By Eva Hoffman
Harvill Secker 2008, £16.99
Reading Eva Hoffman’s new novel is a mixed experience. At first, I found the rarefied and brittle consciousness of the protagonist, Isabel Merton, hard to engage with. Her life as an internationally famous concert pianist seems both admirable and enviable, yet she is dissatisfied. However, Isabel herself experiences unease at what she thinks of as her ‘hard’ but also ‘de luxe late capitalist life’ as a concert pianist. We read of a European tour she undertakes, travelling between Sofia and Prague, Vienna and London and the cities blur into an indistinguishable round of concert halls and hotels. What stands out for Isabel is a meeting with Anzor Islikhanov, an exiled representative of the Chechen government, and a man driven by energies at odds with her distanced and orderly life. Each recognizes in the other a capacity for passion and commitment: in Anzor’s case, to vengeful patriotism, in Isabel’s, to the power of music. They embark on an affair that seems unlikely; like her namesake Isabel Archer, in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Merton is a young American confronted by European wiles — but this time of a profoundly historical nature.
The clash of cultures and values that Isabel and Anzor experience is expressed dramatically in a series of set pieces, which seem to have the status of temptations, or warnings, for Isabel. The most striking of these is a dinner party hosted by old friends of Isabel to which she takes Anzor. He is angered by and aghast at the platitudes that pass for intelligent conversation among privileged, educated Americans, who deplore in vague terms the situation in Kosovo and received wisdom about Russian ‘politicians’ — the latter a designation that Anzor contests.
Many of Hoffman’s readers will recognize that the satire is directed at them, and the dinner-party scene is a mixture of destabilised certainties and domestic farce. Anzor diagnoses the Americans as suffering from ‘moral imperialism’: ‘You have all this power, and you don’t care. You think if you say a few nice things over dinner, that reprieves you from everything.’Anzor claims, with some justice, that he is acceptable only so long as he tells his ‘noble savage stories’, and although Isabel is torn between these profoundly conflicting viewpoints, she recognizes that despite his apparent vulnerability Anzor is able to hold her American friends ‘moral hostage’.
The difference between Isabel and Anzor takes a more sinister form when Isabel witnesses the horrifying aftermath of a terrorist attack and is prompted finally to question what Anzor’s activities actually are. When he is called back to Chechnya, his comrades send her a warning to stay away from him in the form of another explosion, this time in the foyer of the Spanish concert hall where she is playing. Although no one is injured, this bomb precipitates what Isabel thinks of as a ‘crisis in meaning’. She abandons her concert tour and rents an apartment in a city where no one will know her. Her last, perhaps imagined, glimpse of Anzor is in a television news item: he is armed and dressed in camouflage fatigues in a truck, part of a convoy in Chechnya. Isabel acknowledges that her wish to go ‘beyond the banal surface of things’ led to her infatuation with this figure from another world, making it perhaps the ultimate self-indulgence. The illuminations of the novel’s title are all Isabel’s; Anzor vanishes as if he had been a spirit contrived from Isabel’s own fantasy.
The novel ends self-consciously with Isabel settling down to write the ‘difficult beauty’ of her own musical composition. It is as if Hoffman is giving her own book a wry glance, and indeed the novel has the feel of an autobiography manqué. Had she not been a writer, would Hoffman have been a concert pianist? In this way Isabel’s experience is placed in parallel with the journal of her mentor Ernst Wolfe, which she reads throughout her travels. This journal introduces by implication the Holocaust into the novel, as the German Wolfe is shown to be struggling with his perception of his country’s and the century’s moral bankruptcy alongside his commitment to art. Wolfe’s journal also represents a way of viewing Isabel from outside, in contrast to the subjective narration of most of the novel; this is not an entirely successful strategy, and it often comes across as arch, giving an unnecessarily glowing view of Isabel’s youthful talent and eagerness, as if she is boasting about herself.
Hoffman uses another technique to represent Isabel from outside, which is the transcription in a semi-Joycean style of the interior monologues of the concert-goers who hear her piano-playing. Although an unusual device, this does not really convince either. Hoffman is clearly up to the task of representing the alien world of Anzor, through Isabel’s viewpoint and Anzor’s own words, and the estimable linguistic precision which characterized her earlier works, particularly Lost in Translation, is sometimes evident here. On first meeting him, Isabel notes that Anzor is nothing like ‘a personification of calamity’; later, she thinks of western cultural life as, ‘static, pacified and fatly subsidised’. However, Anzor’s interiority seems to evade Hoffman. It also pre-empts the plot by revealing that Isabel’s playing ‘transports’ him, that he fears she will ‘disdain’ a ‘mad Chechen’, and that he identifies with Chopin’s struggle against the Russians, ‘beauty and violence all combined’. Gripping though the contemporary, post 9/11 culture-clash plot of Illuminations may be, it ends inconclusively.