Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The title of this work is rich in possible meanings, to which there are allusions at various points; religious, musical, or phallic connotations may be found in references to Aaron’s instrument. At times, it is depicted as flowering, or putting forth means for his support. When he is with the Marchesa, his flute is described as blossoming again. After it is destroyed and Aaron throws the remaining piece in the river, Lilly is confident that his rod will be regenerated. The Old Testament is invoked as well: The chapters dealing with Aaron’s desertion of his wife (significantly named Lottie) and the breakdown of further communications with her are entitled “The Pillar of Salt” and “More Pillar of Salt.” It is perhaps noteworthy as well that the first opera described is Aida, with its ancient Egyptian setting; Aaron later regards the Marchesa as a modern-day embodiment of the Queen of the Nile. This metaphorical pattern, though inconsistent, is not obtrusive, and it points to the extent to which Aaron has come upon a parting of the ways from which he cannot very well look back again.

The conflict between business and art, and Aaron’s apparently impulsive decision to pursue his musical career come what may, take place in a world where ordinary values no longer quite hold sway, but new ideals have not arisen in their place. Much of the work shows people without fixed stations in life, with Aaron at their center. There is much conversation: One chapter is devoted to “Talk,” and another, the last, is called “Words.” It is important perhaps that, when the discussions turn from military and political issues, Aaron holds forth with some conviction on the relative merits of various composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; on this plane definite values may still be sought and cherished. The search for some moral and aesthetic center of gravity is less straightforward: The question of whether desertion and adultery are compatible with modern mores becomes subsumed beneath larger questions affecting ways of life in the postwar world. That the outcome of Aaron’s quest remains indistinct may frustrate some readers and seem peculiarly appropriate to others.