the music room

IMG_2413The Music Room by Dennis McFarland was published in 1990. I read it the first time in 1991, and then again at the beginning of August–eighteen years later. I enjoyed it just as much. Here, McFarland could be describing his own writing, instead of a feeling:

“I liked the simple clarity of the feeling. It had the appeal of a primary color; it promised a range of complementary hues to come.”

Over the years I have often remembered how much I enjoyed reading The Music Room. Then in March, at Sirenland, I was hiking up to eat lunch in this great little trattoria, when the person I was hiking with mentioned that her brother-in-law had published several books. Like what, I asked. Well, probably the most famous is The Music Room.

See how he takes these five concrete details and bundles them into a memory:

“The points on the star of this recollection were the red leather of the sofa, its bright gold buttons, the sound of my father’s shoes, his approach in uniform, and the brief, biting taste of suffocation.”

When I got back home, I moved The Music Room from my regular shelf to my little stack of books to reread. There it joined The Heart of the Matter, The Half-Life of Happiness, Beloved, The Rest of Life, and Remembering the Bone House.

Read how he pulls rage out of words:

“You want to know why he didn’t leave a note? Because even to say goodbye is to acknowledge a person.”

Before I could get to it, my friend who reads everything I read plus more asked if she could read it. Yes, she said, it’s still good. And she promptly ordered everything Dennis McFarland has written since then. They’re all great, she reported last week. More books for me to add to my growing list.

Here he turns plain words into poetry:

“In the john, I had a bad case of the shakes, but the roar and rumble of the jet engines saturated me, resonated with my poor jittery cells, which felt like a kind of sympathy.”

Yesterday, I happened upon this blog, which had reprinted this excellent article, “Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader.” (Yes, I’m saying you should actually click away from here to read it. Really.)

IMG_2412“How odd that in this musical family one of my earliest longings is for deafness: the silencing not only of the nocturnal creakings of the Colonial mansion but of the regular jagged peal of breaking glass, of the grownups’ zingers and spiny laughter, and of Father’s terrible, smashed wrong notes.”

Dennis McFarland knows how to tell a story, slipping easily from the past of the central narrative into the present of memory, with all scenes past and present moving relentlessly forward.

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14 thoughts on “the music room

  1. I enjoyed the article you sent us off to read. I loved the end where he says: “Part of the fun of re-reading is that you are no longer bothered by the business of finding out what happens. … I’m able to pay attention to what’s really happening in the language itself …” I don’t think I realized that’s why I re-read until I read that.

    Part of the reason I read your blog, is that you tell me about books I’ve never read and make them sound so appealing, that I know I’ll have to.

    (Btw, you could modify the link so it opens a new window, instead of making us leave your blog.

    Also, I see you’ve changed the way comments are left. I’m curious why.)


  2. Linda, thanks for your comment. I loved that article too, especially the part where Klinkenborg writes about how the words don’t change and the characters don’t change but we do so….

    I did in fact set the article to open in a new window, yet it still feels like leaving, and I thought the article was great. In fact I wished I’d written it so I wanted to encourage people to click on it.

    I don’t know why your comment required moderation. I checked and none of my settings had changed. Sometimes it seems the blog has a mind of its own. I’ll just have to see what happens next.


  3. Yes, his ending was a funny visual … all the characters getting back in their places. I always think about what happened after the last page, don’t you?

    There must have been some temporary blip with WP because not only did my comment require moderation, but the link did NOT open in another window. But it’s working fine now.


  4. I’m so glad to find somebody else who enjoyed this book. I read it back in the early 90’s also and loved it, and I’ve often picked it up just to read a sentence or two to inspire my writing. I’m so thrilled that you liked it too.


  5. Yes, Linda, I loved the visual at the end of the article, but no, oddly enough, I don’t often think about what happens after the last page. Interesting.

    I guess it was a weird WP blip. Glad it’s not something else I have to figure out how to fix.


  6. Barb, it is fun to connect with someone over a book, especially kind of out of the blue like this. The Music Room is good, isn’t it? Have you read any of his other books?


  7. It is always so rewarding to stop by here, Cynthia!
    This is a terrific post about a topic I find compelling. (And of course another new author for me to explore…yikes)
    The quotes you pulled illustrate your points perfectly. And they also help me as a I struggle to articulate what precisely it is about certain authors that causes a singularly obsessive absorption and subsequent desire to re-read.

    Verlyn Klinkenborg nailed it so thoroughly that I’m more or less speechless…except to be left recalling yet again that marvelous passage in The Recherche where Proust describes his youthful ecstasies, and the budding writer’s desire to translate them into a more precisely articulated and communicative form:
    “…must hear my shouts of happiness, these being no more than expressions of the confused ideas which exhilarated me, and which had not achieved the repose of enlightenment, preferring the pleasures of a lazy drift towards an immediate outlet rather than submit to a slow and difficult course of elucidation.”
    and :
    “…I cried aloud in my enthusiasm, brandishing my furled umbrella: ‘Gosh,gosh,gosh,gosh!’ But at the same time I felt that I was in duty bound not to content myself with these unilluminating words, but to endeavor to see more clearly into the sources of my rapture.”
    (Swann’s Way p.169-170)


  8. I will look for the book. I didn’t know the author but I will discover it with pleasure.

    Yes, Re-reading is a part of my life to. Marcel is always near me. Du côté de chez Swan is still my best friend… and the music of hes words full of impression is part of the day.

    I think a little sonate will make you smile. It’s a interpretation of la sonate de Vinteuil. La petite musique de Marcel… for mister Pascoe.

    César Frank

    Thanks for this suggestion.


  9. I relate to the part of the article where it says that re-reading is impossible. There are a few books that I re-read and experience anew each and every time. I still hold my breathe waiting, although a part of my brain knows full well what is coming.


  10. i’d be interested in other reader’s comments about the relationship that unerderlining and writing in the margins have on their thoughts about re-reading especially given the comment in the editorial in the Times about how the reader’s perspective has always changed from read to read-makes me even less inclined to note anything(at least in the text of the book itself)


  11. Walt, I love the quotes from Proust, especially the “lazy drift towards an immediate outlet” and all that it implies about the time delay (for some of us myself included) to put thoughts and feelings into words. I will definitely be interested if you succeed in elucidating what it is that causes you to want to reread. I would imagine it’s subjective, but perhaps not.

    Sarah, thanks for your comment. I reread Gift from the Sea every year at the beach. It has such a centering effect.

    Mireille, thank you for the musical link. I am listening as I type these words to you. I hope Walt, as well as others, will have the chance to listen. Puts me in the mood for Proust. Wonderful!

    Jennifer, it’s so true that it doesn’t matter if you know what’s coming in a good book. In fact it’s reassuring that we can count on the words over and over again. No matter what else changes, the words stay the same.

    I will throw Cal’s question out there, hoping for some responses from those of you who write in books as to whether past underlinings and comments interfere with your rereading or add to it. I personally am interested in what I thought the first time and in seeing if it’s the same or different. But I’d love to hear from others.


  12. I’m probably the most vociferous underliner around here, and one of the reasons I do it is that it amplifies my pleasure in re-reading as well. Klinkenborg’s points about a piece of literature changing with the changing perspective of the reader is true – but it doesn’t mean that I change so much as to stop enjoying the passages I most loved when I first read the book. Even if I do, I still think it’s interesting to remember what struck me the first time through, and sometimes I’ve even been known to comment on my own comments as I make my way through a second or third time.

    There’s also an intermediate stage that Klinkenborg doesn’t mention but which plays a huge part in my life – the referencing of favorite passages, not as part of a full re-read, but a revisiting of favorite (or problematic) passages when reminded of them by another book, or by something that happens in my life. I find underlining extremely useful for locating the passages I’m looking for, since the ones I remember tend to be a subset of the ones I underline.


  13. Emily, thank you for responding to Cal’s question. I feel exactly the same way as you do. Your second paragraph makes a great point. I often reread my underlinings to revisit a book or as you said, when reminded of them by another book. In fact, sometimes when I’m looking for a passage, I end up rereading all of my underlinings in a book, which is like a short visit, when I would have had no time to reread the book start to finish.


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