The mystery that is music

A comment on Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul

Last month my dad and I led a book-club discussion of Frank Conroy’s 1993 novel Body and Soul, the coming-of-age story of a musical prodigy. This is a sprawling novel with a Dickensian cast of characters. Conroy begins with a poverty-stricken child whose circumstances seem to doom him to failure. But kind benefactors, hard work, and innate musical genius change his fortune, and he becomes a world-renowned concert pianist and composer.

About the novel

Poverty stricken and neglected by his mother, Claude Rawlings lives in a basement in 1940s New York. From the beginning of his life he perceives the world in musical terms: As a young child he peers out the basement window and feels the “ever-changing rhythms and tempos of legs and feet moving across his field of vision.” The narrator comments that “much of his thinking, especially when he was alone, went on without words, went on beneath the level of language.”

Claude is rescued by a series of benefactors who teach him about music – and about life. As a child he is too self-absorbed to give back to those who befriend him, but in adulthood he learns to value those who have given him insight into life and those who patiently guided him toward the mystery that is music.

Conroy’s in-depth discussions of Claude’s apprehension of musical harmony, tonality, and structure are impressive. The author says that he “had to go back and re-educate” himself on the theory of music, particularly the atonal music Claude masters as a young man. The author uses these discussions to show us that Claude is not like most people – he understands the language of music much better than he understands the nature of relationships or things of the body.

About the author

The book is semi-autobiographical. Conroy was born in 1936 in New York City. His father was mentally ill and institutionalized. His mother was distant and cold. He escaped from the loneliness of his childhood by reading and teaching himself to play the piano. Unlike Claude, he did not have a benefactor who provided him music lessons. In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Conroy said that Body and Soul is in part a fantasy whereby he invents a father and
a music teacher – two things he never had. Despite early neglect, Conroy became a successful writer, jazz musician, and teacher.

In 1967, at the age of 31, Conroy published his critically acclaimed autobiography Stop-Time, in which he recounted his miserable childhood. In 1993, he became director of the famous
Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and published the novel Body and Soul. Expectations were high, reviews mixed. Some critics said the book was too much like his autobiography; others seemed to feel it was not enough like the autobiography. To some Claude was a flat character, the narrator’s comments were intrusive, and the book was poorly written.

Conroy seemed to think of himself as a teacher more than a writer, and at that he was very successful. He died in 2005 of colon cancer.

What I learned

When I lived in New Mexico, particularly years that I was alone for the holidays, my parents
sent me a Christmas package that always included a book. This was one of those books, and I enjoyed reading it. When we chose it as a book-club selection, I was worried that I wouldn’t
enjoy it quite as much the second time around. Sometimes when I reread a book I loved I’m disappointed. But I enjoyed this book even more at second reading. On first reading Body and Soul I skipped over the discussions of music theory and focused on the plot. This time, I thought more about the music.

I have the experience of starting college as a piano performance major. It took a few years to realize that I was more interested in listening to music than playing it, more interested in writing about music than performing it. My favorite music class was music history, where I learned about the organization of music during different periods. But I was an abysmal failure at music theory, especially the contemplation of harmony and tone, and in the end, I decided to study literature instead of music.

Body and Soul taught me that I’m still pretty much a failure at theory. This time, though, I didn’t skip over the discussions of theory, because I saw them as integral to the story. In presenting the evolution of musical genius, Conroy seems to be showing the reader that there really exists a “music of the spheres” – a kind of fusion of metaphysics and mathematics that can thrill the composer, the performer, and the audience.

Another thing Conroy shows is that it takes a lot of luck – and even more hard work – to realize your potential, even if you are a genius. Pages and pages of text are devoted to Claude’s single-minded, sometimes ecstatic pursuit of musical perfection.

Claude’s relationship with music is his primary relationship. His personal relationships with other people are self-centered and romanticized. One critic points out that Claude takes but never gives back. It is as if his stunted childhood makes adult relationships difficult; music alone saves him. This book underscores the concept of mystery – there are aspects of music and of human relationships that remain mystery, even for those souls who do hear the music of the spheres.

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