Jim Cullen on The Glass Harmonica

Dorothee Kocks has had an intriguing career. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she went on to pursue a doctorate in American Civilization in the decidedly different climate of Brown (where our paths crossed almost a quarter-century ago). She got a tenure-track job at the University of Utah, proceeding to publish a richly suggestive piece of scholarship, Dream a Little: Land and Social Justice in in Modern America (California, 2000). Then she ditched her teaching post, took up the accordion, and began traveling widely, supporting herself with odd jobs. Last year, she made a foray into fiction by publishing her first novel, The Glass Harmonica, as an e-book with a New Zealand-based publisher. It has just been published in a print edition.

Kocks's unusual vocational trajectory is worth tracing here, because The Glass Harmonica is an unusual book. A work of historical fiction that bridges the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it also sprawls across Europe and North America. Napoleon Bonaparte makes a cameo appearance, but its core is a love story between a commoner Corsican musician, Chjara Valle, and an entrepreneurial American purveyor of erotica, Henry Garland. The two lovers encounter any number of obstacles -- principally in the form of spiteful people on either side of the Atlantic -- but nevertheless manage to build a life together,  one animated by the mysteriously alluring (and thus to many threatening) glass harmonica, a musical instrument which enjoyed a vogue in the age of its inventor, Benjamin Franklin.

Such a summary makes the book seem simpler than it is. For one thing, The Glass Harmonica is rich with historical texture. Brimming with research, it vividly recreates any number of subcultures, ranging from continental drawing-room entertainments to the feverish intensity of revivial meetings. As one might expect of a writer who has spent much of her life, and much of her work, exploring the concept of place, Kocks also evokes varied geographies -- urban Paris and Philadelphia, rural upstate New York, coastal New England;  et. al. An afterword limns her sources and provides set of footnotes worth studying for their own sake.

Kocks also boldly trespasses over contemporary convention in realistic fiction, eschewing the spare, lean quality of modern prose in favor of lush, omniscient narration. "On the morning Chjara Valle quickened in her mother's womb, the sun reached its red fingers over the Mediterranean Sea," the novel opens. The book is engorged with such biological/anthropomorphic motifs.
But at its core, The Glass Harmonica is a novel of ideas. Sometimes those ideas are suggested in deceptively simple language, as in this exchange with her mother that suggests the paradoxes built into the the very notion of an autonomous self:
"My destiny is here," Chjara said.
"Your destiny is not yours to decide."
"Who decides then?"
"Don't be impertinent."

Other times, characters engage in explicitly philosophical discourse, discussing theology, politics, and other topics.

But for all its its intellectual sophistication, the argument of the novel -- part of its hybrid quality is that one can speak of it having a thesis -- rests on a simple idea: the pleasure principle, expressed most consistently in sexual terms. (The libertarian ethos of the book extends secondarily to economics as well.) Over and over again, her characters affirm it. "She wondered at this idea -- we are God's instruments -- and she vowed to live by the principle that would make us feel more alive was good," Chjara declares at one point. Henry, for his part, "understood that his father's [Puritan] religion was not the only one in the world; Jefferson's deists gave [him] the confidence that the world had been made to work well regardless of his breakfast." The lovers will be forced to question this conclusion repeatedly over the course of the novel, most seriously when it appears their choices have damaged their children. Faced with trauma, they look to themselves: when, in a desperate moment, Henry feels compelled to pray, it's not to God but to Chjara. Later their son prays to himself. And yet for all their intimacy, Chjara and Henry also have the secrets, a challenge to their fidelity more vexing than any adultery.

Kocks's libertine stance is both consistent and subtle (no mean trick). As such, it's hard to contest; though her protagonists encounter resistance, some of it internal, to their way of life, she makes a convincing case that that their quest for self-actualization is a bona fide American tradition with deep roots in the Enlightenment. The problem I have with it is less one of contradiction -- or a disposition of intolerance reflected in characters who block the couple's path to bliss -- than insufficiency. The fuel of happiness ultimately depends on sources of power such as money, looks, smarts, health, or the admiration of others (reflected here in the proto-celebrity culture that springs up around Chjara, who exults in adoration), which are in short supply under the best of circumstances. Notwithstanding their obstacles, the couple is suspiciously well endowed in these categories. Lacking them, most of us try to find ways to redeem our lives beyond ourselves, which typically involves some sort of self-sacrifice, beginning with raising children, truly an electric transfer of energy at least as transformative, if not always as felicitous, as procreation (or sexual recreation). But beyond such private leveraging of personal resources, a libertarian sensibility is a thin reed on which to build a community life, too; it seems no accident that the Chjara and Henry are itinerant. Nor is it easy to see, beyond a sympathetic disposition, how constructive their approach might be in other life-affirming quests, like the struggle to end slavery, for example.

As someone of who pledges his loyalty to Adams more than Jefferson, as it were, I'll confess that I'm not certain how much better a life of duty, variously constituted, really is. To be sure, it has evident costs, often paid by others than those who make such a pledge. It is a strength of this book that it forces one to consider such questions. The Glass Harmonica is a provocative novel by an elegant writer who has blazed her own path. It's a path worth surveying, whether or not one takes it.