THE BLACK VIOLIN
By Maxence Fermine
Published by: Acorn Book Company
Paperback edition: 105 pages
It is 1797 and Napoleon’s Army has entered Venice. Among them is one Johannes Karelsky, a violinist. For now he is a soldier, but his ambition is to write the most beautiful opera ever written.
He finds himself billeted with an old man by the name of Erasmus, a violin-maker. One evening, Erasmus decides to tell Johannes the story of his life. And settling into his favourite armchair, with a glass of grappa in his hands, he begins his tale. The tale of the Black Violin.
This short novella, I found this a sweet yet sorrowful tale, both in terms of life played out and how gifts sometimes climax before realising their true impact, as obviously with a natural gifts there more to be explored.
I liked the passion made real in this book for their creative geniuses, in trying to convey how all-embracing it could be, to the point of madness and death, why, who knows, does it have to be this way, who knows, but its their inward and outward journey along with their triumphs that captivate the reader, as their lives entwine.
What I found odd though, was although Erasmus compared the black violin the his muse, Carla Ferenzi, and explaining that violins are like a female, in body and voice on (page 89), “because the violin is the only instrument that covers the full range of the female voice, from the soprano to the contralto. And there is even something of a similarity between the female body and the shape of a violin” which is fine, in itself as an explanation, but I would have thought only a few women are that petite, as there was still the cello that could be compared to a stout woman with a husky voice, but perhaps of not the same range of sound, so even in musical instruments there is variety in the body form, it must be noted.
But what stood out for me, was what did he, Erasmus knew of the female body!?! He was in his workshop most of the time learning his trade, so there was no written clue that he could back up what he knew of the female body, if he went with Ladies of the Night, and some sentence was given to this within the book, I would’ve understood his statement, but in the context of this work, I couldn’t believe he could make this argument, even when questioned by the arrogant male visitor, whom I reckon had an inkling of Erasmus’ sheltered virginal lifestyle as a man dedicated to his craft of violin-making, as its a statement that a Master would say to an Apprentice in rota fashion in a metaphor for full understanding of the instruments concept muscially.
As there is the strong probability at the time, his muse, Carla’s body was fully clothed in this story throughout, that is, on the particular occasion when love struck Erasmus, Carla was in a black velvet material of that periods dress style, unless Erasmus happened at some point to see her naked, but highly unlikely as the social strata would’ve prevented this.
Herein the weakness of the plot, because I felt that the author was making this fit into the book from another musicians theory and tagged into this work, if Erasmus was made by the author to have said something different like “her body clothed in black velvet, was like a violin as an instrument of joy or sorrow, the full sensual drama, where the bow being likened to my hand which longed to caress her form to awaken more than she know of herself…” now that would have been romantic!
In a way yes, and relatable to the story line within page 92, when Erasmus has that kind of inspiration, for Carla’s body would’ve been as pale as her face, as Erasmus describes her, so perhaps therein the confusion, for I believe that, her carry case for the violin, once Erasmus made it, could’ve been black as to be aligned to her features, such as her hair and eyes being black, and to that of her black velvet dress, which done it for Erasmus to have such sentimental thoughts, whilst the inside the violin of ivory, as akin to her pale body, could have layed within it, waiting to be played. It would’ve made sense, for a black violin would be most liken, as Erasmus made it, is that to a totally black female, who happened also to have Carla’s golden singing voice, so it’s no wonder Carla rejected him and his violin!!
Although I did like both the main characters: Johannes and Erasmus, and the slowly built up camaraderie between them, until they were at ease with each other, but in a friendship of an intangible quality, that I’d find hard to explain, but I’ll have a go at what it wasn’t first as then to eliminate in my mind any realms of doubt. I think it wasn’t the mentor/understudy type of what you sometimes have in theatres, for this takes a lot longer and energy to establish, being equals but one still having the upper hand in the relationship. Nor was it the archetype of old versus young swapping differing experiences with no apparent regard to its uptake in the future, this was solely focused on their over-riding passion for music but from two different areas of expertise. I think their bond was more intense and came at a crucial point for both of them, a cross-road, one coming to an end, and the other transposing over it, to have a causation effect upon it, perhaps a kindred-spirit friendship would be more apt a term to affix to it.
The secondary character of Carla, I didn’t take that much too, I suppose it was because of her slight arrogance of being well-breed, as that came out from the pages, and I think the author captured the prima-donna archetype well here. Because who in their right mind would entertain seven young man at her home in the late hour of mid-night, to be found “lounging on a sofa, one leg folded and the other outstretched on a cushion” (page 87) with the men hanging on her every word, standing around her, Ladyship, would be the wrong word, but I suppose they had to give the title a white-wash effect to cover even these questionable situations.
I liked the steady pace that one naturally fell into as a Reader, as the style of the writing made you be in the mood of reminisce of your own passionate undertakings that might have turned out differently too, had one the time to pursue it, and one felt keenly that element of identification, perhaps not so much with Johannes, nor Carla, whom were performers of talent, but more so with Erasmus, who was more like those who are Artisans of their Craft skills.
“ Erasmus had three precious possessions: a chessboard, which he believed to be magic, an ageless bottle of grappa, and a black violin. The old man also had three special talents: he was the finest violin-maker in Venice, he never lost a game of chess, and he was the maker of the most exceptional grappa in Italy. He made the latter in a still he had installed in a small room at the book of his workshop. And that was how he spent his days: in the morning he would be found repairing or making violins, in the afternoon he distilled his grappa, and in the evenings he would play chess. And thus, the whole day passed, every moment of it dedicated to one or other of his passions. He was always doing something. Something related to either music, or drinks or chess.
When he drank, Erasmus would talk incessantly. When he wasn’t talking about violins, he would talk about grappa. When he wasn’t talking about grappa, he would talk about chess. When he wasn’t talking about chess, he would talk about music. And when he wasn’t talking about music, he wouldn’t talk at all.”
(Extracted taken from pages 38-39, The Black Violin by Maxence Fermine)