Consider this Baroque idea, the Doctrine of Affections. That a single movement of music should arouse a single emotion.
It’s the perfect title for this collection, for readers can expect a series of intense and diverse emotional responses to each of Paul Headrick’s twelve stories.
The first is set in 19th-Century Paris and transforms the story of classical guitarist and composer Fernando Sor into fiction.
The last is a contemporary tale set on the west coast of Canada, which transforms Paul Headrick, the author, into fiction.
And, in between?
A young boy walks in the dark behind a mule in a rocky land (aiming to steal it from the owner, who sings as he travels).
A young girl sings while she rollerskates with Mount Royal as a backdrop.
And eight other varied tales unfold on the pages. I don’t want to give away the content entirely, but each story does, indeed, arouse a strong emotion.
(And you can already recognize that that young boy’s soundtrack might be filled with trepidation and anxiety and that young girl’s story might revolve around cheerful and joyful melodies.)
Each is distinct and memorable. And, so, to avoid a whirlwind of emotions, the stories will be best appreciated if readers savour them and allow for reflection between reading sessions.
Consider Mavis Gallant’s advice on reading stories: “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.”*
This advice is particularly pertinent for such a varied collection. “The Studies of Fernando Sor” evokes a strong sense of place and mood. From the opening sentence, readers are enveloped, invited to savour the experience.
“To the misery of Fernando Sor’s final days of poverty and sickness in Paris was added the irritation of his landlady’s insistence, repeated on almost every humiliating encounter, that his studies should have names.”
So, the distinct tone and flavour, and the sensory detail in this story is striking.
“It was winter, and most streets were troughs of foul mud, for the Parisian authorities were still spending money on beautification projects, parks, and public monuments, and not on improvements to the city’s dangerously inadequate drain and sewer system. Sor had no money to spend in cafés, and the cold stung too severely to allow him to sit, so he walked about, trying to avoid the worst of the filth.”
But although the sensory detail within the story is impressive, there is another layer to the reading experience of this collection.
Consider that Fernando Sor’s studies are, in fact, intended as instructional works, some for beginners and some for more accomplished guitarists; the relative and cumulative experience is significant too.
“Allow me to play for you again, and try to notice the way the study is composed of a series of phrases, each with a relationship to the others. Feel the way these phrases build on each other, contributing to the music’s final shape.”
The stories in The Doctrine of Affections might be thought of in a similar way, as a series of phrases, with relationships between them, building on each other, combining into a larger shape.
As much as Fernando struggles to find an audience for his works (and feels as though he has not received the recognition deserved), another character strives for recognition in the academic world (and struggles to achieve a specific goal).
From the measured cadence of Fernando Sor’s studies, numbered not named, to the impassioned lyrics of Aretha Franklin, the collection has a surprising breadth, and there are many connections readers might draw between stories.
“Sor listened to the vague street noises that came through his small windows, and when those noises began to soften and recede, he gathered what was meant, and he neared despair.”
And, in turn, we readers might draw connections with our own lives.
Where do we find music in our lives (even those lives which might seem, at first glance, unmusical)?
Perhaps in the sounds of the city, perhaps in the darkness.
“To ease my worry I made a snuffling mule sound, and the man sang again, twice over this time, the same series of rising and falling note. It reminded me of stories my mother used to tell me about the sea, and I continued walking.” (From “The Traveller’s Song”)
Can we adequately express in language the emotional response(s) that each listener might have to a specific piece of music?
“Reddy began from the premise that ‘While the Blood Runs Warm’ was the pinnacle of the album, and that the album itself, Precious Lord, the very first thing Aretha recorded, was the authentic peak of her career.”
Is there a point at which the words no longer play as significant a role as the emotion that their combination(s) evoke?
“BABY, BABY, BABY, BABY, BABY. I didn’t mean, I didn’t mean, I didn’t mean.”
(From “The Franklin Chair”, Aretha Franklin’s lyrics)
Fernando Sor lost his daughter in 1827, years before he moved to Paris, composing and living in despair. Another character loses a husband, and yet another loses a prominent position.
A family of folk singers performs, and a young violinist’s performance as potential son-in-law is more demanding than his impending performance of Beethoven’s Eroica.
Power outages and auditions, mosquito netting and rollerskates, a Tokyo teacher and a west-coast novelist: from fiction to reality, there and back again.
And, throughout, The Doctrine of Affections hums, sings, and soars.
*Russell Banks, “Reading Mavis Gallant” Brick Magazine: Issue 73 http://brickmag.com/stories-mavis-gallant
Contents: “The Studies of Fernando Sor”, “The Franklin Chair”, “A Violinist”, “The Traveller’s Song”, “After Chuck Blakeney Died”, “Rosie”, “The Youngest Gods”, “Highlife”, “The Candle Thief”, “Shame on the Johnson Boys”, “Imagine Me and You, I Do”
Have you added collections of short stories to your TBR list recently? This one, perhaps?