Telling a friend about my upcoming novel J SS Bach, he suggested I read Daniel Barenboim and Edward W.Said’s Parallels and Paradoxes: Exploration in Music and Society. These are deep, intelligent conversations. I’m learning about music, as I wished, but also about the novel.
‘Art, for Goethe especially, was all about a voyage to the “other” and not concentrating on oneself, which is very much a minority view today,’ says Said. ‘There is more of a concentration on the affirmation of identity, on the need for roots, on the values of one’s culture and one’s sense of belonging. It’s become quite rare to project one’s self outward, to have a broader perspective.’
I find the quote interesting and consoling. J SS Bach is a portrait of lives and eras infinitely removed from mine. I rooted myself in place, visiting the main sites of the book in Europe, Australia and America, but I’m neither a woman nor a cellist nor a composer nor a Nazi nor a Holocaust survivor. I felt almost guilty about that – but of course, I am a novelist and Said’s reflections on Goethe remind me that is a novelist’s job: to go on a voyage to ‘other’.
Goethe does get a mention in my novel, which explores Music and the Holocaust – he used to walk out from Weimar to sit beneath an oak on a hillside which would later be incorporated into the concentration camp Buchenwald. ‘Buchenwald was designed to be near Weimar,’ Said informs us, ‘which had been romanticized as the city at the very pinnacle of German culture: Goethe, Schiller, Wagner, Liszt, Bach all had lived there. Nobody could fully comprehend the proximity of such sublimity to such horror.’
I don’t fully comprehend it – which is why I’m reading Barenboim and Said’s conversations even after two decades of exploring the ‘parallels and paradoxes’ of sublimity and horror.