Saturday, July 12, 2008
Goldberg: Variations, by Gabriel Josipovici
Gabriel Josipovici is one of those writers I had heard good things about on the book blogs (I know I read about him on Litlove's blog, for example), but had never heard of before that. After reading Stefanie's fascinating review of Goldberg: Variations, I decided to give it a try--and I'm very happy that I did. Goldberg: Variations is a novel of sorts, inspired by Bach's Goldberg Variations, that legend has were a series of 30 musical pieces composed at the behest of an insomniac patron named Goldberg.
In Josipovici's version, some time in the late 18th century, Samuel Goldberg, a writer and a Jew, takes a job reading to English aristocrat Tobias Westfield. Westfield is troubled by his thoughts, and cannot sleep at night. He has heard of the talented Goldberg and hopes that Goldberg's voice will soothe him to sleep. When Goldberg meets Westfield, he finds that Westfield does not just want him to read him to sleep--instead, he must compose something new every day to read to Westfield each night. Goldberg's financial situation demands that he accept this challenge, but he finds he has writer's block, and all he can write is a letter to his wife, which he reads to Westfield that first night.
What follows are 29 chapters that are connected, yet stand independently; tales involving Goldberg, Westfield and their families, a modern writer who is trying to write a novel about Goldberg and Westfield, and several other characters, sometimes told in first person or third, sometimes in letter form, sometimes in dialogues, and sometimes in third-person narrative. At first, while trying to follow the threads of the story, I got frustrated reading this book, but then I realized it was better when I just relaxed and let the story wash over me, not trying to figure out the puzzle, but letting it unfold instead on its own. And I was rewarded closer to the end of the book by some of the almost mystical voices in the tales, that challenged my feelings about narrative and what it means to tell a story.
There are many wonderful references in the book--and not just to Bach and his music--some of which actually sent me off to read more about them elsewhere. For example, one of the chapters is about Skara Brae, the ruin of a neolithic village in the Orkney Islands, which I had heard mentioned and seen on a television show, and now was even more intrigued by. Josipovici's writing about Homer, and about the nature of the fugue, also sent me off in other directions to look things up, or just to think.
One of the most intriguing ideas Josipovici had me pondering was the nature of storytelling itself. More than one of the characters is a writer tortured by writer's block, and their struggles made me think about the struggle to create, and how the difficult birthing process that is the creation of art is inextricably bound up in the struggle to live.
While I found it a challenging read, I really enjoyed the book--I found its ideas were meaty, and really stuck with me and colored my thoughts long after I had shut its covers. I think I will have to re-read this book, as there were so many layers to it that I'm sure I will uncover more when I go through it a second time.
There is a really good interview with Josipovici at Cruelest Month, and what he says about the genesis of this novel is very enlightening. I'd suggest reading this if you're interested in reading Goldberg: Variations.