Saturday, June 08, 2013

For the TBR Pile Challenge: Rose Tremain, Music & Silence

UK edition (1999)
Entry in the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge: #3 out of 12

Years on TBR: 13 or so

Edition owned: London: Chatto & Windus, 1999 (hb, 454pp)

Back in February, I declared my intention to review one book from the TBR Pile Challenge each month during 2013.  Obviously, this hasn't happened, but I'm doing my best to catch up!

As implied by the title, Music and Silence is a novel of contrasts.  Tremain uses delicate, almost ethereal language to evoke her themes of intense passion, obsession, and longing.  Heated affairs play out during the cold, desolate winters of northern Europe, and the gentle heroine vies against the malign forces at court and in her own family.

So many readers have told me that this is one of their favorite novels, so I turned the first page prepared to be impressed, but with slight trepidation (would I agree?). I quickly learned that Music and Silence demands a quiet frame of mind.  It's not tolerant of distractions, and if you try to read it while other things are going on in the background, you'll need to tune them out first. It took me a few chapters to realize this.

The royal court of 1620s-30s Denmark isn't one that figures in other historical novels I've heard of, and Tremain has so thoroughly claimed this setting and its major players for her own that no other author is likely to try.

US edition (2000)
It opens in 1629, as English lutenist Peter Claire arrives at the Danish court to take up a post in Christian IV's royal orchestra. After coming to terms with the king's odd demand that the musicians play in a frigid cellar, so that the sound will waft up mysteriously to the audience on the upper level, he contends with Christian's other expectations (he reminds the king of a long-dead childhood friend). He also forms an attachment to Emilia Tilsen, one of the ladies of Kirsten Munk, the king's morganatic second wife.

The progression of Peter and Emilia's tender romance forms the novel's centerpiece, but it also encompasses many other stories about love: Emilia's close bond with her young brother Marcus, Christian's pursuit of the adulterous Kirsten, and dowager queen Sofie's love for her money. There's also a subplot about Peter's plain sister Charlotte, back in England, and the fiancé nobody expected her to have; I found this story especially moving.

None of these, however, is as compelling to read about as Kirsten's love for herself.

Kirsten Munk by Jacob van Doordt
Kirsten writes journal entries in sections labeled "Kirsten: From Her Private Papers," and Tremain's depiction of this character is a command performance.  Kirsten is lustful, deceitful, and completely self-absorbed. She thinks endlessly about her bedroom acrobatics with her lover, a German count named Otto Ludwig; she hates children; and she cares not at all for her husband.

For her birthday, Christian gives her a gold statue in his image, and even her disgust is mixed with lasciviousness.

I didn't ask for yet another likeness of my ageing husband. I asked for gold. Now I will have to pretend to love and worship the Statue and put it in a prominent place et cetera for fear of causing offence, when I would prefer to take it to the Royal Mint and melt it into an ingot which I would enjoy caressing with my hands and feet, and even take into my bed sometimes to feel solid gold against my cheek or laid between my thighs.

Kirsten's one saving grace would be her affection for Emilia, were it not for the fact that Emilia is the only person who tolerates her, and so Kirsten connives to keep her and Peter apart.  Kirsten pours all her wicked thoughts onto the page in a completely uninhibited way. She believes she deserves the reader's undivided attention, and she gets it.

Tormented by thoughts of Kirsten with her German lover, Christian reflects on his "quiet and orderly" married life with his queen and first bride, Anna Catherine of Brandenburg, who died in 1612.  Here, as elsewhere, the writing truly glows:

Christian IV by Peeter Isaacsz
In the darkness of the palace at Hadersleben, the skin of the young Queen's face had a luminous white sheen to it. No more light fell onto it than onto the other than onto the other faces, yet it stood out very plainly and Christian found himself wondering whether, in the very pitch of night, with the curtains of the bed drawn round them, he would turn and see this shining moonstone next to him on the pillow.

The abiding tone in Music and Silence one of melancholy, which reminded me in places of Tremain's Merivel.  Christian uses music to calm his spirit during his endless search for perfection which he rarely finds.  In addition to his marital problems, Denmark is suffering economically, with failed mining ventures and a near-empty treasury.  The darkness, though, is embedded with many bright spots: music, love, and hope for the future.

If asked to choose between the two Tremain novels I'd read, I'd have to say I prefer Merivel, for the entertaining company of the man himself, but I thoroughly enjoyed Music and Silence, too, both for its language and style and for the depictions of its excellent cast of characters.


  1. Tara from Maryland11:50 AM

    Well well..I have never heard of this novel or the author, but now I may have to track it down. Sadly, I fear these posts will expand my TBR pile as they deplete yours! That's ok, though. My TBR pile is the best problem that I have.

    1. Same here. This one's been on my TBR for a crazy long time, too. Rose Tremain isn't a hugely prolific writer, and I've heard each of her books has its own style. I still have her earlier historical novel Restoration to get to.

  2. I have also not heard of this one so making a note of it. Thanks for the review.

    1. This book was a prize winner years ago, so I discovered, but has fallen off the radar since then. I'm going to attempt to review more older titles here.

  3. This is a book that I feel should have been tailor made for me - different setting about interesting characters. Unfortunately it ended up being a DNF instead. Occasionally I think that I might try again but it will be a little while before I am ready to try again I think.

    1. I know what you mean, Marg. I rarely try again with books I've stopped reading - there are too many others to try. This one was quite slow at the beginning, and for a time I had to make myself push through.