Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici is one of two titles (the other being The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic) that mark the debut of the Ecco7 line of paperbacks. "Dedicated to publishing notable works by acclaimed and award-winning authors from around the globe," this series aims to remind American readers that they are not alone. Gabriel was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, which, we hope, will give you an idea as to what this novel is all about, and what Gabriel has acheived in his recent work.
Also, the first ten readers to write me at CruelestMonthPoetry@yahoo.com will receive a complimentary copy of the book. Be sure to include "Goldberg" in the subject line and your address in the text. Until then, enjoy:
Michael Signorelli: When/how did you decide to shape this novel after Bach's Goldberg Variations? How did Bach's work help you manage the many, varied subjects contained in your book?
Gabriel Josipovici: This is the novel I have taken the longest to write. Usually I write short compact novels and need to write them in an intense burst of speed. Not so with Goldberg: Variations. I wrote the first lines in 1988 and the last in 2000.
In 1988 I read a book about Bach in which I came across the famous anecdote first recounted by Forkel about the origins of the Goldberg Variations: how Count Keyserlingk, a Dresden nobleman, was subject to insomnia; how he required his young house-musician, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play him something from an adjoining room during those sleepless nights; how the Count asked Bach to compose something for Goldberg to play; and how Bach complied. Scholars have thrown doubt upon the anecdote, but that doesn't matter. I decided to write a little homage to a composer I revered by transposing the elements of the anecdote while keeping its basic 'rhythm,' a procedure which struck me as having affinities with some of Bach's own. I combined the player and the composer into one, changed him from a musician to a writer, and set the whole in an England of around 1800, which meant Keyserlingk metamorphosing into an English country gentleman, to whom I gave the name of Westfield to signal that the story had moved westwards. I described how Westfield, unable to sleep, hits on the idea of sending for a noted writer, Samuel Goldberg, a Jew of German descent, to read to him; how, on his arrival, he is asked not just to read but to write something new to be read by him; and how he accomplishes, or perhaps does not accomplish, this task; The story worked out well enough, and it was duly published in Alan Ross's London Magazine. A short while later I heard my friend, the composer Judith Weir, on the radio, talking about how important Bach was to her, in a programme about Bach and modern composers. I liked what she said so much that I sent her the story. She wrote back a few days later, saying that she had read it in one go on a train journey. Then came the fateful words: 'I look forward to the other twenty-nine.' (Bach had written his Goldberg Variations in the form of what he called an 'aria,' which appears at the beginning and is repeated at the end, and thirty variations upon it.) I call these words fateful because when I wrote my own little homage I had nothing in mind but a short story. Judith's words, however, would not get out of my mind. Whatever I was doing, I found I was coming back to them. I listened to the Bach again. I thought about how exciting it would be to write a novel in thirty separate sections, in which each section would be completely self-contained yet the whole would add up to more than the sum of the parts. I began to sketch the thing. And, finally, I plunged into it.
The result was a disaster. It is all very well setting a short story in an earlier period, but I had no desire to ‘research the period’ as I would have had to do if I was to write a whole novel set in it. I not only do not particularly like historical novels (with a very few maverick exceptions, such as William Golding’s The Spire), I don’t believe in them or think they are a viable road for the modern writer to go down. Moreover, though I love the form of the short story and think I have written several pretty good ones, I realised, as I made my calculations, that in thirty years of writing I had written no more than two dozen viable short stories, whereas here I was taking on the task of writing twenty-nine in one go! I plunged in, however, and got about half-way before I finally had to admit to myself that I was bored and stuck. I decided to drop it.
Yet it wouldn’t let me go. Though I wrote three more novels, and a book about the phenomenon of touch, in the course of the nineties, I was, I discovered, still turning over in the back of my mind a way of responding to Judith’s challenge. In 1996, my mother, to whom I was very close, died at 85. Strangely, the novel I was just completing at the time, Now, prefigured her death, as if in my writing bones I knew this was coming, though consciously I had refused to recognise the fact. I managed to get Now off to the publishers but then, in those long days, when I found it impossible to settle down to any sustained work, I began to think that writing a series of short pieces on more or less given themes might be the answer to my problems, and I turned again to my Goldberg book.
Quite soon I found that I could, as it were, open a window onto the present, and use that as a means of extricating myself from the tyranny of the historical novel. Suddenly the work began to excite me again. In the course of the next three years, a portion of them spent in Berlin, a city I had not known till then, I slowly found a shape to the book that satisfied me. A late painting of Paul Klee’s, a postcard of which had adorned my desk for the past five years, suddenly took on a pivotal role in the book. The last fifty pages were among the hardest I have ever had to write. I felt as if my head was coming off. But suddenly it was done. The book was finished.
I didn’t want to follow slavishly in Bach’s footsteps and mould each ‘variation’ to the equivalent one in his work. But I did want to respect the continuously mirroring effects he achieves, and in particular to make chapter 16, which starts the second half, reflect Bach’s own grand variation 16, which critics have pointed out is in some ways more of an overture than the first. Here I adopted the anecdote that is often told about the genesis of another of Bach’s late variation masterpieces, the Musical Offering, again transposed to an English setting. Elsewhere I have taken pleasure in echoing Bach in less direct ways and when I felt it would lead me where I wanted to go.
The book was finally completed in 2000, the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death.
MS: Do you have a favourite recording of Goldberg Variations?
GJ: In the years of writing the book I managed to listen to most of the available recordings, and I cannot think of one I did not get something from (and how many there are!). Like so many people I was deeply moved by Glenn Gould’s two recordings, especially the earlier one, but it was Maggie Cole’s 1990 recording on the harpsichord that I found myself returning to more often than any other.
MS: Last year, in an interview you had with Mark Thwaite of Ready Steady Book, you mentioned two themes that are consistently present in your work: the idea of art as a toy and the sense that we are creatures in time. Do these themes appear as the result of conscious effort, or do you find that you are simply drawn to them?
GJ: No, it’s never conscious. I realise when I read something that thrills me or see a work of art that makes me tingle, it’s usually because it partakes of one or other (or both) of these themes. But the realisation has been recent, whereas the effects have been produced since I began to read and look and listen to art. In my own work I never start with an abstract theme, always with a sense of quickening at some elusive shape or rhythm that sometimes, much later, ends up as a story or a novel or a play. It’s only looking back, under pressure of the interviewer’s questions, that I realised those two elements had been fairly constant in my work. But I may well be wrong.
MS: Since the publication of Goldberg:Variations in 2002 by Carcanet you’ve published two other novels, Everything Passes and Only Joking. In the interview cited above you considered these last two novels ‘light’ compared to Goldberg. Can you say in what direction your latest work is headed?
GJ: I don’t think I can have said that Everything Passes was ‘light’. It is short – only 60 pages - but anything but light - unfortunately perhaps, since I value lightness highly.
I had a wretched year after finishing Goldberg – everything that could go wrong did. I felt that the only way to cope was to write a comic, even frivolous, novel. I also felt the need to do something very different from Goldberg, which, while always absorbing, was not exactly fun to write. I had read in the paper about the much younger wife of some millionaire tycoon who, fearful that he was going to leave his money to his daughter and her husband, hired a hit man to murder them. Unfortunately the hit man was an ex-clown, who had worked under the professional name of ‘Banjo’, who got cold feet and went to the police. After carrying the newspaper clipping of this story around with me for a while I decided this was what I wanted to write about. The title came almost at once: Only Joking. A reviewer of the German translation, to my delight, offered the thought that ‘Josipovici’s Only Joking should win the Cosí fan Tutte prize for the wittiest and most profound exploration of the relations between the sexes’. Twinned with Mozart – what an honour!
The next two years were spent writing a much darker book, After, about memory and the mirage of origins. That was followed by Everything Passes, which is, like Goldberg: Variations, a homage to a composer and a particular piece of music – this time Schoenberg’s extraordinary String Trio of 1947. It is one of the most violent pieces even he ever wrote, yet it is a violence which is constantly opening up into the most heart-rending sadness and melancholy. It seems that in 1946 Schoenberg suffered a massive heart-attack and was only brought back to life by means of injections into his heart. He said that, though unconscious and perhaps clinically dead, he was fully aware of the injections, and that the Trio was an attempt to render the whole experience. My very compressed novel (for want of a better word), though, ended up much closer to earlier work of mine than to anything by Schoenberg.
After the violence and agony of that work I felt I needed to write something that breathed a lighter air and have just completed a novel called Making Mistakes, which takes as its starting point (I recalled that German review of Only Joking) the moment Cosí fan Tutte ends. I suppose it’s about how what we call ‘making mistakes’ is really just living. It’s set in present-day England, though there is an Alfonso, a professor of psychology at University College, London.
One of Europe's most innovative and admired thinkers and writers, Gabriel Josipovici has published more than a dozen novels, several books of criticism, and plays that are widely performed throughout Europe. He lives in Lewes, England.