Writing about love is hard. One has to navigate around so many obstacles: romantic clichés, pornography, cynicism, and the desire to sing Barry Manilow lyrics. Writing about ghost lovers is even harder. Is it possible for an author of realistic literary fiction to write about a character who believes herself to be in a romantic relationship with a dead man—and to do so without mocking the character? Louise Erdrich does so in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001).
The main character of The Last Report is Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest who serves the Ojibwe Indians on a North Dakota reservation named Little No Horse. He has tended them faithfully for many decades and has earned their trust. One thing his flock does not know about him, however, is that he is actually a woman named Agnes (a.k.a. Sister Cecilia). (I am not giving anything away here. Readers know this from the beginning of the novel.) Agnes has had a few romantic relationships in her life. Perhaps the most passionate of them was with the spirit of Frederic Chopin.
The Last Report is a long and complex novel with many disparate strands. Agnes’ erotic relationship to a dead composer is just one thread of this intoxicating book. It is a strand I found compelling, though–maybe because I am learning to play the piano myself, or maybe because I find it easy to become deeply attached to a beloved author. (I may have had an erotic dream about Chaucer when I was younger.)
As a very young woman, Agnes DeWitt becomes a nun and is called Sister Cecilia. She takes her vows seriously and considers herself married to God. God has some competition, though. Her true love is music:
“She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be concentrated in her being—which was half music, half divine light, only flesh to the degree she could not admit otherwise. At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling sound.” (14)
Agnes empties her whole soul into her piano, especially when she plays Chopin. It was “as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascade of notes” (14). Put simply, “Chopin’s spirit became her lover. His flats caressed her. His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles. His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue. His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane” (15).
Her relationship with Chopin is so real to her that she feels guilty about it. After Agnes leaves the convent and receives a marriage proposal from Berndt Vogel, she tells him “that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself soul to soul with Christ, but she had already been unfaithful—her phantom lover the Polish composer—thus already living out too grievous a destiny to become a bride” (17). Chopin, through his music, has become more real to her than anything else in her life.
To be clear, Agnes is not psychotic. She is not pathetic. She has simply realized that piano music is where she can best express the essence of herself. In a very real sense, she finds herself in communion with Chopin through the music he composed a century earlier. When she plays his music, he comes alive for her:
“There was the scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere. The silk of his heavy, brown hair. A man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat. His voice, she heard it, avid and light. It was as though the composer himself had entered the room. Who knows? Surely there was no more desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s. Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the grave. At any rate, she played Chopin” (16).
Because she is able to summon him through his music, Chopin the man exists as a real lover for Agnes, one who provides erotic satisfaction. Berndt Vogel realizes this truth about Agnes as he watches her play: “and as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed Berndt had just watched the woman he loved [Agnes] make love to a dead man” (22).
I find Louise Erdrich an astonishing writer or many reasons. One of them is her abililty to convey how the unseen world—be it the world of the spirit or the world of the imagination —is for some people more vivid and meaningful than the so-called “real world.” I wish I could tell you in Three Easy Steps how Erdrich does it so well. Certainly she relies on sensory detail and a varied sentence structure. Mostly, though, I think it is her openness to the possibilities of the world. She refuses to reduce the world to simple categories of real/not real, physical/not physical. She sees fullness where others might see lack, magic where others see bareness. She is well worth the read!