I first read The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht in 2004 which was a few years before I started blogging, so I’ve never been able to really plug it. I’ve mentioned it a few times in passing and written a word or two about Lebrecht’s other fantastic novel The Game of Opposites, but I haven’t really laid out why more people should read this book.
To be sure the book did not go unnoticed when it was published and it won the Whitbread Prize in 2003. But I’ve never run into anyone in real life or in blogging life who has read it. Well that all may change soon. I was getting ready to write about my re-read of the book and I came across an image of a poster for a movie adaptation. And not just any movie but one starring Ben Kingsley and John Malkovich. A little more digging didn’t produce a release date but it did produce listings showing Anthony Hopkins and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles. As someone who thinks a lot about having my favorite books turned into films, all this made my head spin. With these actors lined up-whichever pair ends up being right–this doesn’t look to be some small release that will be consigned to DVD. If I had my choice I think I would mix the two up and have Kingsley and Hopkins. I worry a bit about the two American actors. Not because they aren’t good actors, but because I don’t want any of the characters turning into Americans. Maybe Malkovich and Hoffman are the ones lined up to play Dovidl, the Polish Jew in the novel.
But I am getting ahead of myself. My intention in writing this post was to talk about the book, not a movie. As I mentioned earlier, I first read this book in 2004 and it has been one that I have recommended every chance I got. But with the passage of time I began to wonder if I should keep doing so. Was it as good as I remembered? I just finished listening to the audio version of the book last week and I can confirm that I still love the book, but more importantly, I can confirm that it is a really good book. I love it because Lebrecht, a classical music critic, writes extremely well about the classical music world, something most novelists cannot do. But more than that, The Song of Names can stand on its own and one doesn’t have to be entranced with classical music to enjoy it.
For those who need a little plot to stay interested…young Polish Jew violin prodigy is left in London to live with a concert promoter and his family during World War II. The promoter’s son becomes his bosom buddy and they live like brothers until the day of Dovidl’s Royal Albert Hall debut when he and his violin disappear for almost 50 years.
Besides being a good book and interesting story, for those who do like classical music gossip with a slightly bitchy and bitter edge, this book is for you. Whether its publishing, recording, concerts, conductors, players, or the music itself, Lebrecht comes up with the goods and isn’t afraid to poke the giants of the classical music world. I loved these gossipy bits. There is also one scene early in the book where he laments not just the dumbing down of the classical music world but British civilization itself. And Lebrecht seems to be one of those lefty snobs of which I count myself. Populist in politics but personally and culturally elitist. And he is so good at being snarky. (Never too much in this novel, but his Twitter feed and blog can sometimes be a bit much. Do critics ever tone it down?)
Listening to the audio book not only reacquainted me with a book I already new that I loved, but I think it may be one of my most enjoyable audio book experiences I’ve had so far. At first I found Simon Prebble a little too driven in his reading. It seemed like someone was poking him in the back. But it actually kind of worked, and his accents were very believable and made one forget he wasn’t actually different people. The only complaint I have is his mispronunciation of a single instance of the name Gianni. Italian is so easy to pronounce but so many people have real trouble with the “gia” combo. Don’t even get me started on the terrible reader who butchered Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room on audiobook. Overall there were many times as I listened when I took note of how well Prebble read the book.
Don’t wait for the film to come out. Go find the book or audio book and give it a go. If for no other reason, you will have the inside scoop when the blockbuster film comes out.