Saturday, 17 March 2012
A splendid recent read was John Donatich's The Variations, to which I was drawn by its cover, a dramatic design by Henry Holt art director Rick Pracher incorporating a church organ and type in the form of a cross: most apt for a novel dealing with faith and music.
This first novel (Donatich is also the director of Yale University Press) most impressed me with its feel of experienced, lived-in detail. I doubt that Donatich is an alcoholic, a former priest and a piano prodigy as well as a writer, but he definitely writes like someone who knows what it's like to be all three. It's the beautiful physicality of the three worlds he describes that convinces: the physicality of priesthood, with the touching of bodies, the outstretched tongues at communion; the physicality of playing music, of hands on the keys, and of teachers brushing against students; and the woozy physicality of drunkenness, and its deluded feelings of invincibility.
It's a book that takes the idea of a Catholic priest who has lost his faith and makes something new of it. Father Dominic is a good man, fighting to save people, but he's also a Graham Greene Catholic, a hypocrite and, in some ways, an exploiter. He's sliding away from the beleaguered Catholic Church, with its self-inflicted wounds borne from sheltering and enabling paedophiles. "It was no mystery why the Catholic priesthood was in decline. Dom himself was a rarity: an American-born priest just over forty. The Church had more recent success recruiting in Africa and South America ... yet another unattractive service job left to guest workers." He's a man who feels the peace of having nothing left to lose.
In as much as he has friends, one Dominic's closest is James, a talented pianist who sometimes plays in the church ("Playing well brings music into being the way prayer brings God into being."). Over it all hang Bach's Goldberg Variations and the "musical terrorists" like Glenn Gould have have made them so hard to play in a way that makes them a musician's own. This brings to mind Richard Power's The Gold Bug Variations, a wonderful novel about DNA and Bach's music, and it's a serious compliment to say Donatich's book compares well. My only complaint about The Variations is that James, a fascinating character, almost vanishes in the book's final section.
Regarding the cover, Rick Pracher has form in designing fine covers for books involving faith. See this design of his, for Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained.