A novelist for the ages – for scientists
I have just picked up again – for at least the third time, possibly the fourth – one of the most beautiful, powerful, lyrical books in the English language. “The Time of Our Singing” was Richard Powers’ eighth novel. I think he should have called the book “Orfeo,” but he saved that title for his next book, which was oddly enough, not about a musician but rather a genetic engineer whose art is the manipulation of bacterial genomes. Singing is about music, and it is so good I think Powers should have won the Pulitzer prize for it. He didn’t, but in the great scheme of things it didn’t matter; a few years later he won it for a novel called “Overstory”.
When I began working with scientists 27 years ago, I was puzzled and a bit bothered by the fact that a lot of my colleagues didn’t read novels. Anyone who still feels that way needs to discover Richard Powers, who writes as fluently about molecular biology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and computer programming as music or any other topic he takes on. His most recent novel, “Bewilderment”, is told from the perspective of an astrophysicist looking for life on distant planets. A second theme of the story involves scientists using MRI technology to help treat his child, who has Asperger’s syndrome.
All of these books are great, but for me and anyone else who loves and is serious about music, “The Time of Our Singing” is simply stunning. It's hard to explain how reading an entire page about two people singing a Bach aria can be a spiritual experience, but that it is.
This is also a great, sprawling novel about America, about the cultural revolution centered around racism that raged throughout the middle of the last century. The main protagonists are Jonah Strom, who has the voice of an angel, and his brother Joseph, who accompanies him on the piano. They are the children of a white Jewish physicist from Germany. David Strom escaped the Holocaust by the skin of his teeth, landed in America, and married a Black singer, both lovers of music, both amateur singers. This unlikely couple meets at a famous concert of Marian Anderson held in 1939. Anderson was also an American Black woman, considered by many the best singer of her time; she sang for the kings of Europe but wasn’t allowed into concert halls in the United States. In the melee of a concert she gives on the Mall in Washington, these two unlikely people connect and, despite all odds, marry. They bring two sons and a daughter into a world of their own making, a world isolated from reality, an entire universe constructed almost entirely of music and song.
We’ll read of their first meeting soon enough, but the novel actually opens later, in 1961. The scene: Jonah is 20 years old and is on the verge of crashing into public view by winning a contest called America’s Next Voice. The first notes he sings make it clear he has won; when he finishes and Joseph plays the last chord, listeners are stunned into silence, then launch a wave of applause that crashes over the brothers. “This is how I see him, although he’ll live another third of a century,” writes Joseph, narrator of the novel. “This is the moment when the world first finds him out, the night I hear where his voice is headed. I’m up onstage, too, at the battered Steinway with its caramel action. I accompany him, trying to keep up, trying not to listen to that siren voice that says, Stop your fingers, crash your boat o the reef of keys, and die in peace.”
In the public crush after the performance a white man approaches and asks, “What exactly are you boys?” People of mixed race don’t fit into any of his comfortable categories. Part of the problem is that the brothers have mastered an art form – “classical music” – which is so European, so white. It’s a question the brothers will confront again and again as they navigate the riots of the 1960s. America is trying to emerge – violently and with great difficulty – from its own version of Apartheid. Identity is a Leitmotif that will constantly accompany the family as they evolve, adapt and suffer greatly, over three long decades.
Cultural appropriation is a thing in literature, and it has been for a long time. When Black American author James Baldwin visited a Swiss village in 1955, a town that was “incomparably more remote and more primitive” than his native New York City, he pointed out: “These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world... The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me [...].” Baldwin was born a generation before the Strom brothers. But two or three decades later, in a book set in a fictional America, his lesson casts a long shadow, one that continually consumes the characters. In Europe, Jonah and Joseph briefly escape, somewhat blissfully, into a world that accepts them. In Holland, Jonah’s voice moves backwards in time, seeking the essence of song, following the Renaissance of ancient music that arose in the 1970s, one that distilled music into tone, phrases, simplicity. He strips his voice of everything bombastic and bathetically Romantic, aiming for spiritual purity.
As someone who has become immersed in this music and performs it, I find that Powers manages to translate this aesthetic into language; he gets it exactly right, and I have no idea how.
Artists must come to terms with their origins. Ultimately America draws the brothers back, almost inevitably, to a confrontation with destiny. Over the course of his life Jonah, like Orpheus, is seeking something that is too good, or too something, to hold onto in the real world. But like the myth, a tragedy can be told – and read – time and time again, as it brings along the peculiar mixture of ecstasy and terror that is inherent in our lives. Art tries to escape the prison of mortality; of course it cannot. Yet in the telling Richard Powers achieves what he always does. The end of the book brings things full circle, back to the beginning, in one of his singular moments of magic. What he achieves is only possible in literature. Literature has a potential that goes beyond science; there are things only art can do, and they are as essential to our existence and to culture as all of the enrichments that science brings to our lives.