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The Big Issue: "[Saving Mozart] reads like an unexpected gift."

Date: Jan 15 2014

You’ve heard of a ‘selfie’: David Cameron crops up in them a lot with Danish PMs, or snoozing behind sisters-in-law.

Well a ‘shelfie’ – apparently – is the bookish equivalent of this narcissistic phenomenon: it is a picture of your bookshelves and the term has been cropping up on Twitter on an almost daily basis lately along with blurry images of book spines and modular Ikea furniture.

This reminds us that books aren’t mere stories or facts, they are trophies to brag about. This is why the Kindle, while hugely successful, hasn’t swallowed the industry up in the way many feared it would. Ebooks are convenient but lack the fetishist obsession a lot of devoted readers hold for the books they themselves have hunted down in shops, online or amid cardboard boxes of dusty paperbacks.

And so the idea of a shelfie strikes a chord – not least with me at the moment because, unexpectedly, I’ve lived the past six months without bookshelves at all. Since we moved home in the summer my personal library has been in storage while we negotiate with planners and builders over renovations.

At night I occasionally fret about them getting damp. Or I wish I could read one immediately. Now. This minute.

I had only got halfway through Game of Thrones, for instance, and I’ve been promising myself an indulgent holiday splurge on Roth and McCarthy for ages. Others I keep for less tangible reasons. I haven’t read Kundera since my late teens, but I’ve carried those Faber paperbacks with me from address to address, reluctant to surrender them.

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I suspect Raphaël Jerusalmy would understand all this. He is the author of Saving Mozart. A slim novel, it reads like an unexpected gift.

An aged classical music critic is dying of TB in a Salzburg sanatorium. It’s 1939 and his beloved Festspiele – an annual music festival which is still staged today – has been co-opted by the Nazis. His fellow Austrians are fascinatingly, infuriatingly docile.

We all think we’ve read all there is to read about the second world war, then another writer comes along with a different story to tell and you realise you haven’t.

Written as a journal, Saving Mozart has a lead character and narrator named Otto J Steiner. From collaborator – who lives in fear that his Jewish blood will be revealed to someone in authority – to heroic would-be assassin, he is a delicious mix of the vain, the vulnerable, the pathetic and the noble.

This is a novel that will astonish and delight. I found it hugely moving, not least because of the overwhelming sense of loss, of a life that is spent, of the material objects that we gather around us ultimately being meaningless.

In wartime, food is more valuable than even the rarest musical manuscripts, so Otto does of course sell his prized possessions. Without my own books around me, I know a little of how he feels at that point.

But the uplifting thing? That he gets over the loss remarkably quickly, that it fails to destroy him. Which made me think, perhaps an e-reader wouldn’t be so bad.

-Thomas Quinn

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