Friday, May 18, 2012

When music and literature meet:Nava Semel's novel "Screwed on Backwards"

Music and the power of art in human survival are at the heart of Nava Semel’s recently published novel “Screwed on Backwards” (2011, Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan). The novel comprises two narrative sections. One story takes place in the 1930s in a northern Italian village in Piemonte under German occupation. Three people live in a remote farmhouse – an elderly mother, her opera singer daughter Madalena and Tomaso, a six-year-old foundling they have taken in from an orphanage in Turin. Then there is a school teacher, an ardent Fascist, who is in love with Madalena, and a young Wehrmacht soldier, a Nazi who also falls in love with the beautiful young singer. On the farm, there is a neglected barn considered out-of-bounds; of course, this outbuilding allures the child, firing his imagination. One day, Tomaso senses the presence of another person there and fantasizes that the attic is inhabited by a captive princess. He begins to attach notes and small gifts to a rope for the princess, his offerings disappearing by the following day. This “interaction” becomes Tomaso’s private world into which he retreats. But, as the book’s title conveys, he is not, for some physical- or emotional reason, a child who is accepted among those around him and his imaginary world might put the family in danger.

Parallel to this story, another sequence of events unfolds in an intensive care unit of a hospital in Israel, where a nurse is sitting by a comatose man. His identity is a mystery to her, but he has a manuscript with him, in which the above story is told. The nurse spends nights reading aloud from the shabby pages in the hope that the patient will awaken and identify himself; is he one of the people involved in the events of wartime Italy? Who is her patient and where does he fit into the puzzle?

The second part of the book is narrated in a more poetic style by the man who is now comatose – a Jewish musician and Madalena’s lover. Madalena, the young woman had taken music lessons from this Jewish maestro and, when war broke out, the orphanage was a place to hide their illegitimate child. Tomaso’s daily interaction with his imaginary princess is, in effect, with his own father whom he has never met.

References to musical- and non-musical sounds are thread into the fabric of the text throughout, some factual and realistic, others poetic and figuratively woven into the memory strata of the book. ‘The most beautiful sound to Tomaso’s ears was that of the opening of the buds of the rose bush’ (p.114). In the first part of the book, mention is made of the fine quality of Madalena’s singing voice and of Tomaso’s liking for Verdi’s opera “Aida”: ‘When Madalena sings, Tomaso forgets everything… The young boy especially liked the story of “Aida”, the foreign princess who had been taken prisoner in Egypt…’ (p.34) Horrified to learn of the tragic fate of the lovers in Aida, Tomaso decides that Verdi was especially “screwed on backwards”, but instead of feeling a sense of fraternity towards him, in fact, a dislike of him welled up within him’ (p.50). And music belongs to the parallel story. In the chapter titled “Hushed Song”, there is discussion on whether to play the comatose person rock ‘n roll or trance music or the “Lacrimosa” from the Mozart Requiem together with the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. ‘This young nurse is, indeed, devoid of all musical aptitude, but she is certainly able to play her patient a hushed song’ (p.36) ‘The nurse drums on the patient’s arm…increasing the drumming, matching the rhythm to the pulse – her pulse’ (p.63).
Semel’s returning to Verdi’s “Aida” again and again, and on different levels, constitutes an important connection between the book’s characters. ‘He thrust into my hand a worn music notebook which he had pulled out from the drawer of his table, urging me to open it. This was the original score of “Aida”, as written in Verdi’s own hand, and his most precious treasure’ (p.183).

On May 13th 2012, Nava Semel and I met and talked. I was interested to hear more about the musical element that prevails supreme throughout the pages of “Screwed on Backwards”.

PH: Let’s start with the story. How did it originate?

Nava Semel: Six years ago, I was on a lecture tour in Italy. I was invited to give a lecture in memory of Primo Levi at the Fossoli Camp, a concentration camp where Italian Jews arrested by the Nazis were taken before being sent to extermination camps. I was feeling very emotional talking about the Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi and this was Human Rights Day. Resulting from that event, I was sent to Piemonte to give more talks. My interpreter was a very pleasant young Catholic woman who had a liking for Hebrew songs. As we drove along the highways of Piemonte, I taught her some Hebrew songs. We made a detour to the small village where she had grown up; she wanted to pay her mother a short visit. While she was with her mother, I went for a walk around the picturesque village, with its prominent chimneys and tiled roofs – it was a romantic, pastoral spot from which one could see the snow of the Alps. When looking at one of the sloping roofs, I imagined a film. In my mind’s eye, I saw a person lying below one of the sloped roofs there peeping out at me through a crack. It was like a flash of lightening in my mind. When my interpreter Maria Theresa returned, I asked her what really had happened in this village; she immediately understood what was behind my questioning and answered that Jews had been saved there. My gut feeling was that a story had awaited me in that village, presenting itself as I was wandering around there; it was as if it were waiting for someone through whom it could be told. That very night, I heard the opening words of the book; I heard six-year-old Tomaso saying “There is a principessa (Italian: princess) there…”

PH: How did the element of music find its way into the book?

NS: Music very quickly became part of the fabric of the novel. I began hearing sounds and voices. The moment it was “revealed’ to me that Madalena was an opera singer, I began hearing Verdi’s music to “Aida”. The story was given a kind of orchestration in my mind (as well as in the minds of some of my readers). And, of course, in the second part of the book, I literally began to hear the work Salomone Levi was composing. From writing the book, I am changed person when it comes to musical awareness….I hear so many more of the sounds around and within me.

PH: What is the significance of names you chose for the characters?

NS: I was not aware of it at the time, but I do, indeed, pay homage to two people here – one is Primo Levi and the other, the Italian Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. The choice was a subconscious choice at the time! I should add that the Levi tribe, one of the twelve, was a tribe of instrumentalists. David and Solomon were both musicians whose artistry has been of great inspiration for me: King Solomon wrote the most romantic book, “Song of Songs” and King David, the Psalms, the most desperate of books. My book “Screwed on Backwards” gravitates between two poles – love and despair. The love between Salomone and Madalena was inconceivable in those times: as of 1938, the union between Christians and Jews was forbidden, not to speak of parenting a child together.

PH: This is definitely the story of love.

NS: Yes. The book focuses on what a person is willing to go through for love. Throughout the story, Madalena comes up against endless obstacles for her love. I feel the need to apologize to her for what I have put her through. I salute her for what she was willing to do for her lover: she lost her child, she lost her reputation, she was considered a prostitute for the Germans, and as if that were not enough, she had to have a German living in the house and to carry on intimate relations with him.

PH: How does this love and suffering connect to music?

NS: The music is consolation, despite the fact that Madalena will never be able to sing again; neither will she find comfort in “Aida”. But “Aida” is Tomaso’s consolation, and it is also, paradoxically, a consolation for Hans Dieter, the German soldier. And “Aida” is surely the source of Salomone Levi’s survival, for whom the padre has left pages in the attic where the musician is hidden, even ruling up pages for him with music staves, and suggesting he write another work. This is an impossible idea for Salomone.

PH: So Salomone learns to survive without music.

NS: No. From the moment Tomaso begins to bring him small offers via the chimney – fragments of the world, shards of inspiration, such as a yellowing rose, autumn leaves, all of which he is deprived – the sounds of the outside world are restored to him. And on the subject of autumn leaves, how can an Israeli be familiar with the crackling orchestra of autumn leaves? The experience was mine when living in New York 20 years ago. Following months of a difficult pregnancy, during which I was cooped up inside our apartment, with the outside world only reaching me through “filters”, my mother arrived in October to help me with the newborn twins. She suggested I go out of the house and take a walk. Within a quarter of an hour, I was in Central Park – now a veritable palace of mounds of autumn leaves, the wind whisking them up here and there. It was there that I heard the musical resonance of dry leaves. With a sense of urgency, my legs began to carry me off straight into the piles of leaves, crushing the leaves as I went, my own body orchestrating the experience. It was one of the most wonderful concerts I have ever heard. The world of nature, in all its musical splendor, reveals itself as a player, an orchestrator, in which various instruments play together – the air, the wind, treetops, autumn leaves, etc. In “Screwed on Backwards”, Salomone crushes leaves in order to hear them and sense their smell and the air outside.

PH: Let’s go back to a connection you made between the Jewish musician, the musical score and survival.

NS: This element comes into the book on a number of levels. Back in Turin, before his shop was shut down, a Jewish bookseller named Jacobo, fearing his shop would fall into Fascist hands, gave Salomone Levi Verdi’s original handwritten manuscript of “Aida”. When Salomone flees from Turin to the village in Piemonte, he leaves it behind in the apartment. In the year he is hidden in the attic, this fact worries and tortures him; he wonders whether the manuscript had been torn up or ruined or whether a music-lover had entered his apartment and taken it for safe-keeping. Levi was aware that there were Fascists and Nazis with a taste for culture and hoped that that fact would mean the document had been preserved. But the most tortuous thought in his mind was that the German Nazi taken into the house to be Madalena’s “lover”, much as she resented him, thus saving Salomone, was also cultured and a music-lover; the German was constantly requesting that Madalena sing “Aida”.

Salomone Levi survived the Holocaust. The fact that Madalena and her mother managed to save him was a major acheivement in those days. And Levi’s work – his book – survived. Who knows how many works written at the dark time of the Holocaust did not remain – paintings, music, diaries, etc.? If it were not for Theresienstadt and the love of music the Nazi captors had, works such as Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” and Hans Krása’s children’s opera “Brundibar” would have been lost. It is a fact that camp prisoners, aware of the fact that they might perish the following day, came to hear these musical performances. So if my book could represent so many works that did not survive, that is meaningful.

PH: So where do we come into the experience?

NS: In experiencing music, literature and theatre, the listener, reader and observer are actually taking part, creatively adding something of their own. Hearing music, the listener is “playing” the music in his mind. A person involved in reading is indeed “rewriting” the book onto his own personal map.

PH: Writing “Screwed on Backwards” has proved to be a musical experience on many levels.

NS: Yes. Many levels. And, for me, Hebrew is a very musical language. In writing “Screwed on Backwards”, the Hebrew language became a musical instrument for me. Just as Salomone Levi heard music in his mind, I heard music as the novel was being created. I do read music but consider myself a layman in music. When composer Oded Zehavi and I met after he had read the book, he was curious to know what music I had heard in my mind, the sounds from which my inspiration had come. He came to the conclusion that the music playing in my head was that of Arnold Schönberg. Perhaps one day I will hear the music that Salomone Levi wrote and know that that is the music I was hearing! What I do know is that for months I was living with the novel’s “soundtrack” playing in my mind.

PH: In conclusion, how would you summarize the process of artist himself in the book?

NS: One of the dangers of being an artist is that of hubris. All of us creating can so easily become excessively proud and arrogant. Salomone Levi, from being a confident musician at home performing on the stage, receiving standing ovations, ends up lying down in an attic. It is here that he begins discovering the world anew, rethinking it, also from the point of view of music. He senses are now limited - he can see Tomaso only in snatches, he cannot hold Madalena. The only things that reach him are sounds and voices, sounds and voices he had ignored till then. The wind, carrying Tomaso’s voice to him through the chimney has become his friend. The rain becomes his new orchestra. The falling leaves serve as new inspiration to compose. Salomone now understands the score played out by nature and is able to then write a work in hiding, using the instruments at his disposal - imagination and his heart. This is another example of the artist able to create in the direst of circumstances.

Novelist, playwright, film script writer, librettist and poet Nava Semel was born in Jaffa, Israel. Much of her oeuvre bears reference to the Holocaust. “Screwed on Backwards” is her seventeenth book. Her works have been translated into ten languages and have won international prizes. In 2007, Nava Semel was granted the “Literary Woman of the Year” Award of the city of Tel Aviv.