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A Severe Mercy and its soundtrack

July 17, 2011

I first read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken in the summer of 2004.  The book captured me like few others have, not only because of its autobiographical story of a young couple’s love, faith, and untimely encounter with death, but also because of how beautifully it is written.  The author’s reflection upon his marriage and loss of his young wife is poetic, heart-rendingly honest, and magical.  It quickly earned the title of Favorite Book of All Time in my estimation.  It was a timely first read in 2004, as just a month or so later, a friend’s husband passed away suddenly at the age of 26.  They had been married only 13 months.  The book became my guide, my sounding-board for grief over the loss of young life and love.  I have re-read the book near-annually since.

After my friend Emmett passed away last month, I knew it was time for the yearly reading of A Severe Mercy.  As I started to read, I was expecting a new wave of grief for Emmett or the other friends I have lost.  Instead, I found myself swept up in the music of the story.  Vanauken mentions a piece of classical music for the many seasons and moods of his romance with Davy:  the “Humoresque” was one of the first ways he told her “I love you,” Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was the anthem of their love, “The Love for the Three Oranges” a means of resolving fights.

I decided to read the book in a way I never had before: accompanied by its own soundtrack.  With the help of google, I have been tracking down recordings of each piece online and playing them while I read.  What a rich experience it has been!  I feel as though I am in the room as Van, Davy, and their friends listen to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, the “Pathetique,” on the brink of war with Japan.  I feel I am beginning to understand what music meant to this remarkable couple, its powerful ability to represent emotions and evoke memories.  I find myself wishing that more of my life’s memories had their own soundtrack.

You can probably anticipate my recommendations: reading A Severe Mercy, reading with its soundtrack playing in the background, and doing the same for any other books that mention musical pieces.

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4 comments

  1. Love that book, also. Did you ever read “Under the Mercy” by Sheldon Van Auken which is very different, but about his life afterwards.


    • I did read Under the Mercy, though I was a little disappointed by it. I was interested to find out more about his life after Davy’s death, but I didn’t think it was as well written or half as enchanting as the first book.


  2. can you provide a list of the songs you found in that book?
    I would love to do the same!


    • I will try to find the list for you…I seem to have misplaced it! And may I ask…are you a friend of mine or a visitor? Thanks for reading!



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