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Johanna Skibsrud transports a trio of fictional characters through some lesser known historical events of the first half of the Twentieth Century. I love historical fiction that teaches. Reading “Quartet for the End of Time” I learned more about the Bonus Army and composer Olivier Messiaen, from whose composition the book’s title is borrowed. The vignette near the end of the novel recites how the composer Messiaen wrote his unusual piece for piano, violin, cello and clarinet while a prisoner of war at the Nazi Stalag VIII-A camp. It is unusual piece because it is part duet, part trio and part quartet. It employs non-retrogradable rhythms whose notes, like a palindrome, read the same right to left and visa-versa. For the musically inclined there is a good explanation at http://www.musicteachers.co.uk/journal/2000-10_messiaen_3.html. The Messiaen subplot is biographical and to me is one of the more interesting parts of the novel because it encompasses a subtext of the novel: the juxtaposition of faith with the singularity of time.  Ms. Skibsrud addresses relativistic time and space at various intervals throughout her novel but it does not dominate the work. Understood in this context the book’s title may be a little misleading.

In a description of a World War I cavalry charge, a principal character realizes that “there is actually no actual distance to traverse between the future and the past.”

“The future, he saw now, would always arrive a moment too late, in what would (by the time it arrived) already be the past. It was not the future that needed to be anticipated and arranged, but the proper recognition of it when it came.” Her character wants to stop humans from pitting themselves against the future as if it were a foe, but to become the future.

Ms. Skibsrud captures the out-of-body experience of soldiers during infantry charges from World War I trenches. A contrarian understanding of war is drawn from the experience of the carnage. “War is not a waste. It was the furthest thing from that. Its power was not in its destructiveness-but in the promise of something.” It is embodying of the future in the moment.

There is a dystopian human centric viewpoint expressed by a character who witnesses the Nazi’s medical experiments, all for logical reasons.

“Human beings, however-they have capacity to reason through almost endless amounts of change; they approach it gradually, intellectually you see- they even try to exploit it to their own ends. It is reason, not biological life, that strives to promote itself. Life works against reason, but reason always prevails. At the end of the world, when it comes, it will be because reason has triumphed finally above all else. You see, he said. It almost succeeded here.”

The publisher may be at fault for over-emphasizing the Messiaen element in the book’s jacket. It is subservient to the plot. The prose intermittently captures temporal relativity, particularly on the last page which is Biblical in cadence and offers an interrogatory summation: will faith destroy both time and body. ” Or from his mouth come a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations; which he will rule, from this day forward– just as those who came before him– with a rod of iron? This destruction is presage by the fictionalized composer’s reading of Revelation in Chapter 10 of the Book of Apocalypse. All things and time are destroyed. In this, the rhythm of the novel might seem discordant. The prose during the years the Bonus Army traveled the country while waiting to receive their bonus for serving in World War I is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Okies in of ‘Mice and Men”. Both are drawn from the Depression so it is an appropriate style. There is a small Lennie like character.

The history of the Bonus Army’s rebellion against civilian authority had it germination in the Continental Army, which evicted the weak Congress of the Confederation of States from Philadelphia. Despite Alexander Hamilton’s urging Pennsylvania would not use its militia to repel the rebellious elements of the Continental Army who had not been paid during their service during the Revolutionary War. The District of Columbia has its origin in the distrust of States to protect Congress, and D.C. is excluded from the restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act which forbade the use of the U.S. military for domestic police activity.

The novel also captures allied military action against the Bolsheviks in Siberia. Andrea Barrett’s ‘Archangel’, which I recently reviewed, does the same but on the western front. There is intelligent writing about human communication in this sequence.  Hiding with an incommunicable old man from death at the hands of roving bands of soldiers, a character recalls the rhythm of time. Near death the mind focuses: time lengthens as it is appears shortened; the space between notes- the silence- actually has a sound.

“He laid perfectly still, his thin chin pointed straight ahead, but I saw that his lips moved in what I took to be a half-whispered prayer. I listened carefully, and found that if I stilled my heart and pressed my ear as far into the emptiness that stretched between us as I could, I could hear the sound his words made against that emptiness. I could hear, that is, not the sound itself, which rang in my head without meaning, but instead the space of encounter between the words and the air. Between his utterance of those words and the air’s receipt of them, which was dumb and uncomprehending as my own.”

No parallel is drawn to the extended frequency range of animals and their ability to communicate through vibrations as might musicians playing in a quartet. The expanded musical boundaries of Messiaen discordance must exhumed by the reader because faith seems to be a more paramount concern to Ms. Skibscrud as it was for Messiaen. Understood in this context, the book’s title may be appropriate. There is a Corinthian 13 moment:

“.. for a brief but beautiful moment he could actually see how it all fit together, just like Emmett said that it did– but at such a remove that, even as he saw it, he knew he would never understand it, and even that became, in that moment, a strange comfort. Was conscience — in either sense: to be, or to have — simply a matter of locating a recognizable pattern between things?  A forcing of circumstances into a shape that, if Emmett was correct, could at best be considered figurative, provisional– abstract?  Sustainable only within, and according to, the intensely personal light lent by an individual mind?

Yes. Certainly. There must be (Emmett was right) something larger, outside and beyond all that; something that did not bend or conform to such a limited perspective but shaped it all the same. And if this was so– well, then, conscience itself could only be considered a reaction to, a figurative expression of, that which existed beyond its control. One did not, indeed suffer the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ ; nor could one, through simple opposition, end them. They existed beyond all allegory; every possible appeal.”

Episodically the Cold war communist scare that blanketed the post-World War I period of the Bonus Army until after World War II is embedded in the plot.

Alden is the principal character of the book. He is the son of a well-connected U.S. judge who later becomes a Congressman. Like his younger sister, Sutton, he is a child of privilege. He rebellious and youthful communist party leanings and is recruited to be an underground agent. His failed act of sabotage during the early stages of the Bonus Army result in his capture. His father protects him, by having his child sister frame Arthur, an innocent man, who his son Douglas searches for throughout the book. Most of the historical elements are told through Alden, with the Bonus Army’s travails reflected through Douglas’ life. Sutton’s life is left open to conjecture, much like some players in Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ have much idle time as the quartet becomes a trio or duet.

There are very interesting philosophical and religious elements employed in this novel. Despite the book’s epic sweep, it might be considered a religious novel. The epic sweep makes the novel commercial. The thematic undercurrents make the book interesting and foreshadow stronger writing from Ms. Skibsrud.

 

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