I recently had to write a paper on James R. Gaines' book Evening in the Palace of Reason which I highly recommend. A colorful interpretation of Bach’s meeting with Frederick the Great of Prussia, Gaines carefully records the known historical facts but considers them in not so much a scholarly frame of mind as an imaginative one. Probably classified as "historical fiction" there's more history to it than most novels of the genre. Here are some wandering thoughts I had while enjoying the book (I'll try not to give too much away).
First of all, what is to be gained from reading a story-ized version of history? If only to exercise the mind and nothing more, that alone should be considered valuable. But the fact that people today don't even consider history as a story means this book would be highly beneficial at least to that audience. There is, however, more value to be gleaned from looking at fact through fiction.
C. S. Lewis (let me take this opportunity to encourage those who haven't to read his book “Till We Have Faces;” a 'fiction' of the Greek myth Cupid and Psyche) considered story telling the most powerful occupation. When we think we know something and then encounter it in a different form or a new guise in another context, we find that the experience has led us to new and better understanding. We are surprised by what we already knew.
Lewis illustrates this in his essays 'On Stories' with an example from one of his favorite books, “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. (Again, let me pause to say another wonderful book. If you haven't read it, you haven't fully lived). In it, Lewis realizes that Grahame’s descriptions of the mundane revealed to him knowledge that he already “knew” and yet had not “known.” Here is Grahame’s description of a cold day before snowfall as the Mole sets out on his adventure in the Wild Wood
“It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions.” (Grahame chapter three).Fiction is very much like this bare wintry day, it strips the familiar “deceptions” of ordinary every day living and lays before us only that which the author wants us to take note. Our attention is un-fogged and riveted, rather like Mole’s:
“It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering-- even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple. He did not want the warm clover and the play of seeding grasses; the screens of quickset, the billowy drapery of beech and elm seemed best away; and with great cheerfulness of spirit he pushed on towards the Wild Wood, which lay before him low and threatening, like a black reef in some still southern sea.” (Chapter three).Gaines mastery of story telling, which is semi-colloquial and delightfully accessible,paints for us in new colors the old story all musicians know: the meeting between “Old Bach”the Lutheran commoner and King Frederick the Enlightened royalty.
“Summoned to the city palace virtually as soon as he arrived, Bach was stillshaken bythe coach ride and in the clothes he had worn for the journey. Ushered into the king’s concert room, he must have made elaborate apologies to Frederick for his appearance and a brief bow to the many acquaintances, colleagues and friends in the room who had assembled for the evening’s concert…the king began to lead Bach from one room to another…so many fortepianos, so little time! What could Bach have played as he went through them one by one? Surely not an entire suite; that would have taken too long. Maybe only a movement, then, or a prelude and fugue set? Perhaps there was only time for a fugue. Or would the king, mid piece, simply pull “Old Bach” off the keyboard by the arm and lead him to the next one? Surely not. At least we hope not.One cannot help but smile at the picture, perhaps envisioning the trail across the palace floors left by Bach’s muddy boots.There are, of course, hazards to this type of writing. The author could take too much artistic freedom and fabricate out of proportion, rendering the work no longer insightful and refreshing but ridiculous. Attempting to convince the reader that Bach pulled faces behind Frederick’s back just to humiliate his son Carl would be, to say the least, a stretch of our imaginations. Or perhaps for some.
Gaines’s fusion is a successful one, combining modern language and idioms in the form of a relaxed yet informed conversation. Breathing life into previously past lives reminds us that we, like them, will not be here for ever and they, like us, were living, working, playing human beings with their own beliefs and habits.
One final point: there is an insightful review by of Edmund Morris in the New York Times who has this to say about the book: “James R. Gaines's Evening in the Palace of Reason shows us how a challenge by the king prompted the aging composer to produce the Musical Offering, a contrapuntal achievement that uniquely allies cerebral and auditory beauty.” Perhaps Morris is a musician himself, having played some of Bach’s music and understood its construction. Bach’s ability to intellectually construct a composition that possessed functioning invertible counterpoint at every level but also sounded sublime is a feat that accomplished musicians can study for a life time and never know exactly how he did it.
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