Commonplace Book · dies · music notes · stuff I read

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Summary from Goodreads:
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all. As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.

The second I heard that Alexander Chee had a novel coming out about a Belle Époque opera singer with a secret I went on a mission to figure out how I might ferret out an advance copy.  I put The Queen of the Night on pre-order in hardback but I knew I was going to need time to read, and re-read, and digest.  Basically, I just want to snuggle the book and pet it because it is that good so I’ll try and write something reasonably coherent.

Lilliet Berne is what is known as a Falcon soprano (named for the first such singer, Cornélie Falcon), with a voice of incredible darkness and power but a very fragile physical instrument.  Lilliet’s secrets have secrets, secrets that could be deadly.  When she is offered an original role, an accolade that would cap her career, the opera’s libretto threatens to bring her secrets to light.  The librettist is an unknown, the novel it is based on unknown to Lilliet.  As she recalls her life, delving through many layers of intrigue and disguise to determine which person betrayed her, the reader begins to wonder: who is Lilliet and what will happen to her?

The Queen of the Night is a novel at the intersection of Romanticism and Realism, two major movements in nineteenth-century art.  The surreal nesting of Lilliet’s many-layered life inside the harsh reality of an orphan in Paris during the Second Empire.  The sturm und drang of the opera next to the monotony of being a grisette in Empress Eugénie’s vast wardrobe.  The glittering heights of celebrity outline the horrifying years when Lilliet is treated as a possession.  Were this to become an opera, Verdi would have to compose the music.

Throughout the novel, Lilliet muses on the ideas of fate, hubris, and vengeance, giving us a glorious line:

…the gods did not kill for hubris – for hubris, they let you live long enough to learn. (p46)

Lilliet is the Queen of the Night – a role she loves for its dark power and famous for the fiendishly difficult “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”/”The vengeance of hell boils in my heart,” is Carmen – trapped by the hand of cards dealt to her, is Violetta – caught between her heart and her past as a courtesan, is Leonora – the casualty of a revenge plot decades in the making.  As Lilliet notes: “victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat.”  As I was re-reading the book, I noticed that I wanted to listen to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Pucinni’s Tosca.  Odd, because Giovanni is a baritone role, clearly not something Lilliet would sing, and Tosca did not premiere until 1900, well after the events of the book.  But there is something echoed in Lilliet’s struggle against what she views as a curse brought on by hubris: Giovanni brazenly inviting his doom to supper and Tosca singing her haunting aria “Vissi d’arte” about art and prayer.

Tucked in among all the activity with circuses and Emperors and celebrity and opera, there is the simple story of a teenage girl who believes she is to blame for a karmic misfortune.  In her haste to get away she commits error after error as any inexperienced, grieving teenager might do, stumbling into misfortune and by sheer strength of will and cleverness keeping herself alive.  She becomes the famous Lilliet, leaving the adult woman to salvage what is left of the little girl from the Minnesota prairie.  Whatever your thoughts on opera as a music form, this coming-of-age tale with its mysterious twists and turns is the heart of Chee’s novel.  A brilliant book to start 2016. 

Bellissima.  Bellissimo. Bravo.

PS: If you aren’t familiar with opera – it isn’t all Valkyries with blond braids and Viking hats, trust me – I suggest the following list of discs to check out:
Renée Fleming, “The Beautiful Voice“, “Bel Canto“, “Renée Fleming
Jonas Kaufmann, “The Verdi Album“, “The Best of Jonas Kaufmann
Bryn Terfel, “Bad Boys“, 1996 Don Giovanni recording
Joyce DiDonato, “Drama Queens“, “Diva Divo
José Carreras, “Passion
The #1 Opera Album and The #1 Opera Album II – these are compilations with both older and newer recordings but wide range

Dear FTC: I did a first-read of this novel using a DRC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss and then I bought a copy because why the hell wouldn’t I?

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First lines

Some first lines are very well known, i.e.

“It is a truth universally acknowledge that young man in posession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

“Call me Ishmael.” – Moby Dick, Herman Melville

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” – Mrs. Dalloway (duh), Virginia Woolf

And so on.

I’d never ran across this one:

“On top of everything, the cancer wing was Number 13.” – Cancer Ward, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Apologies if I mucked up any quotes; the only one I checked was from Cancer Ward.

Current book-in-progress: Middlemarch (still, I recently heard this described as a soap opera and I agree; however, characters have yet to come back from the dead – played by a completely different actor)
Current knitted item: Guess I’m back to blue socks
Current movie obsession: The Muppet Show season 2!!!! Oh yeah baby!

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Tidbits and Oddities II

“A work of art has to be judged by its interior vitality, not by its agreed prestige. Prestige alone was never enough to keep an acknowledged classic alive: if it had been, Petrarch’s long poems in Latin, which he though were his real claim to fame, would still be read today.” – Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, “G.K. Chesterton”

“…doubtless Clytie knew, counted upon, that; it would be a good three minutes before it [ambulance] could reach the house, the monstrous tinder-dry rotten shell seeping smoke through the warped cracks in the weather-boarding as if it were made of gauze wire and filled with roaring and beyond which somewhere somthing lurked which bellowed, something human since the bellowing was in human speend, even though the reason for it would not have seemed to be.” – William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

“Ist das ein Auto?” – “Drive-time German,” Living Language (this one cracks me up everytime its used in conversation on the CD – who the heck drives down the road and asks “Is that a car?” besides a toddler)

Current book-in-progress: The Marquise of O-, Cultural Amnesia, Wuthering Heights (Kate says I should read some Proust – I agree), The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter
Current knitted item: I’m done with all my planned “Harry Potter surprises” – they’re all blocked and ready to go, but I have enough yarn left…maybe one more… (I’m enjoying this way too much).

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Tidbits and Oddities

I love literary sound bites.

“Shock news: Grown-up critics think e.e. cummings sucks. I honestly didn’t know. I read him in high school, put him in the “good” box, and left him there.” – Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

“I’m an irreverent person because I believe reverence is usually misplaced when it isn’t faked, but I felt reverence for his reverence then.” – William H. Gass, A Temple of Texts (Mr. Gaddis and His Goddamn Books)

“The philosopher David Hume thought Tristam Shandy the best book written by an Englishman for the past 30 years, though he rather spoiled the compliment by adding ‘bad as it is.'” – Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: An Introduction (Ch. 4, Laurence Sterne)

And on addressing “instant classics” in literature:
“Maybe that’s why you have to give books time to live before you decide that they’re never going to die. You have to wait and see whether anyone in that multitude is really listening.” – Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

Current book-in-progress: A Temple of Texts, The English Novel, and waiting for The Buccaneers to arrive at BN so I can start on the next book for the LbW board.
Current knitted item: The shrug – I got the stitches picked up for the collar (Eydie had Addis!! Although I’m glad I went with the 32″ circular, I can’t imagine working it on a 24″ like the pattern called for!)