Far too often the narratives of genius and madness are entwined to the extent that they appear inseparable. The story of artistic becoming and success then becomes a drama where the highest achievements happen only when the artist sacrifices their entire self to this daemon. It’s a dangerous narrative and a seductive one and I was grateful with my entire being when I realized that Erin Eileen Almond was writing against this trope in Witches’ Dance. Don’t get me wrong, Witches’ Dance is as deeply seductive as it is intelligent, but what makes this book extra, and very much worth reading, is the way Almond twists and unweaves our expectations of greatness.
Fortissimo the prelude to Witches’ Dance as brilliant violinist Phillip Manns steps onstage for a performance at the peak of his career. The audience, filled with other characters who will become important to the plot, sits rapt as he performs Paganini’s “Witches Dance.” Almond’s language is so deft in this opening that I was as rapt as the audience as the scene of his triumph built to a crescendo… and then Phillip took one step too far, declaring himself to be Paganini and running offstage and down the street. Almond uses the confusion in the audience to tease out how Hilda, the other most important character in this novel, succumbs to Phillip’s magnetic performance in ways that will alter her life forever.
Cut forward a decade and we meet Hilda again at 16, a strong violinist who hasn’t had the chance to fully immerse herself in the art… yet. I hope it’s not revealing too much to say that the forces of fate (and a skilled author) bring Hilda and Phillip together to play off of one another as she becomes his student and muse. But this is not really a Pygmalion story and as much as Phillip shapes Hilda, she shapes him (and that’s where things get really interesting).
The Music, the Magic
Almond does a beautiful job of working music into this book, both in the pieces and instruments the characters play and also in the lexicon she uses. Almond also incorporates subtle fairy tale touches that emerge wonderfully toward the end of the story. The blend of the music and the magic is in the wolf tone that can be heard on stringed instruments. I’d never heard of this before, but it forms the perfect bridge between Hilda and Phillip’s playing and the monster Phillip is battling inside.
Not surprisingly given his unorthodox behavior at that initial performance, Phillip tries to kill himself later the first night. This happens offscreen and is introduced later to give us a flavor of his struggles. Another aspect of his struggles is his mother, Domenica, now deceased but apparently manic depressive, alcoholic, and still visiting Phillip on occasion.
My summary sounds flip, but the experience of reading about the madness in this story is anything but. Almond brings many human frailties together in her characters, each one a creative in their own field, in ways that feel very familiar to anyone who’s spent significant time around artists of any type. Hilda’s mother is a ballerina who quit young to have a child. Hilda’s father is a failed musician who still believes his own hype. There’s an artistic rival as well as some people who end up working close to the artists because they did not themselves commit to the grind. We watch all of these characters struggle against and embrace their human and artistic frailties. Then we watch the consequences.
The story was all too relatable for me, a writer who struggles with depression. Sometimes I feel like my sensitivity to the world around me is the only reason I can be a writer. Sometimes it keeps me from writing. Sometimes my depression makes it impossible to pick up a pen. Sometimes I think the self-critique that comes with it is the only reason my writing has gotten any good. And when I take that anxiety/depression questionnaire at the doctor’s office that asks if I ever suffer from delusions of grandeur, I lie, because of course I do, I have to in order to believe that the words I put on paper have value beyond my own writing of them. It’s a little lie, though, because I know I’m not Paganini and I have no intentions of rushing offstage anytime soon.
I could tell you more about The Witches’ Dance, but if you’ve ever wondered in the least about whether artistic genius and madness really have to be coterminous, I think you should read the book. The depths Almond explores are ones I’d like to read over and over again as I consider my own narrative.
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