ONE of the most enjoyable aspects of art is the way you can lose yourself in it entirely. For me, this almost always requires it to be imaginative art, although historical biography and memoir can work the same trick. But the sense of inhabiting an entire world so real you believe it implicitly, you almost touch and taste it, is a pleasure like no other.
It is not just self-forgetfulness — art as Zen. Rather it is active participation in a vivid and enthralling world. This I think is why The Lord of the Rings is such a powerful reading experience if you get it young. When I was about 16 all my friends and I read Tolkien’s tale of the hobbits, and Middle-earth’s struggle against Mordor. I remember the biggest and most alarming fellow in our school rugby team recounting how reading of the Dark Riders late one night made him too scared to go to the bathroom. He had to read another 50 pages to summon up the courage to leave his bedroom.
Another chap, not a footballer but certainly a lout like the rest of us, astonished me with his devotion to the book. I asked him why he liked it so much. ‘‘ Because when you’re reading it, it’s just like you’re there.’’ A lot of us bought the early rock instrumental Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings, by Bo Hanson. It was an ethereal and bewitching album, but I found to my surprise I didn’t like to play it while I was reading Tolkien. It distracted me.
Do you ever associate a piece of music with a piece of literature? When I went to work at The Bulletin magazine in the late 1970s, coincidentally I fell in love with Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, and compulsively read all 12 volumes. I confess there were times when I should have been out chasing scoops but was instead attending, imaginatively, bohemian parties with Milly Andriadis after the Huntercombes’ ball.
I would sneak off to Cahill’s basement restaurant in Park Street opposite the old Bully headquarters and read Dance, one of the longest novels in any language, by the hour, hypnotised by Powell’s sonorous, baroque sentences. Not to mention the riotous comedy.
My grasp of popular culture was not altogether comprehensive at this time. Cahill’s played, every lunchtime and for most of the day, a soundtrack that seemed perfectly suited to Powell’s intricate comedy. This time I did want to have that music — so reflective, so meditative — in the background while I was reading. I asked the cashier what it was but he couldn’t help. I memorised the music so I could imagine it while I read Powell at home, though in truth I did most of my reading in cafes. I did, however, try to read Powell before sleeping in the hope that I would dream myself into his world.
Only many years later did I recognise the music — the background for me to Charles Stringham’s stinging epigrams and Hugh Moreland’s mordant soliloquies — as the sound track to the Godfather films, a discovery I found quite perplexing.
But it is not through music but painting that Dance most actively mixes its artistic genres. It wasn’t for many years that I saw a print of the Nicolas Poussin painting that gave Powell his title. It left me cold. I briefly kept company with a professional art critic who really couldn’t understand how I read Powell at all without knowing the paintings to which he referred so frequently. And so it turned out that I had missed a whole layer of meaning in Powell’s books. But really, things like this are more important to the author than the reader.
A work of art has no right to assume specialist knowledge in the reader, only that level of cultural literacy that used to be associated with the concept of the educated layman. Certainly Poussin’s paintings could be a bridge too far for a popular novelist. But Powell, great master that he was, explained anything that was necessary about the paintings he referred to.
The most successful association of music with non-musical art, though, is through film and television, when the eyes and ears can work simultaneously to a single effect. If you are a certain age you cannot hear the theme song for Bonanza without visualising Hoss and Little Joe, nor of Hawaii Five-O without recalling: ‘‘ Book him, Danno!’’ Such TV shows don’t rank with Tolkien or Powell. But they share an artistic ambition, the willing suspension of disbelief, and a reverend place in the assorted jumble of the baby boomer’s mind.