Walter Scott Prize shortlist: Half Blood Blues

Richard Lee, Debbie Schoeneman, Gregory Baird


Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues: fiddling while Rome burns

Edugyan’s first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, garnered some good reviews, but fascinatingly divides opinion on Goodreads. Her second, Half Blood Blues seems to have almost universal praise. It has already won the Scotiabank Giller and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

This kind of historical novel puts something normal in the foreground (in this case a passion for jazz music and performing) against a historical background that swamps the characters and ultimately dictates the story. The idea is that this a different way of seeing both the foreground (back-lit, imbued with a significance it might otherwise not have achieved) and the background. After all, people can live full emotional lives even in war. Of course they care about Hitler, but they also care about their passions and ambitions. Literary forebears are The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful rendition of a butler’s life, Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernieres’ heartbreaking evocation of life in a small Turkish town, or The Last Valley, J.B. Pick’s book (and James Clavell’s epic film) of a valley shielded from the Thirty Years War. In ‘popular’ fiction it is the theme of any number of sagas where ordinary people find love and tragedy in extraordinary circumstances – effectively just waiting for the whole madness to stop.

Half Blood Blues also brings to the broth an interesting element of racism. At first Europe seems a good and liberal place for Jazz. This clearly changes.

This time we have a staff writer, Debbie Schoeneman – who runs our original fiction team – and guest writer Gregory Baird to look at Half Blood Blues as ‘literary historical fiction’.

This is the fifth in a series of 8 articles featuring the Walter Scott Prize. You can read the first here: What is Literary Historical Fiction?, and the second here: Walter Scott Prize shortlist: On Canaan’s Side, the third here: Walter Scott Prize shortlist: Pure and the fourth here: Walter Scott Prize shortlist: The Stranger’s Child.

Debbie Schoeneman admires a remarkable new voice in historical fiction

Louie Armstrong once said, “We all do ‘do, re mi’ but you have got to find the other notes yourself.” This quote epitomizes the story told by Esi Edugyan in this novel about a jazz group, The Hot Time Swingers, who played during WWII in Berlin and Paris. It was a dangerous time for the band members, Hieronymous Falk on trumpet, Ernst “the Mouth” von Haselberg on clarinet, Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax, Paul Butterstein on piano, Chip Jones on drums, and the narrator, Sid Giffiths on the “upright” (bass). In this world, the Nazis want to eliminate not only the Jews but also the blacks (or Afro-Germans as they are called) and traitors in Germany and later across Europe.  The story flows back and forth between 1939 and 1992 in Berlin, Paris, and Baltimore, Maryland in the U.S.A.  One can list the events that the band experience at the hands of the Nazi soldiers (“the Boot” as they are called); but capturing the essence of conflict between fear of capture, the conflict of personalities, and external obstacles in musical form provides the exquisite beauty within this unique work of historical fiction.

The reader is immediately struck by the language of the narrator and group, a series of smooth yet stark phrases and sentences mirroring the sporadic but feverish malaise and movement:

“Hell, let me help you picture it. Take ‘37’s Degenerate Art soiree in Munich, replace the paintings with posters of jungle minstrels squawking on their saxes, and flood the rooms with beautiful music, and you got the idea. We was officially degenerate. And like a shadow running beneath all that, there was gates scrubbing cobblestones with rags, gates getting truncheoned just for sitting in a damn café, gates reduced to eating from backstreet garbage bins.  And the poor damn Jews, clubbed to a pulp in the streets, their shopfronts smashed up, their axes ripped from their hands. Hell. When that old ivory-tickler Volker Schramm denounced his manager Martin Miller as a false Aryan, we known Berlin wasn’t Berlin no more.  It been a damn savage decade. So, yes, Paris sounded pretty tempting.”

The irony of their desperation lies in the African-German Hieronymous Falk being the most talented of the group, a gift revered by those in love with his creative, natural musical expression and reviled by those jealous of one whose origins left him “stateless,” a man without a true home.  Hitler or “the Housepainter” as he is herein called will not tolerate the “dirty music” he believes is a natural product of such low-born creatures, so the path to “the Kid” or Hiero’s later arrest in Paris and interment in a concentration camp seems inevitable.  How is it then that preceding that horror, the Kid is frequently paralyzed with fear and in the next moment playing music that was:

“…the voice of a country preacher too green to convince the flock. He talked against us like he was begging us to listen. He wailed. He moaned. He pleaded and seethed.  He dragged every damn feeling out that trumpet but hate.  A sort of naked, pathetic way of playing.  Like he done flipped the whole thing inside out, its nerves flailing in the air.  He bent the notes, slurred them in a way that made us play harder against him.  And the more we disagreed, the stronger he pleaded. But his pleading ain’t never ask for nothing, just seemed to be there for its own damn sake.” 

The notes here and elsewhere are found in raw dialogue construed from historical and psychological rivers flowing day-to-day and coalescing into an awe-inspiring, vibrant sound.

That music will be transformed further after the arrival of Delilah who introduces them to Louie Armstrong, the Master, and enables their escape to Paris under forged documents for all but one of the group.  Sid falls in love with Delilah, whose attention mostly falls on the Kid, a focus Sid fails to recognize as protective and comforting without an ounce of sexuality in its direction. Sid takes center stage here as his extreme reactions hurt his playing and winds up with him being rejected by Louie for the final cutting of the record, “Half-Blood Blues.”  It’s a gut punch that may or may not be behind his eventual betrayal of and responsibility for Hiero’s bleak future in a German prison.  Imagine being described as a safe and dependable member of the band years later, when all one ever dreamed of was glory? Was it jealousy or just a parade of bad luck that led to the loss of several members? Are they paranoid from the experience? Is the “whine” behind Sid’s reminiscences a bit much at times or merely guilt rearing its subconscious head in words that must be released? How much of the music is an apology for failures that had such immense and brutal consequences? The relationship between Chip and Sid is laced with intense closeness and hatred.  Their half-blood blues yield dialogue and music laced with history’s relentless chords of discord, strife and terror.

The highs and lows of the ties binding these jazz players makes one awesome read.  This is living history, a combination of researched facts and imagined thoughts, words, deeds, and feelings expressed in “half-blood blues” that one can literally hear as one reads and is still imagining days later.

It is no wonder that this novel was a finalist for the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award and The Rogers Writer’ Trust Fiction Prize, a winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and a finalist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Precisely what is it that has so captivated readers and writers in this very different story?  The riveting plot, character depictions, setting presentation, and narrative reflections are so vividly played out in word form that something new emerges in the characters’ music and the reader’s experience.  In the face of such vivid prose, a finale with its consequences resonating for a long time speaks volumes about the creative potential and wonder of great historical fiction. What a magnificent read!!!

Gregory Baird finds it impossible not to fall under Esi Edugyan’s spell

“That was why I come. Not to find a friend, but to finally, and forever, lose one.”

The downside of being an avid reader is that you can go through a great deal of books without really connecting to one. It’s not that you’re jaded, just that at a certain point it takes more to really impress you. There are, after all, only so many stories a person can tell, so plots become cliched, characters become familiar. But every once in a while a voice comes along that makes you sit up and pay attention. A voice that takes familiar notions and makes them feel fresh–alive. It sends a shiver down your spine when it happens. That is exactly what happened to me when I picked up Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues–right from the first page, when she wrote “we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor.”

If I had to describe Half-Blood Blues very quickly I’d say that it’s like Cabaret crossed with Amadeus with a dash of Atonement, but that wouldn’t exactly do it justice. The plot follows the Hot-Time Swingers: jazz musicians who were on the brink of greatness until World War II broke out and shattered their lives forever. First we have Sid Griffiths, our narrator, whose passion for music fills every pore on his body (on his first experience hearing jazz in a speakeasy: “I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather–this, this was life to me.”). His passion leads him and his childhood friend Chip away from Baltimore and all the way to Germany, where there’s a great deal of excitement about the burgeoning jazz scene. They have to go a little underground once the Nazis come to power, but leaving would be impossible to Sid. Especially after they hook up with Hieronymous “Hiero” Falk, a young prodigy who both inspires and infuriates Sid with his natural talent. Sid advocates for the kid but can’t help but undermine him in increasingly less subtle ways, acting as something of a Salieri to Hiero’s Amadeus. “I admit it,” Sid notes. “He got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me, It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly.” They eventually escape to Paris with the help of the haunting jazz singer Delilah, and while this should have been their saving grace, it ends up being their downfall.

But this is only half of the story. The other half takes place in 1992, when Sid and Chip are invited back to Berlin to attend the premier of a documentary honoring the memory of Hiero, who was arrested by the Gestapo after the Nazis occupied France, and never seen again (this is no spoiler, by the way. It happens in the first chapter, and the narrative goes back and forth between WWII and 1992 to flesh out the details). The journey to Berlin stirs intense feelings of pain and guilt in Sid, but the truth is that these emotions have never been unfamiliar to him in the decades since Hiero vanished. Sid may be the narrator, but it is Hiero who drives the plot, whose spectral presence haunts every page.

It’s a story of passion, jealousy, and betrayal, and while these elements feel familiar (and at times predictable), it is impossible not to fall under Edugyan’s spell. Her writing is beautiful, and the way she weaves all of the plot elements together belies the incredible craftsmanship it must have taken to make it all feel so organic. Sid is an incredibly contradictory character; he says ” I guess folk just ain’t built to be faithful to nothing, not even to pain. Not even when it their own,” but the way he has lived his life shows that he has never been able to forget the hurts inflicted on him by Hiero and Delilah, let alone the pain he caused them. Sid has lived with this ache but he is incapable of confronting it directly. I don’t think it is unfair to say that when he travels back to Berlin he is hoping to finally find some form of release from his memories. So despite these contradictions Sid never feels false; on the contrary, the fact that he is at odds with himself is the very thing that brings him to vibrant life. Edugyan even pulls off one of my most common gripes when she briefly introduces Louis Armstrong as a character. Now, I generally roll my eyes when an author inserts a real person into a historical novel, but that’s because most writers do it in the most clumsy, contrived manner possible. Not so with Edugyan. Armstrong’s place in the story feels natural, organic. She doesn’t just put him there for kicks–she makes him an integral force in the plot.

I hadn’t so thoroughly enjoyed a novel this much since I read The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. last summer. Falling under a book’s spell is a thrilling experience, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy Half-Blood Blues as much as I did.

Read more from Gregory Baird at his blog, Supposedly Fun.

Esi Edugyan talks about Half Blood Blues

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