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October 17, 2016

Book Notes - Anne Raeff "The Jungle Around Us"

The Jungle Around Us

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Anne Raeff's collection The Jungle Around Us, awarded the 2015 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, is filled with exceptionally nuanced and poignant stories.

Garth Greenwell wrote of the book:

"Anne Raeff's exquisite stories are remarkable for their combination of intimacy and reverence for the mysteries and private griefs her characters fold their lives around. Seldom have I read work so confident in the power of what's left unspoken and in the deep eloquence of gesture. The Jungle around Us is a haunting and breathtakingly beautiful book."

In her own words, here is Anne Raeff's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection The Jungle Around Us:

I grew up with classical music. WNCN, a classical radio station in New York at the time, was almost always on. My father read with WNCN in the background into the early hours of the morning, and I kept my door open so that I could listen, too. It comforted me to know that my father was awake, reading in his study at the end of the hall and that we were sharing the music. When I was an adolescent, I read to my own favorite records. To this day, when I hear Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, I think of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. Though my parents tried very hard to keep me away from popular music, they were unsuccessful, so those songs are also embedded in my memories of certain books. James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," for example, reminds me of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, even though the song has absolutely nothing to do with Prince Myshkin or the book's themes.

By the time I was in my twenties, living in Madrid and trying to figure out how to be a writer, I found that listening to music while I read or wrote interfered with the words, that it was keeping the stories from having a life of their own, an emotional power of their own. Ever since then I have read and written in silence. This does not mean, however, that music does not continue to inspire me as a writer. In fact, one of the two protagonists of my first novel, Clara Mondschein's Melancholia, is a cellist and the book is full of music, both the music of my childhood and the music that I was listening to at the time.

Though music continues to be a major source of inspiration for my writing, as is visual art as well, because I write in silence, the music in the playlist for The Jungle Around Us is not music that I listened to while I was writing but rather is made up of songs that evoke the mood of the individual stories and the themes of the collection as a whole. Finally, quite a few of the stories take place in the Spanish-speaking world, a part of the world that has greatly influenced me and my writing. For this reason, many of the songs are in Spanish.

I will begin with a song that represents the collection as a whole, "A la una yo nasí" by Fortuna. The song is in Ladino, the language of the Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Since many of the stories take place in the Spanish speaking world and are about the displacement and exile of the Jewish people, music in the language of the Sephardic Jews seems appropriate. It's a melancholy tune, and the song's simple refrain, "alma, vida, y corazón, alma vida, y corazón" (soul, life, and heart) is to me the bare bones of what stories are all about. This is also the song for the first story, "The Doctors' Daughter," which is about a Viennese Jewish family that escapes from the Holocaust to a small town on the edge of the jungle in Bolivia. While the parents, both doctors, are off in the jungle helping to combat an outbreak of yellow fever, their teenage daughter falls in love with a boy from the village. This story and two others were inspired by my mother's and grandparents' stories of their time in Bolivia during the war. My grandparents, like the characters, were Viennese doctors who escaped in 1938 right after the Germans annexed Austria. They first lived in a small town near the Brazilian border where my grandfather was the doctor for the workers who were building the railroad that connects Bolivia and Brazil. My grandmother stayed in the small town with my mother and my uncle. At night she lay awake in the hot night listening to the monkeys screeching, longing for snow and coffee with whipped cream.

Another story about Jewish exiles, "After the War," is set in New York after a doctor, a different one, his wife and their daughter, Sonya have left Bolivia. In this story, the doctor is remembering his friend in Bolivia, a deeply unhappy opium-addicted priest, while he gets ready to leave work to walk back through the cold winter night to his apartment and his wife, who is also deeply unhappy. Though I do not like to make a habit of dichotomous thinking, I believe that when it comes to musical taste there are two kinds of people, those who prefer the Rolling Stones and those who prefer the Beatles. I have yet to find someone who likes them equally. I belong to the former group, which, in addition to the fact that it fits the mood of this story, is why I have chosen to include "Sister Morphine" by The Rolling Stones.

The companion story to "After the War," "Sonya's Moods," takes place in the 1980s during the AIDs epidemic. When Sonya is sad she listens to the old 78s, she brought with her from Bolivia. When my mother was feeling sad and nostalgic she played her 78s from Bolivia and Billie Holiday 78s as well. She had all her records. I loved the sound of the 78s, the scratches emphasizing the pain in the songs. I loved the feel of them too, the thickness of the records, the weight of them, and the boxes in which they came smelled of basement, which was how I imagined the jungle smelled. For this story there must, therefore, be two songs, a Bolivian one and a Billie Holiday one. Inti-Ilimani has a version of the classic Bolivian song, "Duélete de mis dolencias." The refrain is one of the saddest lines in the world: "Si algún día me has querido, enseñáme a ser feliz porque infeliz yo he nacido." (If you loved me once, teach me how to be happy because I was born unhappy.) And because "Duélete de mis dolencias" is so overwhelmingly melancholy, I am also including Billie Holiday's "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" because though there is always the blues, there is also always hope.

Four of the stories in the collection feature the Buchovsky family: Isaac Buchovsky, a professor of Russian history, and his two daughters, Simone and Juliet. In "Taking Care of Jakobson" Isaac and his daughters try to keep one of Isaac's colleagues, Jakobson, from having a nervous breakdown after his office with all his books and notes burns down during the 1968 Columbia University riots. For this story I chose Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin’," for obvious reasons and because no playlist is complete without a Bob Dylan song.

Another story that features the Buchovsky family is "The Buchovskys on Their Own." It consists of two parallel stories, one in which Isaac is in the Soviet Union doing research and the other in which his daughters, who are in fifth and seventh grade, stay at home in New Jersey with their father's childhood friend, Katya Ladijinskaya. Katya Ladijinskaya is a snob about music, as were most of the adults I knew growing up. At one point in the story, she comes into the girls' bedroom when they are listening to "Which Way You Goin' Billy?" by The Poppy Family, a top 40 hit that I liked when I was in middle school. She immediately pronounces it to be "drivel," and the girls are embarrassed, but that is not the song for this playlist. Later in the story, when Katya Ladijinskaya falls apart for reasons I will not reveal here, for that would give away the story, they end up having to take care of her, though she is supposed to be taking care of them. At one point Katya Ladijinksaya whispers melodramatically, "Don't do what I have done," and then bursts into tears. This makes Juliet, the younger sister, think of the same line in "The House of the Rising Sun," the version by The Animals. She wonders whether Katya Ladijinksaya knew the song and whether she thought it was drivel too. My personal opinion is that it is not—drivel, that is.

The oldest story in this collection, "The Boys of El Tambor," takes place in Coatzacalcos, a sleazy Gulf coast city in Mexico. The story features a bar frequented by prostitutes, both male and female, and drag queens. When I imagine this bar, I hear the song "Un mundo raro" (originally recorded by José Alfredo Jiménez) sung by Falete, a flamenco singer, who always performs in drag. Make sure to watch it on Youtube. It's completely over the top in the best sense, full of pain and passion and longing, full of alma, vida, y corazón.

I will end where I began my musical education, with classical music. The last story in the collection, "Chinese Opera," is told from the point of view of Simone Buchovsky and is about the murder of a young gay man, their neighbor and favorite babysitter. It is a quiet piece that takes place mostly in the grieving family's house after the funeral. In one scene, Isaac sends his daughters upstairs to pay their respects to the young man's mother, who is lying on her bed surrounded by her female relatives and friends. It is during this scene that I imagine Gustav Mahler's Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 is playing. I first encountered Mahler through Luchino Visconti's great film Death in Venice when I was in my twenties. (For my parents anything after Beethoven was to be avoided). In the movie the Adagietto is the background music of that final beautiful and pathetic death.

Anne Raeff and The Jungle Around Us links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

San Francisco Chronicle review

Christine Sneed interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author
ZYZZYVA interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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