A Musical Offering is Argentinian author Luis Sagasti’s second novel to appear in English. His first, Fireflies (also published by Charco Press and reviewed for The BookBlast Diary) saw translator Fionn Petch nominated for a TA First Translation Prize in 2018, and this is another fine performance from Petch, convincingly reproducing the author’s erudite but effortless prose, with occasional poetic flourishes.
A Note-Perfect Ode to Wonder
The novel opens with an account of the origins of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Suffering from insomnia, Bach’s patron, Count Keyserling, tasks the composer with devising a piece of music that will lull him to sleep. Once completed, the composition is to be played by virtuoso harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who will deliver these “musical sleeping pills” until the Count finally dozes off. From here, Sagasti leads us into the twentieth century, introducing two famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations performed by Canadian piano prodigy Glenn Gould, one at the beginning and one near the end of his career.
This counterpoint, between the story of the virtuoso harpsichordist and that of the piano prodigy, is soon joined by a third strand, the tale of Scheherazade’s desperate attempts to dodge death by keeping Caliph under the spell of her storytelling for one thousand and one nights, and then a fourth, in the form of Jorge Luis Borges’ inspired reading of the 602nd Night. Returning frequently to Goldberg, Gould and Scheherazade, like a refrain or bassline to the novel, Sagasti adds more and more elements to his composition, with brief but intriguing anecdotes about Brahms’ lullabies, Swan Lake, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, films including Shawhshank Redemption and Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, and even The Tibetan Book of the Dead (in fact, Sagasti frequently likens the effects of great works of art to a mantra).
The second of two long opening chapters, which comprise over half of the book, is entitled Silence and sees Sagasti (also an art critic) begin to draw anecdotes from the world of the visual arts, focusing on the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in particular. Even the musical references in this section are more conceptual in nature, as evidenced by György Legeti’s Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes (described by Sagasti as verging on an installation) and John Cage’s infamous 4’33″, four-and-a-half minutes of “performed” silence.
In the third and fourth chapters there is a slight departure from this heterogenous narrative, with The Great Organ of Himmelheim resembling a solo for the tale of an ill-fated attempt to construct the world’s largest pipe organ and War dominated by a duet between accounts of two heroic orchestral performances, one during the siege of Stalingrad, the other the siege of Berlin. For the most part, however, Sagasti is happy to weave his web of seemingly unconnected anecdotes, leaving the reader to draw links between figures as disparate as Messiaen, Leo Tolstoy, Piet Mondrian and Pete Townshend.
In the wrong hands, all of this jumping back and forth between subjects could result in a tedious, dissonant jumble, yet that is categorically not the case here. Sagasti handles his elements masterfully, subtly and dexterously weaves new threads into his tapestry. Themes emerge like recurring melodies, ensuring that the reader is always kept on their toes, in spite of the author’s frequent digressions. One of these revisited motifs is the notion of cycles and blurred boundaries within and between works of art: the Goldberg Variations end with a “da capo” instruction, so that the player could glide effortlessly back to the start of the piece should the Count fail to doze off during the first recital; Sergeant Pepper’s was the first album in history without pauses between tracks, and A Day in the Life, the record’s final song, features studio noise in the run-out groove that will sound endlessly unless the needle is lifted.
This sense of the boundless nature of works of art is encapsulated in a quote Sagasti attributes to Thoreau: “Music is continuous, it is only attention that falters”. It is also echoed in the synaesthesia purported by Messiaen, who claimed: “When I hear music, I see colours”. Sagasti appears to be asking his reader to reconsider what constitutes the limits of an artwork and, in a novel that consists mostly of short paragraphs, I found myself strangely conscious of those empty spaces between the blocks of text. There were points in this novel when I questioned the veracity of some of the author’s claims – coincidences that seemed a little too neat, outcomes a little too poetic – but this again seemed to feed into the notion of a continuum, a blurred boundary between fact and fiction. Whether or not this was Sagasti’s intention (and I suspect that it was), it is testament to the spell his novel cast over me as a reader.
A second theme that recurred throughout this novel was the ability of music – and perhaps the arts more generally – to provide comfort and solace. This begins at birth, with the lullabies hummed to soothe us to sleep, but can be found even in our darkest hour; Sagasti recounts the story of a prisoner at Auschwitz who frequently forgoes his one measly crust of bread in exchange for a brief snatch of an aria sung by another inmate.
What unites so many of the examples in this book is the evocation of a sense of wonder, both at the courage of the humans who endeavour to create great works of art and at the effects these works have over those receiving them. At one point Sagasti tells the story of Wanda Landowska, another celebrated performer of the Goldberg Variations, whose harpsichord falls off the back of a sleigh while she is on her way to visit Tolstoy; desperate to retrieve her instrument, Landowska sets off alone into the snowy night, with her husband and the sleigh driver eventually alerted to her whereabouts by the sound of the hammering keys of her harpsichord, a beacon in the darkness.
The novel ends with a chapter entitled Da Capo, describing a pair of triumphant performances of the Goldberg Variations by Gould in Soviet Russia. As with a favourite piece of music, I was tempted to accept the instruction of this final chapter and begin rereading A Musical Offering immediately, looking – and listening – for new connections and resonances within this finely-crafted composition.
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