Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (Anansi, 2009).
A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the literary prize podium last year. Eric Siblin, a former Montreal Gazette pop music critic, wrote a first book about, of all things, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cello Suites.” These half-dozen solo pieces for cello, composed in the 1720s, were rediscovered, after nearly two centuries of utter obscurity, by a young Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals, at the beginning of the 20th century. The story of Bach’s compositions, Casals’ recovery and performance of them, and Siblin’s own adventures in reconstructing their history, are the interwoven strands that make up The Cello Suites.
The book appeared in spring 2009 and was reasonably widely reviewed in Canada, with critics at the Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Toronto Star, The Walrus, Maclean’s, and sundry others all chiming in. About the only sour note in the chorus of praise was sounded in the G&M book pages, probably the most prestigious reviewing slot in the country. There, well-known American reviewer, humourist, and memoirist Joe Queenan took a chainsaw to Siblin’s cello. It’s not clear how or why Queenan, the author of Closing Time, a grim memoir of his childhood, got to be the Globe’s reviewer for Siblin’s book, but there was little doubt about what he thought.
The term “savaging,” to describe viciously negative reviews, might have been invented for the grouchy Mr. Queenan. According to him, Siblin is a “servile, flat-landscape critic… who recycles musty old cliches that range from the obvious to the moronic.” Elsewhere he describes the book as “The Cello Suites (for Dummies?)” and declares that “the most infuriating thing about Siblin’s solipsistic Why Bach Matters approach to music criticism is the suggestion that without us, Bach is nothing.” In the face of Siblin’s regurgitation of “those Bach, Happening Dude bromides that gained currency in the 1960s,” Queenan assures us that “Bach is not infinitely changeable, and he is not what you make of him. Bach is Bach. Titian is Titian. Homer is Homer.” There, take that. “Show some respect for the elderly,” Queenan harrumphs in conclusion. I guess he didn’t like it.
If I’d seen Queenan’s review when it appeared last April, I would’ve assumed that, if nothing else, that was it for the book’s commercial prospects or the possibility that it might make the Globe’s end-of-the-year top 100 list. When the most prominent book review pages in the country trash your puppy, it’s probably headed for the remainder bins at Book Warehouse or the Toronto Humane Society’s holding pens.
As it happened, I didn’t see Queenan’s or anyone else’s review, and I hadn’t heard of or seen Siblin’s Cello Suites until I opened a package of books that the Quebec Writers’ Federation shipped to me in Berlin, Germany, where I was spending the summer. The reason they sent me a box of books was because I’d reluctantly and against my better judgment agreed to be a judge for the QWF’s 2009 McAuslen First Book Prize competition.
Different literary prize organizations employ varying rules for their contests. The QWF protocols require that you sign a non-conflict-of-interest declaration (in which you attest that you don’t know any of the authors whose books have been submitted) and that you don’t consult with any of the other judges. Personally, I prefer less sanitized rules. My friend Jean Baird has recently been involved in a project that examines the books and judging of the U.K.’s Booker Prize, and I’ve gotten interested in her descriptions of the teacup-and-saber-rattling debates of a succession of Booker committees as they argued down to the wire. But if the QWF insists on, No sex, we’re Canadian literary judges, well, so be it.
The conflict of interest requirement is a little trickier. I mean, I didn’t know and hadn’t even heard of any of the authors, so I was technically in the clear. But there I was, about to read a book about Bach, right in the heart of Germany, barely a stone’s throw from Bach’s alleged resting place under a stone slab in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (a slab I visited later that summer). What’s more, I knew Bach’s “Cello Suites,” had heard them performed live in Berlin, and had listened to Yo-Yo Ma’s and Casals’ recordings of them. Anyway, one of my best friends in Berlin is a symphony-class violinist who plays Bach’s violin solos. Fortunately, knowing something about the subject matter of what you’re judging doesn’t count as conflict of interest. The QWF doesn’t demand that you be a complete village idiot.
Predictably, the books submitted to a first book competition are a dog’s breakfast, and that’s likely to be even more so when the books come from a Canadian province where writing in English is a minority activity. In this case, they ranged from shaky collections of often puzzling poems to a truly bizarre self-published Gothic Space Romance. Most of the books, for some odd reason, seemed to be booze-sodden collections of vignettes written by guys in their 30s about how they partied, lost their girlfriends, got shitfaced all over again, and pondered angst-ridden early-mid-life existence. I guess it must have something to do with writing in English in Quebec.
But the first book accidentally to hand was The Cello Suites, so I innocently began reading it. If I wanted to hear the suites, Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of same was nearby. It took Siblin less than 10 pages to persuade me that he was onto something interesting, as well as being capable of overcoming formidable obstacles.
The potential writing pitfalls are numerous. First, it’s really hard to write about music. Bach’s cello pieces don’t offer narrative handles, and even describing the sounds produced by a bow scraping across a clutch of strings is pretty much impossible, outside of that eye-glazing liner-note lingo (“The somewhat dark and sombre ‘D minor Suite’ No. 2 makes full use of the cello’s resonant low register… while the Courante is a virtuoso tour-de-force of quicksilver semiquavers…”). Second, not much is known about Bach’s life. We have, most importantly, the music, but only minimal scraps of biographical material. Finally, in a book of this sort, quite a bit is going to depend on the temperament of our self-admitted amateur music-lover, Siblin.
Not to worry. Siblin’s book is pretty much pitch-perfect. It gives us a fairly good idea of what can be known about J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and the circumstances of his domestic life and composing career. One thing you learn is that the claim that “Bach is Bach” is not an eternal verity, reviewers’ harrumphings aside. In fact, Bach was almost no one, a forgotten composer-musician in the not-so-major musical centres of Cothen and Leipzig, Germany. After his death, his music languished for three-quarters of a century until it was resurrected by 20-year-old composer Felix Mendelssohn, who organized and conducted a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in Berlin at the end of the 1820s. The “Cello Suites” would have to wait another century before Casals brought them to light.
Siblin’s account of Bach and Casals and the cello suites is aimed at a middle-brow readership, but it also works for people who are somewhat more knowledgeable about this particular cubbyhole of civilization. Siblin turns out to be an amiable concert-going companion; he’s not overbearing, condescending, or otherwise offputting, which is not something that can be said about all of his reviewers.
Speaking of which, about halfway through thoroughly enjoying Siblin’s quest — he learns to strum Bach on his guitar, he interviews cellists and music mavens around the world, he attends a Bach conference and chases down Pablo Casals’ heroic itinerary, both in the music world and on the anti-fascist political front — I wondered to myself, Hey, how come I haven’t heard of this book? That’s how I clicked my way to Joe Queenan’s unpleasant review. Having read Queenan, I thought, Gee, what a lousy break. You write a perfectly good book, and you get crushed in the book pages of the country’s most widely-read paper. That probably puts the kibosh on sales, end of the year best books lists, and the prize podium. Except, that is, for the tiny QWF first book prize podium, at least if I had anything to say about it.
Before you get any ideas about me donning shiny armour and riding solo into the fray, it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who had a different read on Siblin’s book than Joe Queenan. I dutifully turned in my judgment on English-language Quebec first books. So did the other judges who I hadn’t seen or communicated with. So did the QWF’s judges for the broader non-fiction competition. And so did the judging committees of more prestigious prizes than the one I had a finger in handing out. I generally dislike the whole business of literary prizes (except when I win one), but in the era of the decline of book reading, I guess (sigh) they’re probably useful if not necessary.
When the literary dust settled last November, Siblin’s little tome had won both the QWF’s McAuslan First Book Prize and its Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction. More important, although it didn’t win them, it also received nominations for the Governor-General’s Literary Award (Non-Fiction) and the Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-Fiction prize. By then, I’d read the other reviews of Siblin’s book, almost all of them positive. In fact, only the Globe’s review was off-key. Nor is Siblin going broke: when I last checked Maclean’s best seller list, The Cello Suites had been on the charts for 41 weeks and counting, and there were now American, British and Australian editions, all of them well-received. So, even though Siblin didn’t make the 2009 Globe 100 list, no dirges required.
Turns out that this is a literary tale with a rare happy ending, even though music sleuth Siblin never does find the missing original manuscript of the cello suites. Moral of the story: Good books don’t always finish last. Ditto for Dead White European Males. Or, as Baretta, one of my favourite TV detectives, used to say, And dat’s da name o’ dat tune.
Vancouver, Jan. 14, 2010