A talented musician, James arrives in Italy in 1983, just ahead of the panic in New York City caused by the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. In Rome, the Eternal City, he meets Diana. Their attraction is intense and immediate. A passionate relationship is born and soon they are inseparable, reveling in their shared love of art and Italian culture. But storm clouds hang over their union: dark secrets of abuse from his youth, her pain over her brother’s death, and James’s open admission that he has known other men sexually. Back in New York, their relationship falls apart. For James and Diana, it is time to move on; to come to terms with the ghosts that haunt their lives and family histories; to find new paths and new lovers. But the darkness of their relationship is inescapable and persistent even though their love is gone. James has received news that will impact both their lives in devastating ways: He is HIV positive. Joseph Olshan’s The Sound of Heaven is an extraordinary novel, at once romantic and troubling, terrifying and compassionate.
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About the Author
Joseph Olshan is an award-winning American novelist whose works include Cloudland, The Conversion, Nightswimmer, and The Sound of Heaven.His critically acclaimed first novel, Clara's Heart, was the winner of the Times/Jonathan Cape Young Writers’ Competition and subsequently the basis for a motion picture starring Academy Award–winner Whoopi Goldberg. A former book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, Olshan has written extensively for numerous publications including the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Times (London), the Washington Post,Harper’s Bazaar, People magazine, and Entertainment Weekly. Once a professor of creative writing at New York University, Olshan currently lives in Vermont. His work has been translated into sixteen languages.
Read an Excerpt
The Sound of Heaven
By Joseph Olshan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Joseph Olshan
All rights reserved.
'It's james,' he says, characteristically nonchalant. He always clears his throat before speaking, and she knows him even before she hears the voice on the telephone.
'What can I do for you?' She gives a soft, cool reception.
'You don't sound too happy to hear from me.' There's a pause. 'Didn't you think hearing from me was inevitable?'
'I suppose,' Diana says, twisting the white, frayed telephone cord around her fingers. 'I'll bet your girlfriend left you.'
'That's actually true. But—'
'Is that why you're calling me?'
'Not at all. That wouldn't be fair.'
'Not to mention inappropriate.'
James hesitates and then Diana asks, 'So then, why did it end between you?'
'I thought we weren't going to talk about it.'
'We're not. I just want you to answer this one question.'
'Diana, the reasons are so different, nothing like you'd imagine,' he says in a tone of obvious distress.
'You know, I saw the two of you together,' Diana tells him.
'I was wondering how you knew.'
'The city is smaller than you think.'
She saw them only recently, so the relationship must be freshly severed. They were walking arm-in-arm down Bleecker Street, the woman taller than James, dressed in earth- tone silks that shimmered around her frame, slender half-moon calves promising a sensuality that Diana knew her own chunky legs could never give anyone. She was walking toward them and quickly realized that they were all headed to the same destination, a coffee-bean store. James and his girlfriend went inside before they noticed Diana, who hurried away with her eyes to the ground, stung by the sight of this lissome woman, by how casually their hands had been entwined. At that moment it hardly made a difference to Diana that she had Rory in her life. How can it be that we're not together anymore? she wondered, feeling a shock of recognition like that which keeps occurring after the death of a loved one.
Now, in an effort to make conversation, she mentions having seen his name in the paper. 'It sounded like a pretty interesting gig—'
'Diana,' he interrupts, 'I know I've taken you by surprise. I'm sorry. I honestly wouldn't bother you if ' He pauses. 'It weren't absolutely necessary.'
'I just want to remind you that you're the one who's been refusing contact.'
'I know I have. And I told you why. I told you I needed some healing time. Believe me, this has nothing to do with our relationship or the fact that I just broke up with someone. But I'd prefer talking to you in person, and not over the telephone.'
She tells him that Rory is away and won't be back for several days, maybe even a week. 'I just wouldn't feel comfortable seeing you until he's home again.'
'All right,' James says. 'I'll have to wait until then.'
Diana drifts to the window and peers at the stony pleats of Grace Church, which stands a block north of where she lives. It's Sunday afternoon. The latest mass has just ended and below her people are swarming out in dark coats, peering up suspiciously at a cast-iron sky. It is early spring, the trees are just beginning to bud, but the weather still feels locked in a wintry chamber. The wind is harsh, unforgiving and, she imagines, it rattles the morale of the streetwalkers, bent against the invisible gusts.
Since the breakup two years ago, her dreams of James have hardly ceased. Indeed, they feel more like visitations of events that have already happened: an argument in Siena the evening before the Palio; a night in Paris when she threw his diary out of a hotel window; or shortly after they returned to Manhattan, in the wake of a terrible fight when they leaned up against a building outdoors and coupled as though it were the last time they'd ever make love. Shortly after they met she first learned the Italian word incubo, for nightmare, which seems to be a much more appropriate word than its English counterpart. For the waking terror of a nightmare often feels as though it comes from some dreadful memory within the soul.
In Rome four years earlier, the day before she meets James Gregary, Diana overhears two Italian women saying that the blueprint of a relationship is drawn within the first ten minutes of meeting. She never has been able to figure out if the saying should apply to the very first ten minutes she and James spend together because they spend that time with fifteen other people as well. Nevertheless, James still tells a lie in the midst of the private splendor of the Palazzo Doria Pamphili.
A group of eager tourists, Diana among them, is busy exploring the private apartments that annex the art gallery which is only open to the public twice a week. The first moment she sees James, she mistakes him for an Italian. He's wearing tightly fitted chino slacks that hug his densely muscled legs, a pressed cambric shirt that drapes well over a rangy torso and sets off his pale eyes. But then she hears his American voice speaking reverently of the Palazzo's rooms. His hair is gossamer fine, the color of champagne spiked with stout.
Halfway through the tour someone asks him who the current princess married, and he answers, 'An English lord.' Diana knows this is untrue. Just the night before she was having dinner with a friend from high school, now a Jesuit who lives in Rome, who happened to tell her that the princess married a Scottish commoner. Before she approaches James, Diana waits until the tour is over and the visitors are clustering around a desk that is selling tarted-up postcards of the paintings in the main gallery.
'I'm sure you must know she didn't marry a lord,' she tells James.
He turns to her with a bemused look on his face. 'Where are you from in the States?'
'New York. Why?'
'Americans are the only people who ever try to contradict the tour guide,' he says playfully.
A tiny gold chain arcs across his thickly corded neck, dropping a gold cross into the hollow of his throat. She wonders if he is religious, but will learn later that the cross and the chain are gifts from his mother, which is why he wears them.
'You're American, too, aren't you?'
He smiles and nods. 'And you think I give a shit who this lady married? I just spew out what they tell me. I need the salary. But I'd suggest you take it up with them. In fact, I'll show you where to go and complain.'
Shaking her head, Diana looks down at the marble floor, which is veined like flesh. 'It doesn't make a difference to me. I heard differently. And I just wanted to make sure.'
'Well then, I'm sorry I had to lie,' he says. 'I have to go now. I have another tour.' He indicates a line of people waiting by a silk rope that cordons off the inner apartments of the palace. 'If you have any more questions, the woman with the silver hair at the other end of the gallery speaks great English.'
He hurries away before Diana can explain that her Italian is proficient enough to ask questions. She learned the language ten years ago as part of her visual arts degree and has already been in Italy six weeks on an exchange program that was arranged by the Manhattan design firm that now employs her. She watches James take command of the next group of visitors, and then wanders through the gallery of paintings, which is not included in the tour. She finds herself spending a lot of time in front of a Caravaggio: Maria Magdalene sitting in a wooden chair, hands folded primly in her lap, gazing down at a bare floor. It's the first time she's really been struck by Caravaggio, who has captured the woman's look of contrition, her longing for love as well as her momentary self-restraint. All the elements Caravaggio is known for—sensuality, lyricism—here seem to be harnessed in a kind of sobriety, whereas she finds many of his other paintings too fanatical and violent in their imagery. Bronzino, with his dreamy realism, is more to Diana's liking.
She's looking for the ladies' room later on when she sees James standing in a corridor with his head tipped back, as though about to dose himself with some drops. He keeps holding that position, however, and makes no move to apply anything to his eyes. Because he cannot see her, when Diana approaches she plans to show off her Italian to him and ask if anything is wrong. But then she sees the line of blood meandering down his cheek, like a stigmata: a nosebleed. 'I'll get you something for that,' she tells him in English, and runs to the ladies' room, returning a moment later with some coarse brown- paper towels. She tilts his head back, holding it in the crook of her arm, and wads the paper against his bleeding.
How strange nosebleeds are, she thinks. More often than not nosebleeds come on as gently as a nasal drip, without warning, shocking one with a flag of color on the hands or a crimson drop on a white napkin, or a sink basin. As a child Diana hated having blood drawn at the doctor's office and wished that her nose would start bleeding and that the blood could be collected in a paper cup in order to avoid the painful pricking of the needle.
James finally leans upright, taking the blood-soaked paper from her, and continues to hold it to his nose. She's struck by his eyes, the color of a cobalt glass that has faded from years of being washed. She tells him she's surprised to find an American giving tours of the Palazzo. 'They told me my Italian is good enough to lead tours in English,' he explains and they laugh. She asks if he's a painter and he shakes his head and says he plays the oboe, that he came to Rome two years ago in order to study with a certain teacher. As he speaks he keeps peering at her in a strange, probing way. His mood seems extreme with a hint of trouble to it and she's intrigued.
Then someone calls out, 'Gregary, telefono.' He actually starts at the sound of his own name, his eyes opening wide. 'Would you like to have dinner tonight?' he whispers.
Taken aback, Diana can do no better than shrug nervously.
'Would you prefer to make it another night?'
'No,' she says, 'I think I'll be free.'
'Then wait right here, I'll be back. Just let me get rid of this phone call,' he says as he lets himself past the silk cordon that marks the beginning of the private apartments, and vanishes into the depths of the Palazzo.CHAPTER 2
After his phone call to Diana is over, James presses his shoulders against the cracked plaster wall and sinks down until he's sitting on the wooden floor. It has taken him two days to build up the courage for the telephone call, and, now that he's made it, he'll have to wait another week before telling her he's going to die.
Her new boyfriend is out of town, and she refuses to see James until the man returns. In an effort to meet earlier James tries to point out that she could very easily explain her plans long distance. And yet he cannot press her as he might have done once; after all he is the one who severed all communication. He almost blurts out the news, but is afraid of being rejected without even being able to see her.
He looks around his small studio apartment—the bed built on a high platform, the wobbling parson's table with high-back, carved chairs, a porcelain wash-basin that his mother brought back from Ireland one summer—amazed at how little changed it is with his latest girlfriend's departure. She has her own apartment and kept only a few things in his closet: a business suit, a blue-and-white striped caftan that she wore after taking long baths. He tries to reassure himself that a mere six weeks with someone can make only so many inroads into the soul. He decides that it takes a minute to fall into obsession; whereas it takes a long time to fall in love, and that this pain that centers just below the solar plexus is caused by sexual withdrawal. He looks at his watch: it's an hour before he's due at the doctor's office.
The rest of the day stretches out before him. Because his basement flat is half above, half below ground, the sun's arc can never come directly inside, but rather paints a cord of shadow that lightens and deepens as the day wears on, as the obstruction of buildings comes and goes. It's good light for long practice sessions. The outdoors never beckons, and sometimes he can go a few days without leaving, which is what he did when it ended with Diana. He'd play the second movement of the Mozart Oboe Concerto, relishing the notes of the upper register. He'd stay up all night shaping cane for his reeds. He tried to pamper himself. He listened to Telemann, made risotto with cans of minestrone soup. He felt hopeful surges of what the future might bring but then would fall back into the chasm of missing Diana, blaming himself for causing the ruin of the relationship, which never survived the transplant from Rome to America. In Rome there would have been any number of fine walks to take, monuments and out-of-the-way museums to distract him from the pain of the present. Unlike New York, Rome itself gave any stranger a warm embrace.
Four years before, he is renting a flat in a dilapidated building off the Campo dei Fiori: two small bedrooms, each furnished with a crusty set of metal drawers and a washstand, a large rectangular living-room that overlooks the Piazza Farnese. The living-room is partially covered by a runner of a threadbare Turkish Kilem. A fireplace mantel at one end of the room holds a reproduction Louis XIV gilded clock that belongs to his room-mate, who is a pianist, as well as a brass gondola, a pair of tiny blue porcelain cats joined at the hip, a soapstone statue of Pan. A round-backed sofa whose guts are coming out in places offers a wonderful, sink-down luxury. The building itself has been frequented by music students since the fifteenth century.
In Rome, while he practices, he loves to sit next to a window and look down on the open- air market. He can hear the cries of the vendors and smell the anise and citrus. He can see wooden bins glistening with Arabian dates, and green Reine Claude plums whose insides are the color of the sunlight in turn-of-the-century photographs and which taste sweeter than any plum he's ever tasted in America.
The first time Diana comes to visit his place he's preparing to audition for a baroque trio who have lost their oboist to the Berne Symphony Orchestra. The remaining two members have more or less the same amount of training as James and, like him, are in their early thirties. Their careers, however, follow more classical performing, whereas James, before coming to Italy, gave up on a conventional career and began playing in pick-up orchestras for traveling musicals. Diana arrives just as he finishes running through a Bach variation. Still holding his instrument, he makes her stand at the window and, through the commotion of the market, points out the statue of the monk who was once executed, explaining that at one time the Campo dei Fiori was a legal execution site.
She asks him to play something for her. He hesitates at first and she insists until he decides to play the variation he's just practiced. He compresses his lips and seeks contact with that melancholy sound, the sound of the 'duck' that he'd fallen in love with as a child when he first listened to 'Peter and the Wolf, the sound that spirited him away from his father's fury. As he plays he stares at Diana: her thick, dark mane of hair with the few glossy streaks of gray heightening her pond-green eyes that protrude slightly as the result of a hyperthyroid, her long dark lashes, her light-olive skin. She has a small perfect nose which people think—being that she's Jewish—she must have had fixed. She's buxom with a small waist, sturdy legs that are wonderful to make love to; their grip is viselike. He loves the smell of her, a sweet, sort of sandalwood scent that mingles with the various fragrances of her body. He hungrily smells everything of hers: sweaters, underwear, the ridge at the very top of her buttocks, which smells like dried flowers, the place between her breasts where his spittle dries after he licks her there.
'You play beautifully,' she praises him when he finishes. 'But I guess you know that.'
'No, it's always nice to get a compliment. Would you like to go have coffee somewhere?' His room-mate is due home any minute, which would impinge upon their lovemaking, and he's hoping that after coffee she'll invite him back to her place in Trastevere.
He takes her to the café at the corner of the Campo and orders them double cappuccini that arrive in huge, ivory-colored bowls with blue piping.
'How long have you been playing the oboe?' she asks.
'Since I was twelve.'
'Isn't that a little late to start?'
Excerpted from The Sound of Heaven by Joseph Olshan. Copyright © 1992 Joseph Olshan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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