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Caught in the Regime: Classical Music and the Individual in the Contemporary Novel

Harling-Lee, Katie (2021) 'Caught in the Regime: Classical Music and the Individual in the Contemporary Novel.', Open Library of Humanities, 7 (2).


The twenty-first century has seen the identification and development of a new literary genre: the musico-literary novel, defined as a novel thematically concerned with music (Harling-Lee, 2020). As a comparative case study, this article considers two musico-literary novels set during conflict: Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Thien, 2016) and The Noise of Time (Barnes, 2017). Set, respectively, in Communist China and the Soviet Union, two communist regimes which historically targeted classical music and musicians, the novels use their conflict contexts as a springboard to explore existential—and existentialist—crises concerning the survival of the self in relation to music. Following Adler and Ippolito’s proposal that ‘extreme cases are valuable in revealing phenomena that are often camouflaged in less extreme … more familiar circumstances’ (Adler and Ippolito, 2016), analysis of the novels’ representations of classical music reveals the powerful potential that music is presumed, by the popular imagination, to offer. With a focus on individual composers and performers, the novels depict classical music as a source of personal identity that is relied upon by individuals for personal and existential expression; for when the state threatens a character’s musical life in these novels, it also threatens a character’s sense of self. Due to the legacy of absolute music, classical music is seen as a source of hope through its potential autonomy from ‘meaning’ even as it promises to be a refuge for the self, embodying a paradox that becomes central to the representation of western classical music in the popular imagination of the contemporary musico-literary novel.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:© 2021 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See
Date accepted:21 April 2021
Date deposited:25 August 2021
Date of first online publication:24 August 2021
Date first made open access:25 August 2021

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