Earlier this year, I picked up Richard Harvell’s The Bells, driven by a whim to read about music – not in non-fiction, but in fiction. And since many reviews had compared Harvell’s novel to Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, I thought it would be a good book to satisfy my whim.
And it was – but not quite, either. While I was reading the book, living in it, it was a pleasure, not least because of Harvell’s exquisite language. However, once I had put the book down and had ceased to be dazzled by Harvell’s language, I came to realise that it was not quite as brilliant as I imagined it to be. When I thought on it, the story felt trite, the characters flat: mere puppets acting out a tired old story on a beautiful stage to gorgeous music. While there is nothing wrong with a book that entertains and inspires only for the duration of the story, I much prefer stories that linger a while after I have put the book down: stories that give me something to think about for a few hours after I have finished.
It was because of this previous experience that I picked up Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night with some trepidation. Though the reviews were encouraging and the blurb was intriguing, I still wondered if it would turn out better than The Bells. Fortunately, The Queen of the Night is an entirely satisfying read.
The Queen of the Night begins with the protagonist and narrator, Lilliet Berne, famous soprano, preparing for the Sénat Ball, and agonising over her dress. During her preparations she gets the feeling that something momentous is about to happen, something that could change her life forever. While at the ball she meets a man named Simonet, who tells her that he has written a novel that is about to be turned into an opera, and that he and the opera’s composer wish to have her star in the lead role. While receiving invitations to perform the lead in this or that opera is nothing new to Lilliet, the chance to originate a role (that is, to be the very first singer to perform it onstage) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But when Simonet outlines the story of this new opera to her, Lilliet realises that something is very, very wrong – for the story Simonet tells is her own life story: a tale only a small handful of people know with sufficient detail to turn into an opera or a novel. Feeling the hand of Fate weighing heavily upon her, Lilliet attempts to track down who could have told Simonet her story – and along the way, unravel that story to the reader.
One of the main problems I have with The Bells is with the characterisation of the main protagonist and narrator. Though it is easy to get lost in the language and think everything is lovely while reading the novel, everything changes once the reader has put the book down and gives himself or herself time to really think about it. The effect is rather like stepping backstage after a play or musical: the actors reveal themselves as actors, and as they strip their costumes and makeup, they reveal the characters they play as nothing more than flimsy constructs. They are likeable while they are acting, but once they cease to act, they are no longer interesting.
By contrast, the protagonist of The Queen of the Night continues to linger in the imagination even after the novel’s ending. Lilliet Berne is a fascinating and, in my opinion, complex character: at times sympathetic, and at times faintly repellent, she is a chameleon driven by survival and the force of her own legend – or at least, her legend as she imagines it, framed in the narrative of the operatic tradition. Here is how she describes herself at the beginning of the novel, delineating the legend that surrounds her identity:
For I was their creature, Lilliet Berne, La Générale. Newly returned to Paris after a year spent away, the Falcon soprano whose voice was so delicate it was rumored she endangered it even by speaking, her silences as famous as her performances. This voice was said to turn arias into spells, hymns into love songs, simple requests into commands, my suitors driven to despair in every country I visited, but perhaps especially here.
In the Paris press, they wrote stories of me constantly. I was receiving and rejecting gifts of incomprehensible splendor; men were leaving their wives to follow me; princes were arriving bearing ancient family jewels, keys to secret apartments, secret estates. I was unbearably kind or unbelievably cruel, more beautiful than a woman could be or secretly hideous, supernaturally pale or secretly mulatto, or both, the truth hidden under a plaster of powder. I was innocent or I was the devil unleashed, I had nearly caused wars, I had kept them from happening. I was never in love, I had never loved, I was always in love. Each performance could be my last, each performance had been my last. the voice was true, the voice was a fraud.
The voice, at least, was true.
Note that she calls herself “their creature”, as if “Lilliet Berne” is not so much a person as she is a persona, one the narrator plays while in the presence of others. And in a way, this is true: as the novel reveals, the character calling herself Lilliet Berne has at other times been called by other names, has played other roles than that of La Générale. Her life has been a chain of metamorphoses, sliding from one identity into another and back again, as the need has suited her, or those around her.
Perhaps it is this chameleon-like tendency to drop one identity in favour of another that has caused some readers to look upon the narrator with disfavour. There is something dishonest about her, some reviewers have argued, that make her less likeable as a character. Perhaps these readers are looking for a character who is more idealistic, less complicated – a character who is, in the end, flatter and less interesting. I suppose those people have a hard time separating their idea of a “good person” from what a “good character” ought to be, because for my part, I find the narrator’s dishonesty and manipulative nature quite refreshing. Her flaws make her human, and therefore interesting as a character. To be sure, I doubt I would like her if she was a real person of my acquaintance, but as a character, I am quite happy with her – and, therefore, with her story.
Speaking of her story, the narrator tends to see herself as a character in one – or, more specifically, in an opera, her roles changing along with her name. This is why she is so alarmed by the opera Simonet proposes; she sees it as Fate coming for her, Fate closing inexorably around her, in a way that she does not understand, but fears nonetheless:
A singer learned her roles for life—your repertoire was a library of fates held close, like the gowns in this closet, yours until your voice failed. Though when you put them on, it was then you were the something worn—these old tragedies took you over.
Here was my old tragedy, then. Waiting, held open, as if the writer had come to me with my old costume, asking me to put it on.
The narrator’s fascination with Fate is just as interesting as her chameleon-like tendency to change identities. She frames it thusly:
The first thing determined in the career of a singer is her Fach. The word is German and sounded like Fate to me the first time I heard it. It is a singer’s fate, for it describes the singer’s range and the type of roles the singer will sing. Some soprano tones are associated with virtue, others with seduction, others with grief. …
Mine was a voice that sounded at first as if it did not have the capacity for high notes, until they emerged, surprising, with great force. A voice for expressing sorrow, fear, and despair. The tragic soprano is what I as called, also known as a Falcon.
Nothing to fear from a fate that was already yours, then, except, perhaps, that it would never leave you.
This is where the main plot begins: weaving between past and present, the narrator tells the story of her life until the fateful (to her, anyway) moment when she meets Simonet at the Sénat Ball, interweaving that story with her search for the person who could have told Simonet the story of her life. As far as she knows, there are only four people who know her story – but which one could have told it to Simonet?
This is where Chee shows his strength as a writer. Going back and forth between past and present is no easy thing, especially given how layered and complex the novel’s plot is, but Chee manages to maintain a tight hold on the plot’s reins. I suppose it also helps that Chee is following a fairly strict pattern: that of the operatic narrative, which has its own, well-documented tropes and conventions. The novel itself is structured like an opera: separated into five acts, with each act functioning like its own, self-contained story detailing a specific point in the narrator’s life.
The conventions of the opera also influence Chee’s writing, and therefore the narrator’s storytelling. The opera is always grander than reality: the colours more vibrant, the action more dramatic. In keeping with the former, there are many rich descriptions of dresses and jewels, apartments and gardens. Here is an example, from the very beginning of the novel:
The dress was a Worth creation of pink taffeta and gold silk, three pink flounces that belled out from a bodice embroidered in a pattern of gold wings. A net of gold-ribbon bows covered the skirt and held the flounces up at the hem. The fichu seemed to clasp me from behind as if alive—how had I not noticed? At home it had not seemed so garish. I nearly tore it off and threw it to the floor.
… It would have been a very beautiful dress, say, for a very young girl from the Loire. Golden hair and rosy cheeks, pink lipped and fair. Come to Paris and I will get you a dress, her Parisian uncle might have said. And then we will go to a ball. It was that sort of dress.
Some reviewers have complained that Chee’s descriptions are overdone, or lengthier than they ought to be, that they get in the way of the story. I suppose this might be true, if the reader is looking for something more tightly-plotted – or if he or she does not understand that the narrator’s central conceit (and, therefore, the novel’s central conceit) is that the novel is an opera, or as close as simple prose can get to one.
The same goes for the plot itself. If some readers think that the narrator reacts more dramatically than she should, or recalls an event with more drama than it might warrant, then those readers, like those who complain about the lengthy descriptions, do not completely understand that Chee is trying to recreate an opera in prose. I am puzzled by some reviewers’ inability to comprehend this simple fact, not least because Chee makes it clear, from the very beginning (or at least after the first few chapters), that that is his intention with this novel.
And yet, while I acknowledge the nature of this novel and that it is meant to simulate an opera in prose form, all the drama can wear on the reader over the course of reading it. I suppose it has something to do with the pace: the story does not move very quickly, and so the reader can sometimes feel like he or she is bogged down in a morass of dramatics that cannot end soon enough. I cannot pinpoint specific moments when this happens in the novel, as it depends entirely on the reader’s own tolerance for drama, but if the novel might be said to have a flaw, it is that the drama can grate on the reader after a while, necessitating breaks from the story every now and then.
Overall, The Queen of the Night is a delight to read: rich in detail and deep in story, with a fascinating narrator who is complex and complicated. While knowledge of French, Italian, German, and opera are helpful in understanding this novel, such knowledge is not absolutely necessary, since Chee takes the time to translate any pertinent phrases and explains anything that might be obvious only to the opera enthusiast. Some endurance might be necessary to make it through to the very end, but the novel rewards the patient reader with an ending that soars even as it breaks expectations.