2013 Finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards
Set in present-day Toronto, Incidental Music is a novel about three very different women. Petra is new to the city and eager to establish roots, but she keeps losing jobs, and finds it impossible to make friends or adopt a cause. Martha is prosperous, intellectual and compassionate, a happily married mother of grown children, who just might have built everything in her life on an impressive amount of self-deception. A retired opera singer, Romola left Hungary after the failed 1956 uprising, having played part in it as a member of a group of performing artists who called themselves Sektor 7. She is trying to cope with the haunting memories of an old love and her reasons for leaving the country, but her excursions to the past usually end mired in her long-ago operatic roles. The lives of the women overlap, but there is never any unison. Petra, Martha and Romola are like the three operatic voices—soprano, mezzo and alto—that sometimes pair up their melodic lines but never sing in complete accord.
Incidental Music visits the troubled and fascinating period of the Hungarian Revolution, within its larger context of the Communist post-war years in Eastern Europe, explores Toronto’s heritage and urban development, takes a sober outsider view of Canadian society and politics, and last, but not least, revels in the beauty of the opera—all through the tumultuous and passionate love affairs of its main characters.
“Engaging on both intellectual and emotional levels, Incidental Music is a heady mix of politics, opera and tempestuous love. Perović interweaves the lives of her three main characters—Petra, Martha and Romola—seamlessly, and presents us with a Toronto that feels so unabashedly vibrant that it almost becomes a character in itself. This is a powerful debut novel—urban, smart and sexy.”
—Eva Tihanyi, author of Flying Under Water: Poems New and Selected, In the Key of Red and Truth and Other Fictions
Herizons Magazine – Winter 2014
Review by Mridula Nath Chakraborty
The migrant writer’s preoccupation with second-language competence in Incidental Music belies this novel’s utterly controlled composition. Eight dense chapters are evenly balanced between the intertwined stories of Petra Veselinovic, Martha Chancellor and Romola Iványi, who are brought together by cataclysmic rearrangements of history and geography in the twentieth century.
This is also a coming together of the worlds of academia, architecture and opera—three rarefied spaces from which the characters unfold narratives teeming with the conversation of their times. An excoriating denunciation of the endemic casualization of labour in the contemporary university system collides with a soapbox sermon on the state of housing and urban planning in First World metropolises, while the forgotten history of the 1956 Hungarian uprising forms the operatic backdrop to an equally buried herstory of lesbian love across Buda and Pest, cities that were eventually amalgamated as the capital of Hungary.
However, like a conductor intent on getting each and every note right, Lydia Perovic works with an authorial orchestration that sometimes interferes with the emotional charge of the music. Intriguing as the characters are, and as intricate as their couplings are, we never quite understand why they are attracted to each other. Perovic seems to intuit this but the story does not really transcend the stylistic device of verbiage and extended metaphor.
For example, when Petra bemoans that she will “always wear the English language like clothes that are not entirely fitting,” Martha, as if in belated response a couple of pages later, says, “A stream of words doesn’t really inspire anyone to start undressing, no matter how
seductive you think the words are.” Indeed! What Perovic does well is describe the descent into despair after the end of a relationship: the hopelessness, the utterly bizarre but entirely explicable acts of madness that illuminate the dark days of abjection. Nevertheless, when the surprise ending comes, it seems more a matter of wish fulfilment than a plausible redemption.
An indication of the bibliographic modality of the novel is the acknowledgements at the end that run to four pages and list the material that went into the making of the tale. And yet, the narrative may have fared better if Perovic had let go of the writerly baton and allowed the music to remain as incidental and fleeting as life itself. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next recital—this time in mezzo?
barczablog: A place to read about arts & culture, from my own quirky perspective
– January 6, 2013
http://barczablog.com/2013/01/06/not-so-incidental-music/Not so Incidental Music
“November 21st I posted a kind of preliminary review of Lydia Perović’s first novel Incidental Music: preliminary because at that time, I hadn’t finished reading it yet. Now that i’ve finished reading the book i have more to say.
A long time ago I recall Larry Niven explaining that they would find inspiration when two stimulating subject areas intersected. While a single idea could intrigue him, it was his recognition of an intersection with a second subject area that would ignite his imagination: and the story would begin to write itself in the tension between the two.
In reading Incidental Music I had the most curious sensations. Sure, we expect books to interest us, otherwise we wouldn’t pick them up and read them. But Perović’s novel concerns several subjects near and dear to my heart. I repeat, several.
Perović’s protagonist Petra (ha, there’s a mouthful), an Eastern European in Toronto navigates the tensions between her self-awareness and her conservative milieu as if she were Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms. Petra’s deadpan travels through Toronto set off many resonances for me, a second generation Eastern European, and a Torontonian. One of the incidental pleasures of Incidental Music is in navigating Toronto neighbourhoods. For instance, the church where i was married (first time) is in this book.
Perović takes on three other big subjects near and dear, via one of the characters. We hear from an aging opera singer (# 1), present in Budapest for the Hungarian uprising (#2), which she now recollects through the gathering haze of senility(#3). Readers of this blog will know of my obsession with opera. In addition, I’m a second generation Hungarian who has devoured tales of the uprising, both from family or from strangers. And I was close to a family member whose dementia was subject of a blog post awhile ago.
Perović makes distantly remembered operatic roles a kind of meta-text. Are we reading about the progress of a love affair, a revolution, or a kind of coming of age tale? All of the above in different ways. When I look at the complex array of topics, particularly considering how personal they all are for me, I can only sigh at how smoothly Perović crafted her interwoven tales of her three protagonists, and how authentic the accounts feel. I don’t deny that at first I resisted the Hungarian narrative –knowing that Perović is from Montenegro, not Hungary—but that this makes Perović’s achievement all the more impressive. In other words, this is not her life story, it’s an accomplished work of fiction, its points of view portrayed with genuine virtuosity.
The other big subject of this novel? Lesbian eroticism, and I must insist there’s nothing lewd or pornographic in what we read. It shouldn’t be a big deal, anymore than it’s a big deal when a man writes (or reads) about a woman or a woman writes (or reads) about a man. If we accept those imaginative stretches –when Shakespeare puts words in the mouths of such women as Juliet Capulet or Mrs Othello, or when Jane Austen brings Mr Darcy to life—then why would it be problematic for me, a sensitive male, to avidly devour accounts of lesbian love? For a man to somehow fail in his imaginative connection with lesbian love would, I believe, be tantamount to failing to show interest in women altogether. If I can read about a woman’s love for a man (I can and do), of a man’s love for another man (I can and do), this should be no different. I only mention it because it’s central to the novel, not because it’s such a big deal in any other sense. In fact it’s just one more aspect of the novel that’s handled with ease, and may i add, with class & dignity.
Music is not at all incidental in Incidental Music, a novel I recommend whether or not you’re a Torontonian, an opera-lover or an Eastern European.”
Opera Obession – January 11, 2013
Reading List: Incidental Music
“Language. History. Love. Sex. Opera. The narratives of Incidental Music, Lydia Perović’s debut novel, are concerned with all these things, and intertwine to create a satisfying and thought-provoking read. The histories of three women unfold amid the Georgian houses of Toronto and avenues of mid-century Budapest. Rather wonderfully, the events of the novel also take place in internet cafes and on broken pavements, in too-tidy rented rooms and dingy cubicles and academic offices. An abandoned factory can be redeemed by the first encounter of two lovers, an opulent bathhouse become a prison to a lover betrayed. Unusually, each of the three protagonists is in a different life stage. Petra we meet in youth, but after its first flush of optimism has died, leaving only the uncomfortable shards of idealism to spur her on in a city where she feels herself an outsider. The sophisticated Martha inhabits a middle age balanced uneasily between fulfillment and complacency, and is trying to discern the differences between success and stagnation. Romola, a retired operatic diva, is an amazingly charismatic figure, even in the ruin of an old age where a long and painful past insists on infiltrating an increasingly fragile present.
The momentum of the novel takes a little time to build, but picks up as Petra’s world expands beyond the echoing lecture halls where she tries to help students think about truth, beauty, and free speech, and as her orbit begins to intersect with those of Martha and Romola. Her collisions with myopic bureaucracy are repeated as tragedy and farce, both all too recognizable. That Perović engages with the mundane as seriously as with the abstract is one of the novel’s great strengths, and not the least of its charms. Even the largest intellectual questions, here, refuse to stay politely removed from the hard work of everyday living. How can individuals best work for change within flawed political systems? How can real intellectual labor flourish when education is so often treated as a commodity? How do we define our places of belonging in a not-really-post-nationalist world? How can we love best… and how can we bear love’s suffering? Mercifully, these are nowhere so baldly or portentously stated as here; rather, they are worked out in vivid vignettes by characters whose unpredictable humanity makes them a pleasure to spend time with. Read the book to listen in on their conversations, to convince them that they’re wrong about Wagner, to ask them to expand on what they think of Donna Elvira.
Read it for the wickedly precise satire (my favorite one-line character sketch was of “the young man with charm that never fails with strangers.”) Read it for the images: for the snow-bound hut that, for the two women living there, might as well be Anna and Vronsky’s Italian villa; for the mezzo who dresses for her lover while singing Offenbach, in an imperiled city. Read it for the pleasure of rare acknowledgements: that sex is a profoundly serious matter, and that ideas are a potent aphrodisiac. And read it for the music, which weaves in and out of the narratives, underpinning them or driving them forward, and sometimes, when most necessary, giving the protagonists the necessary vocabulary with which to think and feel.”
Lydia Perovic on Writing the Contemporary Queer Novel – June 19, 2013
by Julie Wilson
“Incidental Music (Inanna Publications) is the Lambda Literary shortlisted debut novel by journalist Lydia Perovic. Perovic has written for many Canadian, UK and U.S. media, including The Awl, n + 1, openDemocracy, Opera Canada, Xtra!, and Toronto Standard. She grew up in the Communist Yugoslavia and moved to Nova Scotia in 1999. Toronto has been her home since 2005.
49th Shelf talked recently with Perovic about writing her own artistic, intellectual and sexual queerdom into the kind of book she’d been craving to read; art as integral to a sense of civic well-being; and, the writer she claims made her gay.
Julie Wilson: Incidental Music centres around three generations of women—Romola, once a famous Hungarian opera singer; Martha, a married, historic preservationist; and Petra Veselinovic, who has immigrated to Canada.
This novel contains a lot of your own personal tapestry. You, too, immigrated to Canada and share a love of artistic and intellectual pursuits, and women. You’ve said elsewhere that you were craving more contemporary literature that features this aesthetic. With this work, were you endeavoring both to write such characters into being as well as your experience into the queer or contemporary literature canon?
Lydia Perovic: You know that thing that writers often say, how they wrote a book they were dying to read? I also have to say that. As a reader of Canadian literature, I felt I couldn’t find enough novels that are set in Toronto and are taking place in the present. There are some, thankfully, it’s not entirely hopeless, but nowhere near layers and layers of urban contemporary works that some other literary centres in the world produce. I think—and you think about this a lot while you’re writing your first novel—it’s in the job description of a novelist to tell us what it’s like being alive today. You can go about this business in different ways. But I don’t think choosing to write in the register of the historical novel, or the fantasy novel, or the family saga novel, or the novel written from the POV of a child would have worked for me for this purpose. I had a sense of urgency that demanded that the setting be very contemporary, and in the city that I live in.
And when you write your first novel, the question is always, why that form? Why do you have to say something with a novel, especially given the current state of book publishing? It’s a thing with an awe-inducing history, the novel, and I like finding myself where I’m not at ease, where I’m always somewhat incompetent (why I like writing about opera and classical music, too). You’ll never know enough or be skilled enough, so there is always so much left to do, read, discuss, experience. The novel is also at the same time an extremely roomy form that allows all sorts of abuse—hell, probably thrives on abuse—and essentially democratic in its inner workings. (I agree with Richard Rorty and Iris Murdoch and many others who wrote about this: a good novel is on the side of all the characters and is a conflicted, multi-layered, unruly world.)
JW: Talk a bit about your views on the what you see as the middle-classing of the queer community, the importance placed on coupling, etc. How did you explore or address that in this book? Were there other places you wanted to take these characters or offer comment?
LP: It’s a funny old thing, as a country we are very middle class. And we are not middle class in actual earnings—the income disparities are as bad as ever—but in aspirations, in the practices of the everyday life, in topics that our media cover and discuss, and probably in our literature to some extent, too. Since I move through the queer quarters, what I notice is how middle class in worldview the queer nation is becoming. If you think of the conversations you had with people over the last few days, they’re bound to have been about either somebody’s house (renos, selling/buying prices), their career or yours (this includes the relentless self-promotion that we all do even in our sleep), or their children and pets or yours.
But I think it would have been too easy to have written a literally crass and oblivious middle class family vs. an outsider who’s coming from a non-capitalist place. I would get no pleasure from that simple scheme. So I made Martha and her family just about impossible to criticize and fed into them all the questions about this adopted city of mine and adopted country of mine that have boggled and fascinated my mind since I could think clearly about them.
Although the novel is on first sight in a fairly realist register, this is I hope undermined by the dialogues (they’re often philosophical or political dialogues that, for a traditionalist reader, stop the plot), bits of operatic librettos, musings on urban architecture, a press clipping, an entire speech. And you know, what’s been very revealing to me is hearing from readers who find scenes from work and discussions about politics a non-fiction stall in the movement of the plot. This is where I think some of our reading habits are a bit escapist. I’ve heard feedback, sometimes from sophisticated readers even, who tell me that nothing really happens until Chapter 4, when Martha and Petra have an affair. In fact, Petra gets fired from two different jobs and a big dinner party at Martha’s takes place and is a stage for the “where the hell are we going as a country” conversation. But somehow all this is not plot-y. These things are seen as resisting fiction (work, especially). The melodrama is the plot. How did we come to this habit of reading, is my question.
JW: What role does sex play in this novel? Is that also something you’d like to see more of in contemporary novels in general, or within the female-identified queer community, in particular?
LP: I hoped to make a novel that rings with excitement about ideas, politics, arts, and queer desire in equal measure. Its tone is probably a bit manic. Some sections are hot and bothered about ideas or politics or Toronto streetscape, and others about women’s bodies. I am not saying anything new when I say that sex is incredibly difficult to write. There are many practical reasons you would leave the sex out (a book with some R-rated pages will never be the first choice for the book of the month at your local library). An unfriendly reviewer may quote bits of sex scenes, and out of context they are always cringe-worthy. Etc. But I could not honestly do a fadeout for sex in this story. It would mean leaving important information out. It’s a book full of desire and yearning.
With regard to the queer side of your question, I sometimes have these conversations with some of my queer friends about what is a turn-on in queer porn, and what isn’t. And I find pre-set role-playing not particularly exciting as a sex-writing strategy. So I didn’t do any femme-butch scenarios, or top and bottom. Queer porn has done femme-butch endlessly. I have made the two characters who have sex effectively both switches, if we want to use that very traditional vocabulary. They end up being, as they carve out autonomy in the relationship. This could be my personal blindness, as I’m very close to what Barbara Hammer talks about, the kiki, somebody who’s neither butch nor femme but can be either depending on the person she’s with. So I wanted to look at a situation in which there is more freedom and also unease, where nothing is decided in terms of sexual roles.
JW: Incidental Music is unabashedly set in Toronto. What attracts you to cities? Or is it a Toronto-specific love?
LP: This is my eighth year in Toronto (fourteenth in Canada), and I’m still trying to figure it out, but it’s tolerating me well. I know small-town life and have been trying to escape it since conscious memory. I don’t know what it is about small towns that feeds my knee-jerk Balkan fatalism … that you can’t really change anything for better so might as well give up before trying.
But in big cities there’s room for contingency. Things come out from the left field. There’s room for comedy. I’ve been re-watching a lot of Jaques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films lately, and I think big cities are the texture of an Hulot film, a symphony, a cacophony of things coming at you from all directions, but they somehow cohere, often funnily, and often in a way that reminds you that you’re not central.
JW: From the publisher’s copy: “This book will have your heart by way of your mind.” Talk about the worth of art to our civic well-being and, if you can, how this story is best suited to literature.
LP: They’re indivisible, the civic well-being and the arts. Civic structures of the Toronto in my book have elements of fantasy—the Museum of the City of Toronto already exists, so Martha is lobbying for a museum that would focus on the working class and immigrant Toronto. One of Martha’s staff members has his finger on the pulse (sometimes literally) of the dying members of the haute bourgeoisie and negotiates with the families what objects they’re wiling to bequeath to the city. There’s a civic heritage award that Martha receives that is a really big deal. She is also head of a department that combines both urban heritage and affordable housing. The governing structures in the Toronto of my book are de-siloed, nimbler, more focused, more imaginatively run than might presently be the case. The mayor’s name, which gets mentioned in a press clipping, is Sheila Carroll. So you see why I chose fiction to talk about these things.
How to suit to literature the plot about a big urban policy change, that is the question. I gave it a shot. I hope others will too. Governing of a city is not outside the scope of the novel. Nor is the meaning of heritage and the vitality of art. Things need to be imagined before they can be introduced. Maybe we’ll call something into being, maybe not. But let fiction talk about it.
JW: You joke that Virginia Woolf made you gay. With this book, will Lydia Perovic make anyone gay? Or maybe move to Toronto?
LP: I was dead serious about Woolf. Reading about Mrs. Dalloway remembering a stark-naked Sally running through the hallway, or the stream of consciousness of one seriously sexed up Jinny in The Waves can corrupt a girl. But where was I? Right. Let’s get everybody to move over here first, then we’ll see about the conversions. I had a friend in NYC and a friend in Sweden read the book, and they liked the city bits. So maybe the city bits work. What they skimmed, alas—not even the best among us are immune—are the political discussions. Our political hangups might read local and parochial, but the life in Toronto, it seems, not at all.