Nonfiction November #nonficnov23 – Week Three. Book Pairings.

  • We’re already into week 3 of nonfiction November.

    • Dates: 11/13-11/17
    • Host:  Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home)
    • Title: Book pairings
    • Description: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. Maybe it’s a historical novel and the real history in a nonfiction version, or a memoir and a novel, or a fiction book you’ve read and you would like recommendations for background reading. You can be as creative as you like.

I have just been listening to Yo-yo Ma playing the cello on Instagram.    I think the music he was playing was an extract from the Bach cello suites.  In any event it was a piece in a minor key to reflect the horrendous things going on in the world just now.  I note from his appearance that the maestro has aged.  Haven’t we all.  Even in the last few weeks.

What is it about the sound of the cello that responds to the grimness of war?  Not just the cello of course, it is the music that speaks to us.   But music requires an instrument and an interpreter, an intermediary, another soul between the listener and the notes on the page.

The Catalan cellist Pablo Casals writes most movingly of his life torn between music and love for his country which was almost continually engaged in some sort of military struggle.  I have blogged before about Casals’ memoire Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals Albert E Kahn (Macdonald, London) 1970 which is sadly in no longer in print, but if you can get hold of a second hand copy anywhere I highly recommend it.  The book was published just three years before Casals’ death in 1973.

It is a book I turn to again and again.  In particular when times are so difficult –  because of his philosophy, his values, his courage and determination.

Casals was famous for playing the cello but he was also a composer and conductor.  He was born in 1876, living through both the first and second world wars as well as the Spanish Civil War.  It was the time of this last conflict that he was forced out of his beloved home in San Salvador – his life endangered by Franco’s thugs as a known and vocal republican.  He went into exile, living first in France and later in Puerto Rico.

The only weapons I have ever had  are my cello and my conductor’s baton.  And during the Civil War I used them as best I could to support the cause in which I believed – the cause of freedom and democracy.

Casals continued working always and under the most bizarre and dangerous circumstances, not only performing but organising his own orchestra from local musicians and conducting.

He writes:

Great areas of Barcelona were in ruins…once in the middle of a rehearsal I was conducting at the Liceu, bombs started falling nearby.  The whole building shook, and the musicians scattered in the hall – as was not unnatural.  I picked up a cello on the stage and began to play a Bach suite.  The musicians returned to their places, and we continued the rehearsal.

And on getting older (he is 93 at the time the book is written):

“Work and interest and worthwhile things are the best remedy for age.  Each day I am reborn, each day I must begin again.”


I am pairing this life affirming biography with a work of fiction, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.  This is set in war in Bosnia in the 1990s.

And so today, like every other day in recent memory, the cellist sits beside the window of his second floor apartment and plays until he feels his hope return.  He rarely plays the Adagio.  Most days he’s able to feel the music rejuvenate him as simply as if he were filling a car with gasoline.  But some days this isn’t the case.  If after several hours, this hope doesn’t return, he will pause to gather himself, and then he and his cello will coax Albinoni’s Adagio out of the firebombed husk of Dresden and into the mortar-pocked, sniper-infested streets of Sarajevo.

There is not a single narrator of this story but several, including Arrow, a young woman for whom war time life bears no resemblance to her prewar existence, which is why she never now uses her real name.  As a talented sniper, it is Arrow’s job to protect the cellist from “the men on the hills”. Crouched in burned out offices and apartment buildings, she lies with her rifle aimed at another sniper who’s job is to stop the cellist achieving his aims.

The cellist is determined to sit in the wrecked streets and play Albinoni’s adagio every day for 22 days in remembrance of 22 of his friends and neighbours killed in a bomb attack on a bakery queue – a queue he had almost joined himself.

Although a work of fiction, the cellist’s single act of musical refusal put me in mind of Casals picking up his cello in the midst of the ruins of Barcelona.  I have no idea whether Galloway had read Casals, but whether he had or not, the scene contains a universal truth.

Against a background of the useless misery, horror and waste of war, all the characters have to find ways to cling to their humanity.  This is a beautiful and tragic book which sadly resonates as much today as when it was written.


13 thoughts on “Nonfiction November #nonficnov23 – Week Three. Book Pairings.

  1. Your writing about the music reminds me of the recording of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a them by Thomas Tallis that I shared on Sunday. I would also recommend Henryk Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, and Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight. Beautiful music for dark times.

    1. I absolutely agree. These are lovely pieces of music. Thank you very much for your recommendations and for commenting. I need to
      Look at your Sunday piece I’m getting a bit behind reading my favourite blogs.