The Epistolary Novel & the Music of Bach. Reading between the lines

10th September 2015
'So, what are you writing at the moment?' people sometime ask. At present, my answer might be something on the lines of 'Oh, its an epistolary novel, actually,' resulting in anything from glazed looks of bemusement to the occasional rude comment.

It's a pity, because everybody really knows what epistolary means. It's just that we don't call it that most of the time. Instead, we say it's a book based on somebody's diary or journal. A story made up of copies of peoples' letters and/or documents. Most of us would understand right away then. From the rather lengthy 18th-Century classic Pamela, through 19th-Century Dracula right up to the modern chick-lit Bridget Jones's Diary, it is something most readers of fiction have some experience of.
triple image of three book covers , genre epistolary novel - Pamela, Dracula and Bridget Jones's Diary
Yep! They're all epistolary novels.
The word 'epistolary,' with its Greek and Latin origins, simply means 'a letter.' As a literary device, I think it is great fun. And many works of fiction make use of it even if only in small doses. I have, too. But what I'm working on at the moment is purely epistolary from start to finish - taking the form of a diary and a long letter. (Details coming later in the year). Meanwhile, the epistolary novel has three elements that I really like:

1) Clues and Detective Work

silhouette of sleuth, sherlock holms
The reader is obliged to become a detective in work of this kind, because it is often what is left unsaid in the letter or document being shown that informs us what the characters are thinking and doing behind the scenes. We are obliged to put everything together and make sense of it all. We must 'read between the lines.'

2) Confessional

It goes without saying, there will inevitably be a strog element of the confessional in any epistolary novel based on someone's diary, even if it is not the author's own diary. The manuscript will be touched by the author's experiences - even though a good writer will strive to conceal it!
photo, from movie, of therapist and patient on couch
'Actually, there's no need to tell me anything - I'm examining your manuscript now.'

3) Questioning

An epistolary novel raises questions. Not only does it urge us to identify what might be going on beneath the surface of all those documents, but it can also raise greater questions. It leaves the reader to ponder the wisdom of certain acts or beliefs that the characters hold dear or deem to be important. And these might be important to us, as well.
old depiction of the knights of the round table seated
The Round Table experiences a vision of the Holy Grail. By Évrard d'Espinques (c. 1475).
Jolly good, I hear you say. But what does any of this have to do with the music of Bach?
portrait of man in blue tunic and wig, the 18th century German composer, Bach
Portrait thought to be of J S Bach by Johann Ernst Rentsch c .1717-23.


This summer in the UK music lovers have been treated, as we are every year, to the season of Prom Concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall. This is a staggering 100-or-so classical concerts or recitals crammed into an 8-week period. All are broadcast on BBC radio and some on TV. As someone growing up in Britain with a passion for classical music, summer evenings are filled with the sounds of Prom concerts, recollections of so many memorable performances. This year has given us a number of solo recitals of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), played on violin, piano and cello. They really have been fabulous.
colourful banner advert for the Prom season, shows Albert Hall
In this context, I was listening to an interview with the cellist Yo Yo Ma, discussing the challenges of playing the suites for solo cello. He talked about how Bach can ingeniously make a solo instrument sound so rich, almost like an orchestra. He does this by presenting the supporting line (beneath the melody) via a series of isolated bass notes, each suggesting an 'idea,' which is then completed several seconds later during which the ear of the listener does the rest and fills in the gaps. A kind of power-of- suggestion to 'complete the thought.'
A piece from the Goldberg Variations to illustrate the point.

The plot beneath the surface

It occurred to me then that some novels, and especially epistolary novels, naturally make use of this technique. They present the reader with reference points, isolated in the form of separate base documents that are then related, one to the other, in the imagination. It creates the real plot somewhere deeper, beneath the surface. So, just as the ear of the listener is made to work with Bach, maybe every good story should give the reader that opportunity too, of joining things up, of being able to find questions and answers in the pages and 'complete the thought.' Epistolary novels by their very nature provide those opportunities in abundance.

The Epistolary Novel and Music

The similarities do not end there, however. The music also reciprocates with many of the features of the epistolary novel. There is certainly detective work and clues in Bach. He liked to play around with his music, leaving puns and coded messages - giving musicologists lots to ponder. There is also a 'confessional' aspect in Bach's solo instrumental work. He had a most eventful and often very difficult life, and experienced his fair share of suffering. Devoted to his family, he lost many of his children to illness, and his first wife also. Despite this, his faith (Lutheran) was unshakable, and he remained throughout his life an intensely spiritual person.
old illustration of city of Leipzig, Germany
Bach lived for a good time in Leipzig.

Finding the answers

Above all, in Bach's solo instrument we find the 'questing' nature - a pathos and a tenderness, like a voice, alone, inquiring in the darkness for an answer (or two) to life's mysteries.
Darkened auditorium of Royal Albert Hall, circular, with solo violinist lower right
Solo violinist Alina Ibragimova in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall.
Good art, and great art especially, is like this. It might not be able to provide all the answers, or it might leave the recipient to discover the answers for his or her self. But the questing aspect when presented prudently and with sensitivity takes the shared experience between artist and listener/reader to another level. It becomes no longer just entertainment. Rather, it helps us to understand and to accept humanity with all its faults and weaknesses. It allows us to be inspired; to discover and to grow.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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