SLEEPING WITH SCHUBERT
By Bonnie Marson. Random House. 382 pp. $21.95 Someone said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, so wouldn't it be ironic if a visual artist, attempting her first novel, could not only skillfully describe creating and playing music, but also fashion characters and a story about it that are utterly enchanting? Well, say Hat's Off! to Bonnie Marson. Sleeping with Schubert is a dazzling, touching, funny and original tale. Marson's tone is pitch perfect, her storytelling is both polished and surprising, and her ability to make her characters as zany as they are lovable is alchemic.
While visiting her parents in California, Marson's heroine, a lawyer named Liza Durbin, suddenly feels an overwhelming urge to play the baby grand she spots near the shoe department at a local Nordstrom's. Having had only a few lessons in grade school, she gives a performance that is nothing short of miraculous. "I watched my fingers hurling, twisting, and dancing wildly, amazed they didn't pretzel up on me," Liza recalls. "Then came a light and lilting part pulling on strands of melody remembered from the beginning. The ending left me tear-drenched." Luckily her father witnesses the astonishing event, at the end of which his daughter passes out and a doctor is summoned. Back at their home, her father shares the news with his wife, and Liza attempts another performance for both parents. The miracle, like lightning, strikes again. Her father says he's shocked, to which her mother replies, "Our daughter does something brilliant and you're shocked? What's wrong with you?"
Back in Brooklyn, Liza hopes for normalcy, but she is aware that "something was inside me that didn't belong, phasing in and out unpredictably." That something turns out to be Franz Schubert, who can't communicate with words, but whose panic is palpable to his host, confronted as he is by a new century and new technology, not to mention having to share a body with another being. Liza struggles to stay in control, but soon she is turning up at work in bedroom slippers. Liza tells us that Franz's "thoughts were colliding with mine, and my attempts at solid thinking crumbled like cake." She takes a leave of absence from her law firm and retreats to the bosom of her quirky family, all of whom by now know of Schubert's invasion and not only believe it, but completely embrace it. Liza's parents begin to think of themselves as Joseph and Mary. Her sister Cassie, who once worked in PR, sees her as a media event yearning to happen. As Cassie puts it, "Liza is the genius from nowhere, a late-blooming wonder. She represents hope for millions of people who believe they've got great stuff inside them."
Marson's portrayal of the relationship between inhabiter and host is both hilarious and moving. Franz is no passive phantom. He gets his own postscript at the end of each chapter, such as "ein fantasticher Traum! . . . A fantastic dream!. . . . When I reached for the keyboard -- Dear Lord! -- my hands had sprouted red fingernails. I am mired within this frightened creature. Can she even hear when I scream my name?"
It seems that Schubert has returned because he has unfinished work to do. And when he begins to write a new sonata, Liza, his moving hand, rebels. "One stack of pages filled up with new music," she reports. "Franz soared on, energized and ecstatic. Exhaustion crept into my bones, but he ignored it. The experience was too seductive. We could get lost in it. I suddenly realized that I had to make it end. . . . I screamed in our head to drown out the music. No response. I tried to put down the pen . . . . Franz showed no mercy." Neither, once the word leaks out, do TV and newspaper journalists, but there are family, friends and fans to support Liza during a debut concert and over the bumps of the ensuing joy ride.
Marson's writing is delectable, with endless original descriptions such as, "Ilsa Shales resembled a mother in the way topiary might remind you of an animal." And this redolent image of a rainy New York: "The city resembled a flushing toilet." Her plot takes many twists and turns, weaving triumphs and betrayals, surprises and suspicions through concerts, recordings and travels. There is much high comedy and even a satisfying soupcon of gravitas. But to write too much about a delicious book is to risk compromising its flavor. Suffice it to say that Sleeping with Schubert is a complete delight. *
Eugenia Zukerman is a flutist, writer, arts correspondent for CBS TV's "Sunday Morning" and the artistic director of the Vail Valley Music Festival in Vail, Colo.