Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars Challenging and Rewarding!, January 12, 2012
This review is from: Symphonie Fantastique (Paperback)
Kudos (or as they now say, props) to Mark Seinfelt for his intriguing collection of fiction Symphonie Fantastique which recalls for us the somewhat obscure genre of the fantastique, a genre that predates but is also important for the development of the more familiar genres of fantasy and magic realism.

But Seinfelt's collection is not merely a rekindling of a classic genre; it is also an engaging formal exercise that draws on what is perhaps the most important piece of program music from Romanticism's early period, Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts.

Ultimately, Seinfelt's book, even though it is in many ways fully immersed in the present, and even though it is fully aware of tropes both modernist and post-modernist, is itself thoroughly Romantic. But Seinfelt's Romanticism wisely tries neither to simply go back to those so-called good old days nor to try for some ironic, diluted neo-Romanticism. Rather, in an original and audacious series of moves, Seinfelt's work uncovers the Romanticism that never went away, the Romanticism that always haunts us, even in our most thoroughly modern and post-modern moves and moments.

Drawing inspiration and themes, and even form from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, Seinfelt's likewise tells the story of "an artist gifted with a lively imagination" who finds himself in the "depths of despair" because of "hopeless love"--although in Seinfelt's hands (or words), this foundational motif is explicit only (or perhaps only comes to the surface) in the book's third movement, and the gifted artist has not has "poisoned himself with opium" as he has in Berlioz, but rather has become addicted to language--a language that is relentlessly--and brilliantly--revealed by Seinfelt as two-faced, both in the Janusian sense and as insincerity, but a particularly engaging and rollicking quasi-sincerity that shows itself in numerous meta-fictive and cross-genre moments throughout the collection.

Similarly, as does Berlioz, Seinfelt also modifies the classical four-movement structure of the symphony and opts instead for a five-movement structure, and in very intriguing ways, Seinfelt closely shadows Berlioz' movements.

If Seinfelt's work has a weakness, it can probably be found in the perhaps-too-hermetic feel it often exudes. While explicitly written as part of our time, it is also explicitly not contemporary feeling, even when the events being portrayed are current (more or less): in addition to the wonderful word work and linguistic flourishes, and perhaps hampering them to an extent, there is also a tenaciously hermetic feel to the work. This is not necessarily a problem in and of itself--in fact, in many ways I applaud such authors, those who deftly, purposefully, craftily, and of course craft fully carve out a space completely idiosyncratic.

In the end, it's Henry James even more than Berloiz whom we readers sense looming over-above the project as a whole. From the explicit story of James' death in the first movement, through the numerous references to James in other parts of the collection, to the numerous "liftings" of James words, images, and themes peppered throughout the work, Seinfelt is expert at "channeling" James, finding unique, fascinating, and above all else, rhapsodic ways of showing us how the master of the nineteenth century might have fared in the twenty-first. Of course, in certain especial intriguing ways, Seinfelt may have one-upped Hank (as the narrator(s) of The Mozart Machine might have dubbed James): unlike the master's (and the master himself), Seinfeld's narrators (and perhaps Seinfelt, as well) feel equally at home in the drawing room, the bedroom, and the barroom! As a result, the author and the narrators can delve into zones (both Miltonic and other) that would have frozen the master in his tracks.
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