Monday, November 24, 2008

Bach Bachanalia (yes, I know it's been done to death)

Gabriel Josipovici - "Golberg: Variations"
Rereading the “Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, I found the Tao Te Ching quote “The wise are not erudite, The erudite are not wise” which this morning immediately came to mind when I started thinking of Gabriel Josipovici. Josipovici is a very erudite writer who may or may not also be wise – though it would hardly be fair that he were both.

“Goldberg: Variations” takes the famous episode of Bach’s composition – supposedly commissioned by the insomniac Count Kaiserling, to be played by the interpreter Goldberg - and replaces the episode in England on the 1800s. Here we have Goldberg who has been summoned to the presence of Mr Tobias Westfield in his large country estate. Westfield is a chronic insomniac for whom a musician has proven no comfort – he therefore engages a writer thinking that, as a voracious reader and indifferent music lover he will find words more soothing than notes.

However, the catch as far as Goldberg is concerned, is that he is to produce original work to be read at Westfield’s bedside – and prolific and famous though he is (one chapter sees him invited to the court of King George) – the task triggers a gigantic writer’s block.

This is the start of the variations – the chapters take the reader backwards and forwards in time; seem sometimes to repeat certain themes and suddenly to introduce completely new ones, while the end brings us back to the beginning. All of which, aims to mimic the very structure of the variations.

Not having formal musical training myself I really can’t take that analysis much further. The rest are themes: conversations that range from the issue of lies in the literature of Homer,

“But is it not perhaps we who are at a fault? Asks Golberg. Do we not have too anxious a relation to truth? Earlier ages, which trusted more in providence than we do, were not afraid of lies, saw them, in fact as being necessary as speech itself to man in his dealings with others. (…) It is perhaps only those who are less than confident of the truth who fear, as we do, the indubitable power of lies.”

the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Victor,

“I am well aware of the fragility of what we call civilization, Goldberg says. I am well aware of how little it would take to turn you or me into Victors and how little even the most well-meaning would be able to do for us then. It takes years for us to feel our way up into society, years in which, with luck, our parents will help and protect us, but it takes very little to throw us back into the darkness.”

and the archeological discovery of the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney and the family history of both Westfield and Goldberg told by different characters, wifes, sons, mistresses. Suddenly, the reader is catapulted to the present time where an unnamed author (presumably, at first, the author of the book we are reading) is on a sort of pilgrimage to see Klee’s painting “Wander-Artist” (on the cover).

Well, according to the back-cover there are loads of references to “Holderlin, Kierkegaard and others” – but, not being much of an erudite myself I must confess I didn’t exactly identify them. All in all, “Goldberg Variations” gave me the same feeling I had when, about 16 years old, I read Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” – that a lot of it, veiled references, hints etc were going right over my head (not that I figured them out in the mean time, by the way)- and frankly, it’s not entirely bad. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like there is a whole trove of knowledge to aspire to.

Just remember, it won’t make you wise.

No comments: