The German viola I played during my serious music days failed to accrue value; twentieth century German instruments don't produce a warm enough sound. For tone, you need Italian or French or English. In some cases, American will do, as Gregory Spatz attests in his new collection. Set in and around Seattle, Spatz's What Could Be Saved plumbs the rarified world of high-end stringed instruments. Spatz teaches writing at Eastern Washington University; he is also a professional fiddler, which lends his book an authenticity often lacking in fiction about musicians.
The title novella stands out, a story that dives into the stringed instrument world via an affair between May, a rising young violinist, and her housemate/lover Paul, the son of a violin maker. Spatz weaves their unfolding relationship into the musical fabric of their lives.
The story opens with May at a "violin tasting," as she calls it, trying out violins — most of which are financially out of reach — in an instrument shop. May veers dangerously close to stereotype as a young, Chinese American violinist—talented and self-critical, and emotionally unreliable. Seen through Paul's eyes, however, she appears in three dimensions. Paul is thoughtful and introspective, filled with doubt about himself, his family, and whether he and May are in a real relationship. He seems to want more; whether May does is less clear. Their story is elegantly narrated and engaging, with an ending that packs a punch.
What Could Be Saved is for readers who love being immersed in the minutiae of a world they would not otherwise enter. Spatz's musical descriptions ring true to my string-playing ear; here's Paul listening to May test instruments in the shop:
One violin bottomed out too easily, another seemed too weak in the mid-range, another had the sweetest e-string sound of the lot but not enough clarity on the low end.
Spatz also shares in-jokes that will amuse musicians. In "Time and Legends," the main character wonders if his mother is having an affair with his violin-making father's most famous client. As son tries to fill out his mother's backstory, he recalls that she played the bassoon: "'Farting bedpost,' our grandfather [said]. 'Mating call for the tragically weak minded.'"
Spatz's collection, however, primarily concerns itself with string players. Readers are asked to consider what makes a Stradivarius a Strad, or an Amati an Amati — is it the varnish, or the characteristics of the wood, or the carving, or proportion that determine the quality of a legendary violin?
The stringed instrument business is nothing if not subjective. As in the fine art market, the high-end instrument market is rife with fraud. A "trusted" instrument maker or dealer might put a false label inside a violin, attributing it to a master whose name fetches more in the marketplace, then reap the benefits.
This kind of fraud appears frequently in What Could Be Saved, challenging readers to assess the moral core of the characters, and challenging the characters themselves to consider their relationships with family members who perpetrate such frauds (this is a business passed from father to son, and occasionally to daughters as well). Characters appear in multiple stories, filling out their family histories as the book progresses.
Not every voice in this book belongs to a human. In a wonderful twist, the shortest story, "We Unlovely, Unloved," is narrated by a crate of old violins, "... whole and busted into parts, cracked tops, stringless heads and necks, stoved ribs, dusty shoulders, earless scrolls, peeling tops, all in a jumbled pile."
These tired instruments, whose bits and pieces carry technical names that mirror body parts, observe the players they once knew. Spatz luxuriates in metaphor:
The last years of Martha's life were enlivened solely by one of us—a dark, square-shouldered German, slightly undersized and so a good match for Martha's crooked, slow-moving, smallish fingers ... Crooked neck, varnish the color of dirty cigarette soaked in walnut stain, ugly wide-grained top, too much shine in the yellow-gray burl of the back, artless unslotted f-holes ...
The bygone instruments sigh, "Once we were loved," but "not all of us."
Spatz curates his language with the care of a skilled instrument maker, shaping the lives of makers and performers and amateur players. He is strong on atmospherics, from the confines of the practice room to the city of Seattle itself.
Playing against these settings are the people in this collection. For string aficionados, the insider references will have a delicious resonance. Readers in general are likely to appreciate not only an insight into this highly specialized world, but also Spatz's understanding that no one works or lives in a vacuum. Paul struggles to find the right balance with his lover; he resists but wants a closer relationship with his father; he wonders at his mother's secret life. Grandfather and brother, family friends come in and out as well. It is within the human relationships that What Could Be Saved delivers its harmonies.