January 2007

Amy GŁth


Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto by Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen has, at first glance, both challenged himself to the astonishingly difficult task of entirely narrator-driven storytelling and formatted his nostalgic novel to be innovative and forcibly paced to the internal metronome of its narrator. This novel, the first by Cohen, opens in a seeming cirque de cérébrale address of a Carnegie Hall audience by a virtuoso violinist, Laster, having just played the final composition of his friend, composer Schneidermann. This near-manic oration delivers a portrait of Schneidermann’s music, frustrations, and nature, while, initially, Laster offers very little information about himself.

Such a lack of concrete information positions Laster to drone on as little more than an expository pundit, as this is the novel -- the speaking Laster does about Schneidermann before the Carnegie Hall audience. While such a format could prove disastrous in lesser writing, it delivers a freshness and originality while its primary focus is on the classical music world, composers, and personal hardship.

Within this fast-paced novel, the language conveys a sense of nostalgia, despite cleverly infused modern references. It is challenging to adjust to the initial rhythm of the writing, as it is fast-paced and stuffed with cultural, musical, operatic and even medical references, especially armed with such little information about the speaker himself. In short, such care is given to not give the sense that Laster is purely a bearer of exposition, that at first anyway, the story feels stagnant and stuck. So much so, that it would be easy to feel uninvested initially, as it becomes almost bothersome just how little information is available in this nonstop, unfocused dialogue with a manic episodic flavor.

And, then, quite suddenly, but at a rather unpinpointable moment, you become invested. Perhaps it is Cohen’s excellent command of vocabulary, which becomes impressive, as the dialogue continues, that such frenetic storytelling can take place without any repetition of words, even thoughts. Cohen doesn’t care much about structural, grammatical, or usage rules, but only because he clearly knows them all well enough to break, bend, and reconstruct them on his own terms.

Slowly, tiny threads of the Holocaust and whispers of mid-20th century American anti-Semitism slip in and slide between words and suddenly, quite suddenly, in fact, the notion arises that if poor Laster should stop talking, should slow his anxious speaking pace for even a moment, his memories might prove too painful, his burden too much, and all of his thoughts would become too jumbled for him to even process. Somehow, Cohen makes the reader feel a sense of responsibility toward his characters. It becomes so glaringly obvious that a beautifully tragic story has sprung up and unfolded and you are engrossed and cannot bear to let Laster suffer. Without realizing a metamorphosis at all, the readers suddenly find themselves responsible for this pained and animated narrator.

Cohen’s voice is an intelligent and thoughtful one, though, unfortunately, not terribly unique. But that doesn’t matter much, as he delivers such a heartbreaking story which speaks to both European-American Jewishness and to broader themes of creative frustration, nostalgia, and quietly contained grief. What feels foreign initially becomes endearing once initiated. Cohen tackles a lofty format aspiration with wit and humor and, in the end, executes all the elements extremely well.

Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto by Joshua Cohen
Fugue State Press
ISBN: 1879193167
385 pages