Bradford Morrow’s overstuffed sofa of a novel centers on a young musicologist trying to find the missing pieces of a sonata divided and lost in Nazi-invaded Prague.
“The Prague Sonata”
by Bradford Morrow
Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, 519 pp.
“Eternity depends on whether people are willing to take care of something.”
This quote from German filmmaker Werner Herzog, found midway through Bradford Morrow’s historical novel, “The Prague Sonata,” captures the story’s intent more than any other line in this overstuffed sofa of a book. People don’t last, but their precious artifacts do, and saving them affirms the civilization in which they were created.
This weighty thought girds an ambitious but flawed work of fiction built around a piano composition of unknown attribution and value that dates to Beethoven’s time. A Czech soldier entrusts it to his young daughter before he perishes in World War I. Two decades later, after the Nazis invade Prague, his daughter divides the composition into its three movements and flees the city, leaving two parts behind.
Half a century later, a young musicologist in New York, Meta Taverner, receives one of the parts and is charged with reuniting all three. She takes off for Prague on the needle-in-the-haystack mission that drives the story. Romance and scholarly intrigue embellish her journey.
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Thematically, this story rests in the minor key. Just as one cataclysm caused the sonata to be torn apart, another sets the stage for bringing it back together. The notion of lives interrupted keeps repeating itself, even as the reasons vary — war, accidents, the vagaries of circumstance.
For Meta, her hopes of becoming a concert pianist ended with a car crash that damaged her right hand. Musicology, the study of music theory, forms and history, has become her fallback.
This choice of subject matter creates problems that Morrow is unable to solve in “The Prague Sonata.” Meta’s field requires specialized knowledge that the general reader is unlikely to have. So the book is sprinkled with names and concepts in an effort to lend an authentic tone, but without enough context to make the allusions meaningful.
Meanwhile, the musical metaphors are often strained, to eye-rolling effect. When Meta talks about how she and her new love interest are improvising a “duet that wanted to evolve into a fugue,” it takes some mental gymnastics to understand what Morrow means. Isn’t there an easier way of saying that the two of them are hitting it off?
As a history lesson, “The Prague Sonata” runs more smoothly, combining the style of a Michener or Ken Follett with novels such as “The Historian,” in which a young woman roams through Europe and beyond trying to solve her own puzzle. In this case, Prague is the primary setting, both in the near-present and past.
Here Morrow might have set up a more compelling metaphor contrasting the sonata, which marks the high point of Germanic creativity, with Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, when the sonata was broken apart.
The story’s plot includes the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who ruled the country so ruthlessly for the Third Reich that he was known as the Butcher of Prague. At the same time, Heydrich was a composer’s son, proficient violinist and patron of the arts — a product of the same culture that yielded the composition Meta holds sacred and is determined to reunite.
“The Prague Sonata” might have gained momentum by exploring such a larger idea.