Organist, The

18 June 2020

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind
by Mark Abley
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95 (softcover) ISBN 9-780889-777613

Does anyone ever really know anyone else? In multi-genre writer Mark Abley’s absorbing memoir, The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, the Pointe Claire, QC writer contemplates the life of his perplexing father, Harry Abley – virtuoso organist, composer, and music teacher with a complex “range of identities” – and in doing so the author attempts to reconcile why this accomplished and restless man, more than twenty years gone, never seemed enough to his only child.

Abley has a dozen critically-acclaimed books behind him and I heartily recommend this title because the writing’s exceptional: I was hooked by the end of the short prologue. The work is also honest. Abley admits that “any picture I draw of [his father] becomes an exercise in self-portraiture.” I commend that clear-eyed confession: it helps me to trust the writer, and know there’ll be no subterfuge. I also applaud the book’s interesting structure, conversational tone, and the gentle pacing of its ending … despite their often tempestuous relationship, Abley seems in no hurry to kill his father off quickly on the page.

As Abley sets out the details of his father’s life – from a stuttering child in Knighton (on the English/Welsh border) to organist, choirmaster, and composer at Saskatoon’s St. John’s Cathedral (and other churches) to celebrated concert organist in Germany, we learn about the musician’s “artistic temperament,” his social gaffes, and his passion for “the instrument of his life,” the commanding pipe organ. “Music showed him a way to God,” Abley writes, and he never doubts his father’s musical genius, but two pages later the author wonders: “Have I ever met a person so profoundly alone?” The elder Abley seemed “equally gifted at music and resentment.”

There’s much, too, about Abley’s mother within these pages, a woman “of profound religious faith, and blessed by hope.” While reading about her husband’s obstinacy and her patience and good cheer, one can’t help but see this woman as a minor saint. The writer recalls his mother telling him, as a boy of “nine or ten,” that he was “more of a man” then than his father would ever be. Her son became “the heart of [her] emotional life.”

Probably every human is a chameleon, some just more obviously than others. Abley senior’s mood could “darken like a thundercloud.” He was outspoken, “hideously inappropriate” at social gatherings and “suffered from depression.” The depression “was like ivy, twisting and curling around his mind, adding a perpetual weight, crowding out all other growth.” All that, yet students found him “tremendously encouraging,” and his music was exquisite. “It’s as if he poured a sweetness of spirit into his art, leaving the acid for daily life.”

Among Harry Abley’s peccadilloes was this: although he delivered “speeches,” “complaints,” and “rants,” he left his son no stories. Mark Abley, then, has mined his own memory; spoken to his father’s acquaintances, colleagues, and former students; and “advertise[d] [the writer’s own] scars.” In doing so, he’s fashioned an interesting and “open-hearted” story, impeccably told.


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