuasion of beautiful writing to offer meaning and feeling. That as much as it is a novel about politics and collective action and music, it is mostly – for me, at least – a novel about the immortality of art, about the certainty that any reader that encounters this story will come away changed by its beauty.

Which is all to say, I guess, that I really liked it.



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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Orange Prize

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