Book Review

Gregory Spatz’s short fiction collection, What Could Be Saved, raises essential questions about the nature of the art by offering us a glimpse into the lives of violin makers, whose artistry and technical prowess are the shadowy forces that give full articulation to a violinist’s talents. Just like the instruments they create, the job of the violin maker is to facilitate the creation of music without supplanting the violinist’s art, giving form and substance to musical expression by enabling its existence in the physical world, as explained by a violin maker to his sons in one of the collection’s two novellas, “Time and Legends”:

We’re just the carpenters. The drones. No, we’re priests with the tools of a carpenter making objects for people to fuss over and fetishize and sometimes to transcend all that crap. Well, and we’re also mathematicians. Sometimes philosophers . . . who the hell knows.

It is a theme that is initially explored in the collection’s titular novella, when Paul, another violin maker’s son, accompanies his college roommate, a music major named May, to buy a replacement for the cheap violin that has hampered her playing. After a disappointing round of violin tastings within May’s price range, they chance upon a violin his father has made, and all the limitations that have besieged her performances prior to this encounter disappear when she picks up the instrument:

In the seconds before her bow went across the strings, he already knew—as if invisible forces had aligned around her, planes of energy converging at her bent wrist and forearm determining the outcome in advance, so the moment she drew a downward bowstroke, the sound felt to him as if it were already there. As if it had always been there and the movement of her arm was only causing them both to remember. With that, all other awareness of the world vanished.

It is a moment of transcendence that draws Paul into May’s orbit, and the beauty of her playing continues to haunt him as he becomes her lover and is forced to engage with her unpredictable moods. His obsession with May’s ability to transcend her emotional volatility in her performances begins to mirror his father’s obsession with perfecting his creations, even as he realizes that such perfection cannot exist in this world: “He’d always known this: the violin was like an enlargement of some thing in his father’s brain or heart, some ideal which maybe didn’t exist anywhere in reality and which, consequently, his father couldn’t ever quite measure or get across to his satisfaction.” This is a frustration that also plagues May’s playing, as she pushes at her own limitations to shape her melancholy and rage into a work of art. Paul himself sees this as he listens to her play a notoriously difficult piece: “Beauty might still, despite the odds and despite constant failure and misunderstanding, despite its own longing for attention, might still stand a chance to say something lasting; to transcend time and place.” Young and confused, both Paul and May realize that retreating into art can help them rise above their uncertainties, by allowing their deepest, most secret yearnings to be heard above the din of their thoughts. However, like the near-perfect violins that Paul’s father creates, Paul and May must become sincere instruments of feeling to achieve the kind of transcendence they yearn for in life, and in May’s case, in her art.

These parallels between artist and instrument are explored further in “Time and Legends”, the second novella in the collection that serves as the “bookmatched” pair of “What Could Be Saved” (like the twinned or “bookmatched” panels of wood in a violin). When a Russian violinist asks a violin maker to create for him an exact replica of a Guarneri violin that has been on loan to him for many years, the violin maker asks his twin sons to replicate this violin as well, so that the violinist can have his pick between three violins. “How could you not slip around in time through the process of making one, and cease to be yourself?” Guy, the more talented of his twin sons, observes, becoming an instrument of tradition as he builds his replica, while bearing the knowledge that his creation will likely outlive him, and will live many lives in the hands of different people. It is a process that takes him out of himself, even as he finds his own voice as a violin maker, becoming so invested in his violin’s construction that it begins to embody his very being:

He lifted my copy from the bench and as he did I had the dizzying sensation that it was me he lifted—my ribs and back pressed in his fingers, my head spun and puffed at with his nose breaths, my neck stroked for smoothness and scratched at with a thumbnail where it joined to the ribs—a little bubble in the finish there, where I’d rubbed it off unevenly. But it wasn’t. It was just a violin and I was myself still, watching as my father checked it over.

By allowing himself to become an instrument of an invisible force that is greater than himself, Guy begins to feel more intensely about himself through his art, becoming aware of his own physicality as his father touches a violin that is him, and not him, at once. He decides not to make an exact copy of the Russian’s Guarneri, but to listen to this force that guides him to make a distinct and unique violin that fully articulates his own yearnings. It is this kind of artistic sincerity that enables his violin to be a perfect instrument of its player’s inner voice: “Balanced and smooth and sweet, crying in all registers; a set of tones mirrored to some previously inaccessible concept of sound in David’s head or heart, but otherwise mostly the same as other violins.” It is a beautiful depiction of how an artist’s willingness to become vulnerable to these larger forces can lead him to a greater knowledge of what lies deep within himself.

Placed in the middle of this collection are two shorter stories that play off on each other in their depictions of a violin’s life. In “The Five”, a violin passes from the hands of the great Polish violinist, Henri Wieniawski, into the hands of swindlers and amateur violinists until ending up in a hawk shop, stolen and sold off to feed a young man’s drug habit. In “We Unlovely, Unloved,” a group of abandoned violins speak of their past lives, and of the people to whom they brought cheer, before being sold off, neglected, and eventually disposed. Instruments of transcendence, these violins are nonetheless objects belonging to this world that are subjected to wear and tear, to the carelessness of their owners and the machinations of those who seek to profit from their perceived value. Both stories raise the question of whether art can truly be immortal when it exists in a physical world where immortality is impossible. And yet the music they give voice to transcends their physical selves, speaking beyond this world to articulate what we know, but find difficult to express:

Something from another world, another time and place, familiar and drenched in sentiment in a way you knew at once was a bridge to and an abridgment of all real feeling—suffering meant to signify and transcend its own expression simultaneously, too dignified to be called by any one name.

Written in a language that pushes itself towards emotional exactness (to the point of being labored at times), What Could Be Saved succeeds in demonstrating how art can transform its makers by guiding them towards a reexamination of the self. In the case of the invisible hands who create these violins, the moments of transcendence they facilitate are made possible by their return to the physical and real in their craft. Like meditation, art is rooted in the world we inhabit, enabling us to reach seemingly impossible heights by opening our eyes to what has been with us all along. As Paul’s father in “What Could Be Saved” would put it:

Like afterimages, mirrored through music or words or paintings, whatever we can do with our hands if we really let ourselves, all these activities rooted somewhere in the mind or the heart, in feeling. They give us an idea of what might be in there . . . because of something, he thumped at his chest, trying to get out.

About the Reviewer

Monica Macansantos earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the University of Texas at Austin as a James A. Michener Fellow, and her PhD in creative writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. Her debut story collection, Love and Other Rituals, is forthcoming from Grattan Street Press in Australia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, The Hopkins Review, Lunch Ticket, Anomaly, and Oyster River Pages, among other places. She has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the I-Park Foundation, Storyknife Writers Retreat, and Moriumius.