Opera in the Novel from Balzac to Proust

spacer By Cormac Newark
Cambridge University Press; 298 pp. $90

Books Opera Novel cover 1211

In Opera in the Novel from Balzac to Proust, Cormac Newark, of the University of Ulster, unleashes the hounds of literary theory to explore the idea that writing about, listening to, performing or even composing an opera can expose the provisional and fragmentary natures of works of art. From Newark's perspective, the nineteenth-century opera and the nineteenth-century novel were meant for each other. Operas were routinely spliced and diced, with insertions and cuts imposed by singers and other performance exigencies; novels of this era were similarly fragmentary, first appearing serially in newspapers, with the novelist writing from a plan but not necessarily having finished the entire work before the first sections were published.

To give an example: in Dumas's episodic The Count of Monte Cristo (first published serially in Le Journal des Débats),the titular hero finds himself challenged to a duel while attending a performance of Rossini's Guillaume Tell at the Opéra de Paris. What is curious, Newark points out, is that, in Dumas's telling, it seems as though Act I is being performed after Act II. Despite Dumas's care in preserving certain key historic details, he has treated Tell as a set of fragments, so as to suit his narrative needs — which is only fitting, given that Guillaume Tell was notoriously edited during its run at the Opéra, with numbers removed and passages cut until only Act II was staged with any regularity. Dumas, Newark suggests, simply did what the Opéra did: he selected from among a collection of pieces, or fragments, and cast the result as coherent.

Likewise, Madame Bovary also first appeared serially, and in its important scene in which Emma Bovary attends a provincial performance of Lucie de Lammermoor (not Lucia, and thus a revision of the "original") there is added complexity, since Lucia is an adaption of Scott's novel. Emma's response to Lucie echoes this complexity: she knows the novel well, and her attempt to reconstruct the opera's action must contend with her earlier, underlying memory of The Bride of Lammermoor. These movements — from Scott's novel to Donizetti's opera to its French version to Flaubert's novel — are further complicated by Flaubert's own musical insecurity in dramatizing the scene: he relies, writes Newark, on performance descriptions that "were, in their own way, just as fractured, shifting (not to say shifty), and hypothetical as the climax of his own novel would turn out to be." 

For Newark, it is Proust who gives some hints about how we navigate "fractured, shifting and hypothetical" works of art. The Narrator of The Prisoner — the fifth volume from In Search of Lost Time — plays Tristan at the piano, which produces the kinds of associations and memories so well known in Proust. The Narrator seeks a petite phrase that sounds like something in the work of a composer friend; he is on a hunt for fragments, in fact invoking that very term. We similarly impose our own search for meaning on these fragmented works, Newark suggests, but that does not necessarily make them whole: "That which goes by when we really listen, or see, or fail to do either, it turns out, is not precisely lost time — but neither is it time regained."

Newark's thesis, at least as far as one can make out, is that not only art itself but any attempt to impose meaning on it becomes discontinuous and tentative. As the author refuses to let himself be pinned down, his book comes across as more a collection of close, allusive readings than a sustained, cogent artistic argument. Opera-lovers willing to endure Newark's lit-crit language ("intertext," "problematize") and serpentine prose style may glean some interesting facts about the art form. Most readers, though, will feel as though they are eavesdropping on a conversation among academics — a conversation perhaps too "shifting (not to say shifty)" to be satisfying. spacer


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