BOOK REVIEW / Skirting the heart of music: Giles Smith on prose with its sleeves up, in Frank Conroy's self-confident first novel: 'Body and Soul' - Frank Conroy: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

FRANK Conroy's novel concerns a prodigal pianist and raises all manner of questions about music - how it is played, how it works, how it sounds. But we're nearly two thirds of the way through before one of the characters braces themselves and drops the big one. 'Don't you think it's practically impossible to write about music directly? It doesn't lend itself to words. I mean, all you can do is skirt round it, sort of.' Which, if true, is bad news for Conroy's book. Are we looking here at something which closes in on music's heart? Or just a 450-page skirt round it, sort of?

It is a mark of Body and Soul's self-confidence that it can raise, undisguised, these doubts about itself. The fact is, it pretty much sees them right off the page. Read one way, the novel is a sustained argument that even if, where music is concerned, literature is no substitute for the real thing, there's still plenty to say about it, plenty about its means and its effects which lends itself to words. And the problem of language's adequacy to the abstraction of music may be one of those dead-end matters anyway. Given that people will talk about music, it's probably best that they do so with words.

Especially if they're going to marshall those words as adeptly as Frank Conroy. The author of an autobiography, Stop-Time, and a collection of short stories, Midair, published in 1985, he directs the reputed Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and perhaps out of this work come his clear and speedy sentences, lined with concrete nouns - prose with its sleeves up. That said, this book is not without its passages of self-consciously literary writing - workshop prose of another kind. 'Deep, deep in his innermost self he felt dormant selves awake and move forward into completeness, as if he were a vessel only now realising its destiny to be filled.' That's a sex scene, if you were wondering.

The 'vessel' is better known to us as Claude Rawlings, who grows up poor in New York around the time of the Second World War. His mother is a taxi driver and a covert political activist, which is a new twist, most taxi drivers being overt political activists. Mr Weisfeld, a kindly music store owner, recognises Claude's talent as a pianist and gives him encouragement and access to teachers and another social realm. We get one of those fumbling poor boy / haughty rich girl encounters, which are always good value. And there's a 'lucky break' scene in which Claude is hanging around backstage with a quintet when their pianist gets stage-fright. Claude picks up the score, flecked with his predecessor's vomit, wipes it down, hits the stage and plays a blinder. And before you can say 'Prokofiev', he's signed to a big shot manager, touring the world, jumping into bed with a violinist, and so forth.

Claude has a bit of word problem in relation to his talent. 'When I get to the piano, something happens to me. I don't know how to describe it. It's like I'm there, but I'm not there. I go into some kind of zone or something.' And Conroy goes along with him, to a degree: 'Claude knew he was on stage . . . but at the same time he was somewhere else, somewhere he could not describe, even to himself - nor did he have the faintest urge to, so heavenly did it seem.' The novel does suffer slightly from the perhaps unstable conviction that an exquisite sensitivity accompanies a musician everywhere. So when Claude watches the movie Some Like it Hot, laughter 'seemed to cleanse him, to pull out the knots in his soul and leave him breathless and blessedly empty.' And elsewhere 'he blossomed out of numbness into the sweet warmth of her.' (That's another sex scene, if you're wondering again.)

But watching Conroy wrestle with Claude brings home how hard it is for a novel to convince you of a character's genius. The improbable is so much more acceptable in reality than in fiction. In life, you have the evidence to back these things up; in a novel, genius can look plain embarrassing, the result of mere assertion. It takes on a comic-book simplicity, unless you're provided with a particularly dense context.

This is where Conroy's research pays off. His note at the end of the book informs us casually that he put in 'several years of reading about music and musicians', and you can tell. The book thunders boldly into musical theory - into harmonic series, tonics and dominants, Schonberg's atonality - a weight of technical detail which plays against and finally counter-balances the other more flighty tendencies. For Claude, scales aren't just tedious exercises: he's attracted to the sound and feel of them: and that one detail tells you more about what it must be to possess a musical talent than, possibly, all the more finely-wrought passages on self-transcendence and abstract beauty. It's not simply a mystical gift, it's also an appetite for practice.

We could perhaps have done without the entry of Aaron Copland, right at the last. Meetings between fictional characters and real ones? Now there's something that really doesn't lend itself to words. But you could always skirt round it.

Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices