Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici

Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici

Book Review of Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici 

Even the obvious reference to Bach’s prodigious keyboard work is a cunningly bent arrow, for Goldberg: Variations is a jigsaw puzzle whose solution lies in the looping, criss-crossing line that separates the pieces.

The first of these pieces—of which there are thirty: as many variations as Bach has, but with no equivalent to the aria that is Bach’s starting point and his goal—is ostensibly an account by Goldberg, a writer in Georgian England, reporting his arrival at the house of a new patron, Westfield.

Goldberg’s commission is to tell each night a tale that will cure Westfield of besetting insomnia. He is to serve, then, as a kind of negative Sheherazade, and as a tangent to his eighteenth-century namesake, who, according to legend, had to lull his master to sleep with music, and for whom Bach provided the requisite material.

Josipovici’s Goldberg, in setting out his task, begins to answer it, for we learn that this first story, told in the form of a letter to his wife, will be what he will read to Westfield—or perhaps what he is now reading, as we read, following his voice. Many other sections could similarly be placed in his mouth, for they tell of his family, of the Westfields and of his journey to the Westfield residence.

However, this is not Josipovici’s response to Jean Plaidy. Anachronisms, cracks in the surface, afford openings into the novel’s real space, the space between and around the elements. And all attempt at a period setting is abandoned as early as the fifth section, which is a description of the neolithic Orcadian village of Skara Brae (not discovered, as we are told, until 1851), and which did not originate with Josipovici, let alone Goldberg, being excerpted from a book about the ancient monuments of Scotland.

The variations continue not as episodes in a sequence but as soundings within some vast space. Echos recur. Goldberg’s daughter Sarah lies down in long grass and looks up at the sky, exactly as, quite soon, will the second Mrs. Westfield.

Sarah becomes convinced that a butterfly has flown inside her head, a delusion shared ten chapters later by another character. Familiar Josipovician themes weave in and out: the hard consolation of writing, Homer, the nature of literary truth. Bach is formidably present, and by no means only in the hovering background of his Goldberg Variations.

His Musical Offering, prompted by Frederick the Great, receives a virtuoso restaging as an incident involving Goldberg the writer and one of the Georges, the time, and even Goldberg’s age, becoming fluid in this resolutely unhistorical novel. A dialogue of which we hear only one voice suggests the implied counterpoint of Bach’s works for solo violin and cello.

And the book is full of canons, from a discussion on fugue to passages—including all those echos—in which twofoldness is the subject or the means. The book has much to say about marriage, as a two-part canon of people who have abandoned purposeless freedom for necessitated conjunction; it has much to say, too, of frictions and ruptures in the dance of voice and voice, body and body, person and person.

Author and reader form another canonic, dancing, endangered couple, and the anachronisms, the shifts and the slippages allow us to feel Josipovici’s steering hand. When, in the fourteenth variation, we hear from an evidently contemporary figure who seems to be writing just this very book, we feel for a moment that we have reached the deceptively safe ground of autobiography.

But we are soon disillusioned. This writer, like Goldberg, is married and has children; like Goldberg, he is a fragment or reflection of the authorial self held in the glass of the book. Josipovici’s more direct portrait of that self comes later, as introduction to the most extraordinary of the book’s many voices, a visitation that is long prepared yet unexpected, powerful and moving.

Goldberg: Variations is not about music, though it may be about sleep: sleep as the destination and the reward of writing that has made the arbitrary essential and given the elemental breath.

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