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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Music of Language: 1930s, '40s, '50s . . .

I became vividly aware of the musical sounds of language, specific to past decades, when I was editing my late mother's novel, The Trouble with the Truth. My mother, Edna Robinson, was born in 1921, and the novel takes place largely in the 1930s and early '40s. However it is written from a perspective in the late 1950s. This could pose a problem musically. We all know the sound of the 1930s and '40s from black-and-white Hollywood movies. Staccato and matter-of-fact-sounding. The 1950s, on the other hand, is softer—think Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Like the 1930s and '40s, the '50s have a patriarchal beat, for lack of a better way to express it. Father did know best and that was not questioned. Edna solved the problem of differing decades' music logically—the narrative was good literary writing of any era, and dialogue was perfect pitch for the 1930s–40s.

As an editor, you live in the head of a writer, and I became so involved in the life and sounds of those three decades that I wanted to read other work of the time. For several months, I've been reading the master of the short story, John Cheever—his Pulitzer-prize-winning anthology The Stories of John Cheever. Talk about perfect pitch!

For a while I wondered if the music of those decades, 1930s–1950s, had an influence on what people accepted as normal. Both Edna Robinson and Cheever accepted as inevitable the pain and confusion and heartbreak of human life. Not like today where we seek help, actively try to transform, meditate, or complain on social media.

I recently read a new novel, a slim little gem, first published in French in 2014 and republished in English by G.P. Putnam's Sons this January. It's called Lillian on Life (see page 6 of the bookstore link). Here's a line that seduced me:
Maybe I would have had sex with Dave after college in Columbia, but the first time he hugged me, he squeezed me so hard I passed wind.

Protagonist Lillian (born in 1933), who first starts talking to us, at age fifty-seven (1990), from her bed with a man who won't wake up, is charming. Lillian is real, a girl from Missouri who went to Vassar. She is sexy and idiosyncratic, and despite its time period, this story is modern. I think that's because it is deeply honest in a 2015 way. So many other books I've read about women in the 1930s and '40s (the aforementioned The Trouble with the Truth and Cheever's work) focus on or gnash their teeth over or accept as normal female manipulations to get what they want and/or hoodwink some guy. Lillian has no part in any of that. "Nobody came from where I came from or felt what I felt, so I adapted," she says, during a description of her life in Europe. And "Whenever I leave after telling Judy about my sex life, I know she tells George Junior my stories. I worry a little about that. But if I've learned anything, it's this: The world has never loved a spinster, and never will. The more people she tells, the merrier."

Even though the music may be culturally off, or some kind of hybrid of the decades, Lilian on Life is such a refreshingly authentic portrait of a woman during a time before female autonomy.

The book's author, Alison Jean Lester, was born in 1966 and came of age in a time when admitting that women fart is permissible and change was the M.O. of society. So what does this mean for the music?

Here are my deep 2015 thoughts on that: What if people are just people? So, yes, Edna Robinson and John Cheever write with both perfect pitch and acceptance of what is normal for their era, but perhaps writing can be correctly musically incorrect. By melding the conditions of the '40s to a more evolved 2015 perspective, Lillian on Love succeeds in letting us feel the pain of constriction during a time when constriction was normal.

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