A fascinating and wonderful article ran in the Guardian last week. The author eloquently ruminates over the parallel evolution of literature and music in the 19th century, and laments a perceived divergence since the 20th. His descriptions of the intertwined nature of the two media are divine:
To read Molly Bloom’s great gush of resigned affirmation with which Ulysses ends and then set it beside the equally self-actualising fatalism in which the final adagio movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony (marked on the score “very slowly and held back”) culminates, is to feel yourself in the presence of artistic twins whose birth is separated by only a few years.
However, I’m inclined to disagree with his thesis. I don’t think novels stagnated with modernism. The author does a disservice not only to postmodernism, which took literature to its boundaries far more so than the atonal experiments of modern classical music have done, but he seems to neglect anything in recent literature that doesn’t fall neatly into his categories. If literature stopped evolving with, as he asserts, Joyce’s Ulysses, then what are we to make of, for example, the magic realism of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? Isn’t that a rich literary experiment representing a bold break with the status quo?
Literary fiction also seems far more responsive to the nuances of genre than serious music is, though I admit I’m far less literate in music than in prose. Still, what modern symphonies can equal, say, the quality and variety represented by the range between Slaughterhouse-Five, Lonesome Dove, and Herzog?
And this is to say nothing of the comic novel. Where in the musical pantheon is the equivalent landmark to A Confederacy of Dunces?
This is not to belittle the greatness of music, including contemporary music, but I still feel that this article fails to do the depth of innovation in recent literature justice.