Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin: from delight to disillusionment in 200 pages

In these playful vignettes, Ron Butlin looks at the lives of the great composers and philosophers from unusual but always entertaining angles. Vivaldi’s creative block is freed with God’s gift of the number 3; Mozart struggles for financial independence by becoming Salzburg’s first private eye; Haydn’s publicity benefits from an appearance on the Jerry Springer show … Many previously undocumented events from the history of Western civilisation are relayed here with a zany touch and a delicious sense of the absurd.

This is one of those books that I’ve had for a while, started once, gave up on, but then kept just in case I felt more in the mood for it later. Well, later turned out to be about five years or so and I only rediscovered where I’d put this collection of short stories when we were doing a grand tidy-out of the flat recently.

So I started it once more, being particularly enthused as I’ve always had a soft spot for the short story. And I have to say that at the beginning the whole energetic surrealist approach to little-known aspects (in so many ways!) of the lives of the composers and the odd philosopher or two utterly charmed me and I spent the first pages chortling away and yelping in delight. Quite a frightening experience for my husband at the other side of the breakfast table really, but then he is used to this kind of behaviour … Anyway, how can you resist this beginning:

Never having seen a sheep in Venice, junior-priest Antonio Vivaldi began counting cardinals instead, cardinals jumping off the papal balcony. Cardinal number one, then cardinal number two went leaping over the stone balustrade in a swirl of burgundy-and-scarlet cape.

Fabulous image and one that still stays with me. Strangely though, after this very positive beginning, I found it didn’t take me long to become rather wearied of the whole routine and I began to understand why I’d given up on it previously. Not to say that these stories aren’t charming, witty, erudite and beautifully surreal, and I particularly loved the way Butlin kicks time zones into touch with pizzazz so that composers have their mobile phones and worry about supermarkets etc etc. But I have to admit that after a while the format became distinctly wearing and I couldn’t really tell one composer from another. Then again, I’m a musical dunce so readers who know their music and composers may very well get much more out of these than I did.

That said, the writing is indeed lovely and very vibrant, though still keeping that hint of quasi-Byronic undercutting humour:

For the last few months the city of Hamburg had come to a complete standstill; the hands of every clock and watch remained stuck at a quarter to five on a winter’s evening. The sea mist that had once soaked into the cobbles and saturated the masonry of the houses now oozed back out of the stonework like so much chilled sweat; the rigging of the motionless ships on the Elbe hung slack with moisture that dripped and dripped … Low sagging cloud and the Baltic seeped into each other along a horizon that was never more than a few yards away. Everyone knew it was Brahms’s fault.

I also enjoyed both Alma Mahler’s story and the final story where we get a glimpse of the women in the composers’ lives, as that felt very refreshing after the mainly male-dominated focus of the book.

However, reading this collection felt very much as if there’d been a knock on my door and I opened it to see a very witty and charming person on the threshold whom naturally I invited in to spend an evening of bonhomie. But after the first couple of glasses of wine and the third very entertaining story from my unexpected guest, I became increasingly desperate for him to leave and by midnight I was bundling him out of the door, whilst sobbing and begging him not to come back. No matter how wise and witty his conversation. If you see what I mean.

So perhaps this is a book to be enjoyed in small doses. Because it is good and please don’t think it isn’t. It’s just rather overwhelming if you read it all at once, so I suggest that you have something else more substantial on the go, reading wise, and dip into this one for the odd story when you’re in the mood. Much like appreciating those one or two mint chocolates after the Christmas dinner – don’t try to hog the whole box!

Vivaldi and the Number 3, Serpent’s Tail Press, 2004, ISBN: 9-781852 428426

[Anne enjoys a short story collection as much as the next person, but probably needs to update her musical knowledge. She’s written short stories about arty matters herself, now and again.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at:,, and (for fantasy fiction).

6 comments on “Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin: from delight to disillusionment in 200 pages

  1. kirstyjane
    March 2, 2011

    I know exactly what you mean – that feeling of having overdone it is very familiar… This collection sounds great, and I love the leaping cardinals!

  2. annebrooke
    March 2, 2011

    You may love it, Kirsty! Especially those cardinals 🙂


  3. Nikki
    March 7, 2011

    I love the comparison to a box of chocolates. All too often I try to read a collection of short stories as you might read a novel – one page after another. Perhaps this is exactly why I don’t enjoy short stories!

  4. Anne Brooke
    March 7, 2011

    Thanks, Nikki! Usually, like you, I prefer to read a short story collection straight through so I can get a feel for the themes and ebbs/flows of the thing – I do think a collection should hang together and be just as much of a coherent whole as a novel is – but this one simply doesn’t march to the beat of that drum (if I can use another analogy!)…



  5. Jackie
    March 7, 2011

    I wondered if the reader had to know anything about the musicians to understand this book, but with all of the magical realism, it doesn’t seem necessary. I can see how a whole book of those types of stories could be a bit too much. But taken in small doses, as you recommend, one might get caught up in the whimsy.

  6. annebrooke
    March 7, 2011

    Possibly not, Jackie. Not being a musician at all, I really wasn’t sure. But, as you say, these could still be enjoyable in small doses!


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