Between the Lines Book Club: Orfeo, by Richard Powers

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Hello everyone! Watch this space on Fridays for Between the Lines Book Club. This is where we discuss one book a month in the comments. On the fourth Saturday of every month those of us in or near Sacramento, California meet at Arden Dimick Library to discuss the books. Arden Dimick is located at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864. Our next meeting is on July 25 at 10:30 AM, where we will discussing Orfeo by Richard Powers.

As many of you know, I’m currently on vacation in San Diego madly racing around San Diego Comic Con with many children in tow, fervently hoping that soon I can retreat to the beach where I shall collapse on the sand until lifeguards drag me away. Fortunately, many better writers than I have written about Orfeo. Here are links to some reviews and commentary:

NPR

This link goes to an interview with the author. Sample quote:

My challenge as a writer was how to create descriptions not just of canonical 20th century pieces, but to create vivid descriptions of fictional pieces. Works for small ensemble, for voice, symphonic orchestra, operatic works that did not exist and yet describe them in a way that was vivid and compelling and re-created the internal drama of the composer as he was at work on them. So it was almost as if I had in my own head to write the music first and then produce a kind of prose that recaptured the music and the rhythm and the challenge and the transgression of these pieces.

New York Times

In this review, the reviewer talks about what he calls “The Richard Powers Problem”, i.e., is Powers too cerebral?  Sample quote:

Why, then, was I unable to resist the emotional pull of “Orfeo”? Why did I pick it up eagerly each day and find myself moist-eyed when I came to its last pages? That, I think, has everything to do with Powers’s skill at putting us into the mind of his protagonist. Peter Els is blessed (or cursed) with an almost painfully exquisite musical sensibility. Throughout “Orfeo” we experience tonal patterns of all kinds — from bird song to the overtone series of a single piano note to the “caldera of noise” at a John Cage happening and the “naked pain” in the Largo of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony — filtered through Peter’s lyrical consciousness. In one of the novel’s most virtuosic passages, which goes on for a dozen pages, Peter dilates on the transcendent beauties of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed and first performed in the brutal conditions of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. All of which heightens and makes unbearably poignant Peter’s own losing struggle to “recover a fugitive language” that might capture something of eternity.

The Washington Post

This reviewer cautions the reader that the book has dangerous side effects:

Be forewarned: Even if you check “Orfeo” out of the library, it will still cost you a fortune. (Why couldn’t this novel come with a set of CDs?) From Mozart’s “Jupiter” to George Rochberg’s “String Quartets” and Harry Partch’s “Barstow” and John Cage’s “Concerto for Prepared Piano,” I’ve never bought so many tracks in a single week. Admittedly, some of the pieces struck my unsophisticated ear as noise, but the money kept running out of me prestissimo.

Hope to see many book clubbers on July 25!

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