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The Music in Prose
Simile and metaphor
My book group chose to read love stories. We read seven or eight books, a mix of modern and classic. The night was perfect, the trees lush and full; my skin felt alive in the cool air as we dined outside for the last discussion before summer. Sunset was 8:28 PM so it was an ideal time to talk about love. The book was Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a story set in a Chinese re-education camp.
SPOILER ALERT! Two boys fall in love with the little seamstress and educate her from hidden books and films, sharing the stories they must memorize. In the opening scene of the book, the boys are interrogated about a violin by the village headman, who dismisses it as a bourgeois toy, the peasants threatening to burn it on the coals. Luo appeals to the headman: Comrade, it’s a musical instrument. Then he explains that his friend will play Mozart. When pressed to explain who this Mozart is, he says that the sonata is actually like a song, called Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao. Gasp, choke, ahem. Will it work?
Books were not allowed and music was nonexistent, but the headman’s menacing look softened after the reference to Mao. Here’s how the scene ends.
As soon as I had tightened my bow there was a burst of applause, but I was still nervous. However, as I ran my swollen fingers over the strings, Mozart’s phrases came flooding back to me like so many faithful friends. The peasants’ faces, so grim a moment before, softened under the influence of Mozart’s limpid music like parched earth under a shower, and then, in the dancing light of the oil lamp, they blurred into one. (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, p. 6)
The prose is rich with S and SH sounds and simile. The musical phrases came flooding back like so many faithful friends; the word softened is repeated from earlier. The music is like parched earth under a shower. The dancing light helps the violinist forget the grim faces. I can see him, rising above the squalor, finding solace as he plays, the music more exquisite and soothing against the bleak surroundings.
The listeners know nothing of civilization, yet they sense and hear something in this Mozart, maybe even forgetting the stench and misery of their lives. And a place parched and dry of culture is showered with rain, the element needed for life.
What is in the music that he brings forth into this mountain hovel, from the deepest part of himself, if not love?
Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the novella was one of the pleasant surprises of the year. Here are two examples, one simile and one metaphor.
Mag Wildwood couldn’t understand it, the abrupt absence of warmth on her return; the conversations she began behaved like green logs, they fumed but would not fire. More unforgivably, people were leaving without taking her telephone number.
“There’s a statue of Papadaddy Wildwood smack in the center of Wildwood.”
“Fred’s a soldier,” said Holly. “But I doubt if he’ll ever be a statue. Could be. They say the more stupid you are the braver. He’s pretty stupid.”
The comparison to green logs is an apt metaphor because it clarifies meaning in this passage. It also intensifies or enhances the scene, because the reader knows how green logs won’t catch and can grasp the social awkwardness. The second example uses the word statue in a metaphor, a word substitution for Fred who is Holly’s brother. Fred doesn’t have what it takes to have a statue erected in his honor. He’s stupid and brave by Holly’s measure, and Mag is shocked to hear her speak of her brother this way: doubting he’ll ever be a statue.
Holly loves her brother, flippant as she may be. Is this classic a love story? Love comes in many forms. Skillful use of metaphor and simile is the mark of good writing. Skill requires practice and these are masterful examples.
I have not forgotten the violin scene in the mountain village or Holly’s rebuke of her brother, and I had read both books last year. I have continued to think about stupidity and bravery, dismissing it at first, but finding myself revisiting the idea more than I’d like.
As for love. On looking back on a year of love stories, two friends remarked on the differences in cultures, geography, circumstances, and class. Class issues are always present. The lens of love, though, the society and era in history shaped the stories. Love is complex and infinite. Another friend said: Love always finds a way.
*Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Internet Archive link to full text.
*Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie with translation by Ina Rilke (2002).
*A year of love stories, titles my reading group chose
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
The Tokaido Road: A Novel of Feudal Japan by Lucia St. Claire Robson, TreeHouseLetter on this book: A Poet Warrior Learns Kindness
Madame Bovary by Flaubert, TreeHouseLetter on this book: Sex Over 70 Years and the Synecdoche
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, TreeHouseLetter on this book: Sex Over 70 Years and the Synecdoche
The Elephant of Belfast by S. Kirk Walsh