Emiliya Dvoryanova - an experiment in blurring the boundaries between the syntax of music and that of poetry. The sentences in question are elliptical, resembling a musical score





Emiliya Dvoryanova, Concerto for Sentence: An Exploration of the Musico-Erotic, Trans. by Elitza Kotzeva, dalkey Archive Press, 2016.

Subtitled “An Exploration of the Musico-Erotic,” this novel is an experiment in blurring the boundaries between the syntax of music and that of poetry. The sentences in question are elliptical, resembling a musical score, and tell the story of a violinist embarking upon a potentially dangerous affair with an admirer and fellow musician as their spouses, audiences, teachers, friends, and colleagues listen and wonder.


La Velata by Emiliya Dvoryanova, translated by Lubomir Terziev
Passion, or the Death of Alice by Emiliya Dvoryanova, translated by Lubomir Terziev


Synopsis of the novel Passion, or The Death of Alice by Emiliya Dvoryanova
The novel Passion, or the Death of Alice transports the reader into a cryptic atmosphere in which the criminal motif mingles with the erotic; mystery dissolves into reality; language, music, everyday life, and the spirit get in and out of the tangle of the art of the fugue. The novel consists of two parts – a prelude and a fugue. These two terms are not only a clear indication of the musical structure of the text, but they also build a bridge between the word “passion” in the title and Bach’s musical oeuvre. The novel’s polyphonic tissue, particularly prominent in the second part (in accordance with the musical model), cuts across all levels of the narrative – it is tangibly present in the themes and in the voices of the characters, each of whom promotes their own truth in the unfolding story. The first part (around 70 pages), is divided into three chapters (Io – Sebastian – Io), and presents the confessions-cum-statements of two of the main characters:  Io, the maid, and Sebastian, the elderly teacher of music and philosophy.
The second part of the novel (around 130 pages) features the investigator’s idiosyncratic inquiry. In only three days, he must unravel the mystery of overlapping voices, and make his way through the complex polyphony to the truth of the story.
A murder is committed on Good Friday. Alice is the victim. Once he arrives at the crime scene, X., the investigator, stays on in the home of the murdered woman and takes the witnesses’ statements amidst the baroque ‘Gothicism’ of the novel’s interiors, cramped with locked chests of drawers looking like coffins, de-silvered mirrors, self-disseminating stained-glass drawings, dolls, crosses, pianos, and self-emerging holes. X is confronted with the spontaneous confessions of Joseph – murderer, lover, and doll maker. Suddenly a uniformed policeman breaks into the house and issues an order that the investigation should be suspended until Easter: there is some kind of ploy here since the murder was committed on Good Friday, and myth has it that those murdered on that day will be resurrected on Sunday. The policeman commands that the body should be carried out, that everybody should stay in the house, and that the murderer should be locked in the kitchen. In the meantime, the investigator comes to realize that the clue to the mystery lies in Alice’s idiosyncrasies, in her bizarre life choices and acts of self-redemption, but it dawns on him that it is also to be found in one single word: ‘fugue’. The word recurs in all statements and he can’t really pin down its meaning.
How could one get over the absurdity of the act; how could one distinguish the disparate voices and moments amalgamated into the reality of this place, where all perspectives are reversed? And what does truth amount to in this world of reflections, where it is so hard to find the meaning of a word which would unravel the meaning of an occurrence?
In the unbearable anticipation of the Sunday, in the well-rounded emptiness between death and resurrection, the borderline between the world, the soul, and language merges into the heteroglossia of the fugue.
What is a fugue?
More and more flesh is added to Alice’s image through the stories of those who knew her, but also through the material world of the house, which seems to have preserved traces of her presence. These traces come and go, confronting X with questions that make any conventional method of inquiry inadequate.
Each of the novel’s characters builds up and develops their own version of “the Alice case.” The characters use the technique of counterpoint to reach towards the liminal space of revelation. Considered at first a mere victim of erotic passion, Alice is transfigured into the subject of polyphony, and the part of the Passion of Christ is assigned to her. Thus the fugue – the prime suspect in the novel – subsumes all human voices, along with the cracks and the clefts in their logic, in their knowledge and in their understanding, along with genuine and bogus acts of escape into redemption and revelation.
In Passion, or the Death of Alice, there are multiple layers behind the criminal motif. They gradually converge into the form of the fugue: they culminate in the painful quest for the Truth, which can become manifest in music rather than in words …
Emiliya Dvoryanova’s novel could actually be used as a test: whoever reads it as a whodunit novel is a lucky person; whoever reads it as a revelation about the burden of being a woman, of being human, has the misfortune of bearing a soul. Whatever the case, though, this book will not let its reader drop it, and it begins in the reader’s mind when it ends. Passion, or the Death of Alice has established itself as one of the most powerful and gripping Bulgarian novels of the last few decades. - www.contemporarybulgarianwriters.com/1-writers/emilia-dvoryanova/


Over the past twenty years, the Bulgarian novelist Emiliya Dvoryanova has established herself as one of Bulgaria’s most respected authors and as emblematic of its écriture feminine. After the fall of communism, Dvoryanova became one of the first novelists to seriously consider the scope of contemporary womanhood in Bulgaria. She is also a trained musician whose fragmented, lyrical books borrow heavily from musical structures. Though it would be too much to call her work surreal, its rich language and Christian undertones give Dvoryanova’s writing something of an allegorical quality. Her books are known to incorporate Christian mythology in order to challenge its patriarchal foundations. Passion, or The Death of Alice, for example, reimagines the Christ's resurrection with a woman at its center, and The Virgin Mary’s Earthly Gardens condemns the total exclusion of all female creatures from the monasteries at Mount Athos in Greece. However, Dvoryanova’s latest novel, Concerto for Sentence: An Exploration of the Musico-Erotic, signals a shift away from religious themes and toward the relationship between music and prose.

Excerpts from Dvoryanova’s novels have appeared in English in a few small online publications—and two of her books have appeared in French—but Concerto for Sentence is her first full-length book to appear in English. This is quite a feat, as the idiosyncratic rhythms of her syntax make translation a daunting task. Great credit is due to Elitza Kotzeva for preserving the musicality of Dvoryanova’s prose in this English translation, which carries over the syntactical fragmentation and rhythms of the Bulgarian original.
Concerto for Sentence tells the story of Virginia, a brilliant violinist plagued by hearing loss and artistic disillusionment; but the book is much more than a character study. The novel aims to create a concerto out of prose, and its characters, for the most part, are the instruments used to perform the piece. Organized like a concerto, the novel moves through five separate monologues (labeled as “movements”) delivered by narrators attending the concert. It also features an intro and a coda, like a Roman Mass. At the center of the book is a novella-length section, written in the third person and titled, “The Chaconne,” which focuses solely on Virginia. The other five speakers all know Virginia, but while their sections cast some light on her, they are not meant to tell her story. Instead, they are deliberate digressions: in each monologue the speaker attempts to concentrate on the music but is repeatedly distracted by idle thoughts and petty concerns. Dvoryanova uses these speakers to explore how we listen to music; in particular, the Chaconne of Bach's Partita no. 2 for Violin.
The main interest for the speakers does not appear to be the Chaconne itself, but how one ought to listen to the Chaconne—how to be in the presence of an exquisite piece of music. The novel opens with a fractured assessment of the type of violin being played:
. . . it must be an Amati, because the sound is engrossed in itself, muffled and inverted, carrying that strange patina the E chord never makes unless it’s made on an Amati, otherwise this trill would have sounded silvery, instead it dives into opaque whiteness, like a creamcolored lace, as though played in D . . . but it could also be a Guarneri, especially if the softness of the A is leading me astray and is actually due to his magic fingers drawing out the tone so voluptuously, caressing the violin . . . it’s so wonderful, it’s divine . . . though if it had been a Guarneri, the sound would have sparkled in light blue . . .
The narrator is not as discerning as she seems. Later, when the violin turns out to be a Maggini, her apparent expertise reads more like naïve pedantry. Through this speaker, Dvoryanova points out listeners’ desire to listen correctly—rather than just listen—an impulse that, in this and other speakers, produces anxiety and tends to distract them from listening at all. One character, for instance, spends the majority of the concert chastising a woman for breathing too deeply, and another, a violin student, criticizes his date for asking him about a magazine survey after the concert. Though they claim to be there for the concert, the speakers all share some form of buffer between themselves and the music. The performance comes second to them. It fades amid the fleeting distractions of everyday life.
It is no accident that the piece of music at the center of the novel is Bach's Partita no. 2 for Violin. As Michael Markham notes, in his essay “The New Mythologies: Deep Bach, Saint Mahler, and the Death Chaconne” for The Los Angeles Review of Books, this piece has become better known for its surrounding story than for the music itself, weighed down as it is by narratives about Bach’s grief during its composition and prescriptions for how one should feel about it. Likewise, Concerto for Sentence’s narrators are preoccupied by the correct way to listen. And as their minor annoyances accumulate, their relationship to music appears increasingly superficial.
Dvoryanova takes much inspiration from the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, who made a career out of exposing the hypocritical philistinism of Austrian culture in his novels. Like Bernhard, Dvoryanova is captivated by artistic greatness and the demands art makes on its creators. As the violinist, Virginia, tells one of her students, “When it’s about music, it should only be about music, about that moment when the notes are driven deep into us; or, better said, when the notes drive themselves deep into themselves, the imminence and immanence they contain and imply . . .” Dvoryanova and Bernhard both understand the immense difficulty of reaching that state of concentration. However, Bernhard’s narrators are paralyzed by an inability to concentrate or to produce art. He is a writer of the unfinished—in his novels, one can only strive to create—whereas Dvoryanova is a writer of the aftermath. She is interested in the ramifications of greatness, how accomplishment contains the seed of an artist’s future collapse.
In Concerto for Sentence, Virginia represents the authentic path of the artist, living with a pure commitment to music and suffering for it. She serves as the protagonist of the book’s longest section, “The Chaconne,” and when she first appears, she is waking from a dream of Vienna. A month earlier, she accompanied her best student there for a competition, and fell in love with the city. Her love is excitedly synesthetic. She discovers the rhythmic patterns in Egon Schiele’s paintings, the musical structure in the Schönbrunn maze, and believes that Sachertorte “has the taste of a sentence out of Bernhard.” While the real-time narrative takes place in Sofia during a blizzard, italicized dreams and memories slice through this narrative, situating Virginia between two worlds: the beguiling romance of Vienna against the chaos and anxiety of life in Bulgaria.
In Sofia, she is suffering from a loss of creative purpose and energy. The petty complaints of earlier narrators are swapped out for Virginia’s increasing panic, much of which is caused by the onset of Ménière’s disease, which threatens to permanently impair her hearing and put an end to her career as a musician. Ironically, it is suggested that her own success has contributed to the onset of the disease:
Baroque, rococo, the Vienna Secession, our accidentally misplaced seventeenth century, gardens, fountains, and streets, streets filled with busy people . . . and the music was all still the same as ever: her ears had been desensitized after so many years of precise, critical analysis—all those notes, all those sounds, sharp and precise, driven deep into her eardrums—that it would take something truly amazing to excite them now.
Struggling with bouts of Ménière’s disease and with her consequent artistic disenchantment, Virginia grows increasingly isolated. Having bought two tickets for the Bach violin concert, she ditches the student she planned to accompany. Alone, she burrows deeper into her thoughts, into memories of a recent tour where she encountered a mysterious violinist who, according to Virginia, most “unmetaphorically” made her bleed. At once lover, colleague, fan, and demonic figure, the man serves as the agent of Virginia’s musical collapse. He seems both to bring on the disease and, through an act of violence, strip her of her passion for music.
Like much of the book, “The Chaconne” discards conventional narrative structure, aiming, instead, for lyrical prose that builds through association and rhythm:
. . . here is Schiele. And the Schönbrunn Maze . . . And the rhythm of the city. A drop of blood, covered in sleet, and another drop, and again sleet . . .
A magnificent well . . . 
I dreamed of Vienna. 

. . . There is a concert tonight.

. . . but the concert doesn’t excite me. My ears are falling apart, it started right after Vienna, it started happening gradually, the wind is to blame, and it’s only the Chaconne that I want to hear, I’m excited by its impossibility . . . because it’s impossible to enter the maze . . .
The refrain “I dreamed of Vienna” and references to snowfall form thematic touchstones that provide stability within Virginia’s harried psyche. This doesn’t make for straightforward reading, but the syntax is not arbitrarily complex. As Kotzeva notes in her master’s thesis on the book, Concerto for Sentence uses fragmentation, ellipses, and other forms of unorthodox punctuation to designate “the beginnings, the flows, the pauses, and the ends of the musical units in the concerto.” These sentences are meant to be felt before they are understood. Prioritizing music over clarity might have undermined the novel had Kotzeva’s translation been subpar, but the turbulent lyricism of the prose proves rewarding both stylistically and as a means to capture the anxious vulnerability of its characters.
Concerto for Sentence is an ambitious, poetic novel that deftly depicts the plight of a gifted musician and explores the narratives we impose on music. Is there a proper way to listen to music? What sacrifices does greatness demand? Dvoryanova attends to these questions by pitting the authentic passions of the artist against the superficiality of dilettantes. But each way of being, Dvoryanova suggests, is uniquely perilous. The result is a novel that, like the Chaconne itself, inspires a chaotically beautiful mix of passion, love, grief, and horror. - Alex McElroy


Emiliya Dvoryanova is associate professor of creative writing at New Bulgarian University. Music, philosophy and religion are the focus of her creative work: The House (a novel), Sofia: Areta Publishers, 1993; Passion, or the Death of Alice (a novel), Sofia: Obsidian Publishers, 1995 (winner of the Bulgarian Novel Award in 1996, published in France in 2006 by Federop Publishers); La Velata (a novella), Sofia: Fenea Publishers, 1998; Mrs. G (a novel), Sofia: Fenea Publishers, 2001; The Virgin Mary’s Earthly Gardens (a novel), Sofia: Obsidian Publishers, 2006; Concerto for a Sentence An Endeavor in the Musical-Erotic, Sofia: Obsidian Publishers, 2008. She is also the author of Osven Literaturata (Sofia: Paradigma, 2011).  Emiliya Dvoryanova is one of the most widely published and read writers in contemporary Bulgarian literature. The Virgin Mary’s Earthly Gardens (2006) received the Hristo G. Danov National award for literature, and was published in France in 2010 (Les Jardins interdits, Aden 2010).

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