Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review: Vienna Nocturne

14. Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell




While reading Vienna Nocturne, I noticed that the back cover features a quote from Eva Stachniak, one of my favorite historical fiction writers. This realization brought me to compare the two author's debuts, which though both historical fiction, are vastly different in texture. Reading Stachniak's The Winter Palace is like wrapping one's self in velvet: thick, luxurious, and rich. In contrast, reading Vivien Shotwell's Vienna Nocturne is like being immersed in watered silk: exquisite but light and delicate.

Vienna Nocture follows the career of Anna Storace, the soprano who starred in Wolfgang Mozart's most famous opera. Shotwell's writing is a sheer, unmitigated pleasure to read. Her language is flowing, her sentences are long, with clause after clause of description. One chapter begins:

"The people of Venice sang as much as they talked, sang as they worked and wooed and slept, in gondolas and barges, on market squares, lubricated by drink and company and the place itself, a city in the water that waked by night and slept by day, that prized folly over sense, and saved itself for nothing, but spent all, risked all, for beauty's flowering and pleasure's gratification."

The effect is immersive. Readers will float in an atmosphere of Shotwell's creation. Long sentences glide readers through miniaturized chapters that capture the sense of a particular moment in a character's life. The narrative primarily follows Anna, but occasionally detours to characters significant in Anna's life, including Mozart. Although this conceit could be jarring, Shotwell incorporates it skillfully into the fabric of the narrative. In fact, the journey is so smooth that readers may barely notice individual events or characters.

While this may not be a concern for some, to others it marks the book's only significant flaw. It is difficult to distinguish the personality of characters and to suss out the truth of events. Even Anna has no definable personality outside of her role as a diva (which seems intentional, as it is a tragedy that the book acknowledges). Instead, the opera and the music seem to take the place of the characters.

Not only are the book's many musical scenes sumptuously described, but the rising of her breath and breasts, and the moving of his fingers on the keyboard, come to define Shotwell's Anna and Mozart. Both are like beautiful, ingenious instruments that the author wields on the page. Ultimately, Vienna Nocturne is a work of art--if a book could be an opera, this would be it. It is the epitome of style and grace and briefly glimpsed truths. And this must be what the classically trained author set out to achieve.

But those who like their history more meaty and their characters more complex may find that this morsel vanishes too quickly, leaving a sweet but not fully satisfying taste.

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