About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Monday, January 28, 2013

Mozart in fiction, part 4

Last time I said I was going to go back to nonfiction and I am now reading Mozart: A Life by Maynard Solomon. It a big book, over 600 pages, and calls for focused reading. It's very interesting, with many ideas to think about. But since it is a slow book, I slipped in In Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's Story by Carolyn Meyer.

This is a young adult novel; the jacket states it is for ages 12 and up. As a 4th grade teacher I regularly read books for kids, and there are many that I don't whole-heartedly like. This includes novels that are highly acclaimed and books my students love. For example, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan is very popular with upper elementary readers. If you aren't familiar with it, it's set in the United States today and is about a boy who discovers his father is Neptune. Adventures follow. It's a great premise, but I could hardly make myself continue reading the first book. Even as the main characters were setting out on an important quest, I was bored and wanted to quit reading. (I didn't tell my students.) There are also many books for young people that I do like a lot, including Harry Potter (though I don't think the later books are children's literature) and the Mysterious Benedict Society.

That said, In Mozart's Shadow is disappointing. Nannerl Mozart is the narrator, from the time she is 13 years old until Wolfgang's death. The Mozart family had an exciting life, and Nannerl narrates all of it, but I never felt engaged in the story or that I knew Nannerl. We skim the surface of the events, which seem to pass quickly, followed by more trips and concerts. What we learn about Nannerl is that she loves music and performing, that she was bitterly disappointed to be left behind beginning with the trips to Italy that Leopold took only Wolfgang on, and she continued to be unhappy about not being able to participate in a musical life and not marrying happily. It becomes a one-note theme in the book. On the cover is a young lady in 18th century garb, looking sad, with downcast eyes. Wolfgang is depicted as a mischievous brat, Leopold Mozart as an autocratic father who only cared about his son, not his daughter, and Anna Maria, the mother, as a put-upon caretaker. There are also some adult themes, such as mistresses and dalliances, that may not be appropriate for all 12 year olds.

As I finished reading this novel, I started wondering how a writer could structure an interesting novel about Nannerl Mozart, for any age reader, since neither this one or Mozart's Sister, by A.M. Baud, were satisfying for me. In the real Nannerl's accounts of her family, she wrote in a a cryptic style that revealed little of herself. She referred to "the son" and "the father" when talking about her brother and father. "On 12 December 1769, father and son went alone to Italy," she wrote, remembering the event years later. And, "The Pope wanted to see the son, and gave him the cross and the brief of a militiae auratae equus." So it is difficult to deduce her personality and response to events. In addition, including every major event in her life can lead to a lack of depth, or a very long book.

I think if I were trying this I would try to pick up some of her personality from the letters of other family members. Like Carolyn Meyer, I would assume that Nannerl must have been devastated by not being able to pursue a life in music and ending up married to a man with 5 unruly children, living in a small town, isolated from her friends and any cultural life. I would not attempt to include everything in her family history, but perhaps focus on part of her life. This was a successful strategy in Marrying Mozart, which focused on a few years in the adult life of Wolfgang Mozart. As I tell my 4th graders, historical fiction means there are some true things, but there are also fictional events and people. Sometimes even the real people end up partly fictional.

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