Til Musikken (To theMusic) by Ketil Bjørnstad
Introduction to the Book Club Magazine by Lars Saabye Christensen
They call themselves The Young Pianists’ Association, a group of young adults, still in grammar school in Oslo during the late 60s. They are very distinctive individuals, both competitors and friends, but they have one thing in common that ties them together: the music.
And that is sufficient. They are the pianists of the future, soon to make their first appearance in the Assembly Hall. They are under a consistent and almost inhuman pressure, from parents, teachers, educators, critics, impresarios, and, not the least, from themselves.
They are they young masters struggling to master their own lives. Their names are Rebecca Frost, Anja Skoog, Ferdinand Flood and Margrethe Irene.
And, of course, Aksel Vinding, the narrator and the focal point of the novel, the young man who is the very core of the story. He is nothing like other boys his age. He doesn’t like soccer, he doesn’t like bandy, he gets terrified by all the fighting and has never heard of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, but, on the other hand, he is on first name basis with Bach, Schubert and Brahms, and he is not comfortable anywhere else but at the piano.
A family falling apart
In a spectacular and dramatic opening scene we get introduced to the Vinding family; the parents, the older sister – eccentric and scandalous Catherine – and the fifteen years old Aksel. It is Sunday, they are having a picnic, not at Bogstadvannet, where everybody else who lives in Røa, just outside Oslo, tends to go, because the Vinding family is not like everybody else, but further down the river, where they can be by themselves, left alone. Suddenly Aksel’s mother is drawn away by the current, towards the waterfalls. His father wants to try to save her, but Aksel holds him back, seeing that it’s impossible, and not wanting to lose both of them.
The mother drowns and leaves behind a shattered family, three lonely, wounded human beings, which have to continue their lives with the burden of that sunny Sunday, when the tragedy hit them in such a ruthless manner, a tragedy that will haunt Aksel for ever.
That’s why he escapes even further into the music. It becomes his sanctuary. It becomes his salvation and reason for living. He practices hour after hour each day. He finally quits schoool, to dedicate himself completely to the classical music. And that is how he meets his equals, boys and girls with the same frame of mind, his toughest competitors as well as his only friends, in the Young Pianist’s Association.
The dream of triumph
It’s not just the music which prospers in this small group, a kind of subculture, more or less isolated, with its very own rituals and guidelines. In this intense and intimate atmosphere, there is something else which also flourishes: the eroticism, the obvious as well as the forbidden kind. Aksel is obsessed by the mysterious and unreachable Anja Skoog, the most talented as well as the most abused of them all, and he sees himself being pulled into a relationship that he can’t master, a dark existence filled with secrets and suspicions, in which one of them has to go down.
Perhaps this is one of the lead motifs in the novel: obsession. We meet these young, talented and lonely people, obsessed by the music, by themselves, by each other, and, maybe most of all, they are obsessed by the dream to succeed: to become the best.
A secluded society
This secluded society, almost without interference from the outside, only open up when they enter the podium to play, to show who they are and what they can achieve. There are unforgettable descriptions of the young masters’ debuts and concerts: Rebecca who stumbles on her dress on her way up to the podium in the assembly hall and falls flat on the shine polished floor, in front of a breathless and stunned audience; Aksel who, in the same place, gets interrupted in mid performance by his drunk sister’s loud sheering; Anja Skoog who gets disturbed during her debut, also in the assembly hall, because Aksel has taken the wrong seat in the audience.
Til Musikken is a family drama, an artist novel and a captivating portrayal of a young man’s obsession and love. I suspect that only Ketil Bjørnstad, with his unique artistic experience, could have written this novel, and it is a novel he just had to write, sooner or later.
It must have been both joyful as well as painful writing it.
Lars Saabye Christensen