If nothing else, Toronto-based Lydia Perović’s novel Incidental Music is authentic. The dialogue and the events in this book feel very ‘real’; scenes that take place at dinner parties and workplaces seem as if they were really just plucked from an ordinary person’s life. The problem is, though, that authentic doesn’t necessarily mean interesting. This may be a challenge particular to me, since the topics the three main characters are interested in or the areas in which they work are not especially appealing to me: opera, heritage house revitalization, and politics. However, I can’t help but feel like I could have been coaxed into being interested in these topics, but that Incidental Music mostly failed to do so. In the end, I think what I found lacking in this novel, especially for the first half, was emotional engagement. I was reading a lot about what the characters were doing, but not about what they were feeling. I wasn’t getting to know them.
These characters are three women: Petra, a queer immigrant from the former Yugoslavia who has a mostly depressing, mundane life in Toronto moving from job to job and never making any human connections; Martha is a successful middle-class woman who is that mostly-lesbian-but-married-to-a-man kind of lesbian; Romola (my favourite character by far) is a former opera singer who left Hungary and her unfaithful female lover after the failed uprising against the communist government in the 50s. Although at first I felt that all of these women’s emotional landscapes were pretty empty, Perović later on made both Romola and Petra feel complex and genuine to me; Martha, however, remained a frustrating mystery.
The sections on Romola, actually, are where Perović really excels. She brilliantly evokes Romola’s fading and confused memories of queer desire behind the Iron Curtain, effortlessly stitching together recollections of both Romola’s past operatic roles and personal life and blending them into her present-day conversations with Petra. The portions of the novel devoted to her are sometimes disorienting, skilfully mirroring Romola’s deteriorating mental state in her old age. The boundaries between Romola’s dramatic roles and her real life are deliberately blurred; but indeed, the forbidden desire, the infidelity, the secrecy, and the political uprisings that were part of Romola’s life are not too dissimilar to the dramatic material of opera.
In one chapter, for example, Romola follows her lover Magda and the woman she suspects she is having an affair with through the eerie streets of Budapest, where the corpse of a Soviet soldier lies on the sidewalk covered in chalk. She stalks them until they go into the public baths, where she skulks around in the mist still fully clothed, becoming “one of the shadows haunting the corridors.” She does not trust her lover, a woman who “used words easily, as naturally as taking a breath. For Romola words that were said out loud lost the airiness of a private thought and became as heavy as lead. Words played others like instruments. Nothing was lost, nothing was forgotten.”
Unfortunately there wasn’t as much of Romola as I would have liked. Other scenes from Martha and Petra’s lives are often evoked in too much detail that made this reader’s experience dull. The novel sometimes falls into the trap of “this-happened-and-then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened.” I think some careful editing of certain passages could have cut down such descriptions and dialogue so that the reader’s attention doesn’t begin to drift. For example, a discussion at a party about Canadian politics goes on for six pages; a conversation about revitalization of heritage houses lasts seven and is proceeded by three pages of very detailed descriptions of architectural features in a certain Toronto neighbourhood. Such passages felt like snippets from a textbook, rather than fiction.
Especially for the first third or so of the novel, I often felt frustrated that nothing was ‘happening.’ And let me tell you, I am not the kind of reader who wants action in a classic sense; in fact, what I’m often most riveted by is emotional events that other kinds of readers who prefer thrillers or mysteries find boring and would accuse of lacking proper ‘action.’ Perhaps the many passages of extended dialogue are meant to be intellectually stimulating—I can certainly see that Perovic has taken astute care in constructing these conversations. To me, however, they were realistic but boring dialogues typical of white middle-class bourgeois folks—not really what I’m into reading, despite the fact that (or because?) I am white and (socially) middle-class.
Now, when the sex finally starts happening, I admit my attention perked right up (you do have to wait until page 117, though). This wasn’t exactly my ideal romance, since I never really understood why each woman was attracted to and interested in the other, but I’ll take what I can get. It wasn’t my cup of tea erotica-wise either, but I’m sure it would be up someone’s alley… I’m not sure how much to give away here, but what the hell: here’s a piece from the first sex scene:
‘I want to fuck you, I want to fuck your mind,’ Martha said as Petra bent her knees again, trouser legs snarled from the knees down, allowing no movement. ‘Come near, look at me,’ she said, and Martha did, and kissed her neck and her face and her hair. When she moved away, Petra felt her hand inside her, piercing her. Martha’s hand was her axis now, she moved only with it. ‘I wanted to fuck you so much,’ Martha pleaded. ‘And you are so…elusive to me. You speak a language…obscure to me. There are parts of you I will never reach…I want to fuck you there. I want the whole of you. I want to fuck you and want to cut through to your old selves, your…buried, disabled self…want to fuck you where you are broken…’
As you might imagine, Petra and Martha’s affair doesn’t exactly work out in the end, and things with Romola’s health go awry as well, but not before Perović gives us a glimpse of hope: Romola wants Petra to write something about her life. Now that’s the story I want to read: Petra’s biography of Romola. Maybe Perović wants to write that next?