Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Simon Tedeschi
Paperback, 120 Pages, ISBN: 9780645247961, May 2022, RRP: $29.99
Upswell publishing has classed Fugitive as ‘narrative nonfiction’, a classification which has come to represent the fuzzy line between storytelling and real-life events. I think it would be equally possible to call Fugitive poetry, as the work is written in short passages that could be stanzas, with rich, compressed and evocative language. Each of the stanzas are separated by a small infinity symbol and are self-contained although there is often enjambment between the segments which immediately connects the pieces. This structure encourages a holistic reading of the work, and also has a narrative feel to it, in spite of the often surrealistic feeling of the work or the way it transforms time and encourages the ability to hold multiple, often contradictory truths, true poet’s work.
The book is backboned by Prokofiev’s Mimolyotnosti – the Visions Fugitives, from which the book takes its title and, to certain extent, its structure. The Mimolyotnosti is a cycle of twenty mini movements for piano which are listed at the front and referenced throughout. These titles are also tempo markings which function in similar ways as they do in music, guiding the reading via phonetics. This encourages the reader to think of reading as performance, an act of co-creation. Of course this is how reading works but it’s rarely so clearly signalled. Like the Mimolyotnosti, the pieces in Fugitive have different tempos, some lively and staccato or “animato” and some designed to move slowly or “lento irrealmente” (unreal, slow):
The ghost of the suite. Harmonies wishing they were lovers. I hold the final chord longer than is polite—like staring into someone’s face too long. I let the embers drift away, sonorities soak seats, fingers flick lozenges, whispers sift silence. (44)
Fugitive has a strong sonic resonance, utilising poetic techniques and the strong musical intelligence you would expect from a concert pianist. This use of sound compliments and sometimes contradicts the semantics. As the passage above shows, there is extended alliteration, with languid lines that guide the pace of the reader, creating harmonies and patterns of sound much as music does, encouraging the reader to let go of cause and effect and work with the texture of how the pieces sound. There is a beautiful repetition that occurs throughout the work with repeated references not just to the Mimolyotnosti but other artworks, essays, and poems, along with various words, phrases, and images which return in different ways to explore music, trauma, beauty, loss, love – pretty much all the big things in ways that are both expansive but also with an exacting methodology that never forgets the inner, innate musicality of the words in a reader’s ear:
The work is everything. The work is nothing. Modern music is trash. I like it. I loathe it. I prefer music with a tune. That’s not music, that’s noise. I found it interesting. It bored me. I didn’t understand it. (45)
The stanza above is indicative of how each piece stands alone but is also in dialogue with all of the other pieces. In this case, the work progresses in a staccato that counters the fluidity of the lines that precede them – a dialogue between segments that takes place throughout the book. While all of the pieces are short, some are as short as a single sentence, often presented as a question or even a koan. Others are longer, drawing out a central idea that might pivot around spirituality, love, history, musings on what it means to be a child prodigy, or the inherent contradictions of art with its simultaneous perfection and failure:
But very occasionally, I allow myself to feel, to falter, to fail. Art exposes my fissures and fault lines. I improvise a semitone higher than the chord symbol dictates. I wander in fugitive tonality. I play what is wrong, even ugly, grotesque (17)
The writing in Fugitive is self-aware and beautiful, moving seamlessly between memoir which is wide ranging enough to cover music theory, personal history, love, and health including Tedeschi’s condition known Temporomandibular joint dysfunction or TMJ which opens the book. In many ways, Fugitive is a work of scholarship. The exploration encompasses philosophy, literary theory, poetry, music theory and a very wide range of references, from Franz Kafka to Doctor Who. The book is also peppered with black and white photos, some historical and some from Tedeschi’s artist wife, Loribelle Spirovsky, whose evocative image is on the cover. One of the many narrative threads is the story of Tedeschi’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor:
I knew from my maternal grandmother that everything can be stripped away in an instant. Even the way she cooked meat grappled with infinity—the fat must be remade, a curtain can be a dress, a teardrop sustenance. (61)
Tedeschi’s grandmother, Lucy Gershwin, is not named here though she forms part of much of Tedeschi’s other published work, but there is such tenderness in the way he describes her bitterness and loss, and this “furtive connection” as he calls it, is instantly recognisable – that unique combination of love, fear and distancing combined with a muted sense of guilt. All of this is captured with such subtlety that you almost feel these inheritances – the “kit bag of griefs” – in the gut. Though it isn’t overtly stated, the interconnectedness of all these pieces calls attention to the interconnectedness of all things – our deep entanglement. In Tedeschi’s case, that kit bag includes not only exile and intergenerational trauma but also genetic conditions like facial paralysis and heart disease, along with musical ability, a love of reading and a way with words.
Fugitive is a moving and thought-provoking book. It is pithy and at times, funny, full of minor transgressions, extensive scholarship, music and yes, poetry. There is so much compacted into each of these small pieces and yet Fugitives is airy, with enough space to encompass contradiction, breath and above all, silence, another recurring theme. This is the kind of book you can dip into repeatedly, each time finding something new.