February 5, 2019
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lisa Gornick's The Peacock Feast is an epic historical novel that spans three generations and 100 years.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Gornick braids the lives of three generations across a span of 100 years in this vivid novel . . . [Her] prose is strong throughout; this is an intricately threaded story of family, secrets, loss, and closure."
In 1914, Louis C. Tiffany created an extravagant event—more performance art than party—since referred to as the Peacock Feast. One hundred and fifty “men of genius” were transported by a private train to Tiffany’s fantastical Long Island estate where 40 gardeners had lined the mile-long drive with flowers in color progressions designed by Tiffany himself. The all-male guests were greeted by a procession of nubile girls costumed in Greek togas and carrying roasted peacocks, their full plumage reattached. The famed organist Harry Rowe Shelley performed on an organ installed in the balcony of a courtyard Tiffany had modeled after the Topkapi Palace. There’s no record of what music Shelley played that evening, but given the Midsummer’s Night Dream nature of the spectacle and Tiffany’s tight control over every detail of the evening, it must have been something like this fairy-world organ piece by Henri Mulet, a French composer of the era.
Equisses byzantines, dix pieces pour grand-orgue: III Rosace (Henri Mulet), performed by Eric Lebrun
Twenty years later, Prudence the daughter of one of those gardeners, timidly attends a party, where she meets Carlton, a stiff but courteous man. Carlton accompanies on piano the hostess’s husband on cello in what he explains is the Gounod melody from the Ave Maria overlaid on Bach’s Prelude in C from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Unschooled in music, Prudence, nonetheless, detects that Carlton’s technical skills outstrip his musicality, but she’s touched by his sensitivity: the way he adjusts his playing in response to the variations in volume and tempo of the cello. Her anxiety softens as she imagines herself standing next to Carlton at the Steinway, turning a page of music as he signals with his chin. This performance by Yo Yo Ma of the same piece is in a different universe from the amateur rendition Prudence hears and would not in its perfection have the same effect on Prudence of mitigating the intimidation she experiences at first with Carlton: in a word, it’s heavenly.
Ave Maria (Charles Gounod and Bach), performed by Yo-Yo Ma
Before Prudence’s mother’s death, she’d counseled, “When good fortune visits, you don’t spit in his face. You offer him a cup of tea.” Carlton is a good man. He doesn’t drink save for an occasional aperitif, doesn’t gamble save for an infrequent game of cribbage. His lofty ambitions include climbing the highest peak on each continent and mastering the entire canon of Bach piano music.
“Invention No. 1 in C Major”, BWV 772 (J. S. Bach), performed by Glenn Gould
Dear Reader, she marries him—though later, when Carlton holds to what Prudence has bargained is a malleable dictate that they have no children, she thinks that she will go mad if she has to hear another of Bach’s mathematical inventions. She yearns for Chopin, for Debussy—music, she imagines, that would herald an opening in Carlton.
“Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 9 No.2” (Frederic Chopin), performed by Elisabeth Leonskaja
A second strand of the novel concerns Prudence’s brother, Randall, who she’s not seen since he left home at 14, crossing the country as a stowaway on trains. Having been rejected from military service on account of an ear drum injury he sustained on one of those trains, Randall is commissioned in the fall of 1942 to escort to a club dance a willowy young woman, whose pilot fiancé is overseas. There’s a full orchestra, and of course they play Benny Goodman. From the first bar, you know that Randall is having a lot more fun than Prudence!
“Stompin at the Savoy” (Razaf, Goodman, Webb, and Sampson); performed by Benny Goodman
Randall and the willowy young woman fall in love (though not for the reasons you might think), marry, and have a son, Leo, who they raise like a young prince in the posh Presidio Heights section of San Francisco. In 1963, at the age of 15, Leo, sensing the changes brewing around him—Ken Kesey’s lysergic acid experiments in Menlo Park to the south, the Haight-Ashbury soon to be a sanctuary for seekers from Florida to Washington state—turns wild. He and his friend Gary lose interest in their prep school’s seasonal rotation of sports, spend their afternoons listening to early rock and roll and the new British bands. A year later, they go to hear a group, the Great Society, that Gary’s guitar teacher told him to check out. As Grace Slick incants “Darkly Smiling,” more chant than song, a girl dressed in something, more Indian bedspread than skirt, brushes Leo’s arm on the downbeat. “That chick is tripping,” Gary whispers to Leo.
“Darkly Smiling” (Grace Slick), performed by the Great Society
The girl, Jacie, Leo learns is a runaway from Houston. She and Leo sleep together that night, after which she quietly announces that when they have a daughter, they’ll name her Grace for Grace Slick. A few years later, living on a commune in Northern California, they have twins: a girl who they do, in fact, name Grace, and a boy, who Leo names Garcia for Jerry Garcia. “On the Road Again,” Leo explains—a song that with its get up and dance vibe expresses how out of synch he is with Jacie, panicked at how she’ll take care of two babies in a cabin with no electricity or running water.
“On the Road Again” (Traditional), performed by the Grateful Dead
When the twins are six months old, Jacie, her stomach still distended and her shirts stained with breast milk, discovers Leo in the pup tent of a skinny girl who’s camping out on the commune. Leo plays Jacie this haunting track from a Jefferson Airplane album where Slick covers Crosby’s “Triad”: “I don’t really see why can’t we go on as three. We love each other—it’s plain to see.” Jacie yanks the record from the turntable and smashes it to bits.
“Triad” (David Crosby), performed by the Jefferson Airplane
Jacie entirely unravels, developing the idea that John Lennon and Yoko Ono have written “Woman is the Nigger of the World” about her: “We make her bear and raise our children/ And then we leave her flat for being a fat old mother hen.”
“Woman is the Nigger of the World” (John Lennon and Yoko Ono), performed by John Lennon
Eighteen years later, Garcia takes a road trip cross country. It’s 1988, and he fills the glove compartment with cassettes of the music his parents listened to, already vintage rock. When he picks up a hitchhiker outside of Tucson, a ponytailed kid sitting by the side of the road with his guitar, the hitchhiker plays some Tom Waits ballads before he takes first a baggie of pot and then, as they near the Texas border, a vial of coke from his guitar case. It would be a spoiler to say what happens next, but the lyrics of “Blue Valentines” give a hint: “I can never wash the guilt/ Or get these bloodstains off my hands…”
“Blue Valentines” (Tom Waits)
In the aftermath of Garcia’s cross-country trip, Grace’s world goes dark. I first heard the artist Mychael Danna on Teju Cole’s magnificent Twitter playlist, and from there discovered Danna’s body of film and television scores. I listened to “Grace in the Mirror” because of its title, and have no idea of its meaning within the mini-series, Alias Grace, but from the opening violin solo it conveys the sorrow Grace feels.
“Grace in the Mirror” (Jeff Danna, Mychael Danna), performed by Jeff Danna and Mychael Danna
It’s a sorrow Grace has shared with few people, but she does share it with Prudence, her great aunt, when they meet for the first time at the end of Prudence’s life. By then, Grace has become a hospice nurse: a woman who, with her weathered face and pants too large for her slender frame, looks to Prudence like someone who shoos away beauty. During the week they spend together, they tap into a subterranean river that runs between them, a discovery that allows Prudence to face her nearing death with the sense that she’s left her mark on Grace. When Prudence arrives at that portal between light and dark, I imagine her hearing this astral piece with its spinning melody passed between strings and piano, from the film score by Philip Glass and Nick Ingman for The Hours based on Michael Cunningham’s jewel of a novel of the same name.
Dead Things (Philip Glass)
As she leaves, Grace promises Prudence that she will accept a dinner invitation she’s avoided, that she will let one of those nice department store girls help her pick out an outfit and a lipstick that will flatter her eyes. Compelled by her promise, she goes to the dinner, and then, a week later, to a Jackson Browne concert with the same man.
At the concert, I imagine Grace listening to Browne play his 2009 song “Here”: “Here where the sorrows flow/… Here/ You're here…” The lyrics are about grief, but the solo guitar opening and the massaging drum beat and the swelling music evoke the richness of being present to our feelings. Our sorrows may never dissolve, but there can still be moments of joy.
“Here” (Jackson Browne)
Lisa Gornick and The Peacock Feast links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists