Saturday, March 24, 2007

Aggressive dimness: a review of Goldberg: Variations

The LA Times runs one of the first reviews of Gabriel Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations. I should be pleased. It's not a negative review as such, nor is it dismissively short. Yet it also resorts to a rote intolerance to reflection, to thought, to anything not conforming to the narrow aesthetic boundaries of the contemporary novel. It's very demoralising.

Presumably Stephanie Zacharek ("a senior writer for") was given the job because she's a music critic, yet she mentions Bach's work only once and spends the rest of the review forgetting it. She begins by referring to chapter 11, which
consists solely of a description of a storeroom — or maybe a painting of a storeroom — containing 11 objects: Two books, a round box, seven bottles and jars (sitting on shelves and hanging from hooks) and a piece of fruit. In painstaking detail, Josipovici notes the exact position of each item, where it appears in this tableau, which of the other items it may be leaning against and which part of it may be slightly obscured by another item in front of it: Returning to the left hand side, between the bottle and the lemon hangs a brown jar, one of whose handles is clearly visible, the other just discernible in the gloom. And so forth. This storeroom, or painting, could be a metaphor for any number of things. But given the context of the book, it may be most useful as a metaphor for the British writer and scholar's brain, which is clearly a kind of interior Library of Congress holding a vast number of cultural and literary references, at least one or two of which spill out on nearly every page.
Well, the chapter is a description of a painting. Later in the novel it is viewed by a married couple - one of whom is an art critic - at a very fraught time in their relationship. The elaborateness of the description might then be seen as less a metaphor than as a means of achieving calm, just as Bach's work was meant (according to legend at least) to ease insomnia. Perhaps Zacharek has far fewer cultural and literary references in her brain, not so much a Library of Congress than the 3-for-2 stall at the local bookstore, because her cluelessness spills out in every paragraph of this review. I hate to think what the junior writers at Salon are like. She claims that the novel
aims to tease our sluggish brains into action. But many of these stories consist of ponderous, pompous blowhards sitting around talking about ideas, and their aggressive cleverness is almost immediately wearying. Is Josipovici pretentious, or is he simply drawing pretentious characters? It's impossible to tell; either way, his erudition depletes oxygen instead of letting our spirits and our minds breathe.
Her mind might have found a gasp of air if she'd considered these interludes as part of the whole. The apparent impossibility to tell might then be revised. Even if Josipovici had not referred to it in an interview, such a reading is demanded by the title's allusion. Imagine someone reviewing Bach's GVs by picking each variation apart: "oh this one was the best, and that one was the quickest, but I didn't like the slow one, it sent me to sleep". Such a reviewer would not be asked back and a real music critic would be drafted in. So rather than read the variations as part of an elusive whole (the missing arias anyone?), Zacharek concentrates on the highlighting the appearance in the novel of the great no-no of modern literary life:
[Josipovici's] store of references is broad and deep ... and he shows boundless energy and enthusiasm for applying those references. Perhaps too much enthusiasm. The book may be the literary equivalent of a David Lynch movie aimed at intellectuals: You can easily imagine certain obsessive types poring over it, re-reading it two and three times to parse the meaning of every phrase and citation.
This from someone who has just forced meaning onto a simple description of a storeroom! And why this obsession with who the book is "aimed" at? "Intellectuals" means as much as "the masses", i.e. nothing, unless you're a self-hating middle-class media type. The references in the novel are never gratuitous or playful but intimate to its meaning. "Applying those references" is disingenuous. She makes it sound like a lecture, or a review by flailing critic. The novel consists of thirty chapters as various in a literary way as Bach's GV is musically (which it resembles far more than a David Lynch movie). And like Bach's piano work, it is complex on a local level yet overall is lightness itself.

"The aggressive complexity of Goldberg: Variations is more a liability than an asset" Zacharek says ending the review, begging the question of what liability and asset mean in our experience of life and art - a question discussed throughout the book and a question one could also ask of Bach's Goldberg Variations, but it is one our reviewer prefers not to be asked. Like Goldberg's insomiac client in the novel, she demands sleep whilst refusing to wake up.


  1. Finding the book's structure 'aggressive' really is bizarre. For me it seemed to flow nicely. I can't imagine the mental knots one must be tied in to find complexity or allusiveness aggressive.

  2. That's hilarious.

    imho, such reviews are the direct result of dime-a-dozen comglomerate bookstores (even and especially independent "artsy" gentrified/Tom Friedman-selling ones), not to mention the self-aggrandizing "litblogs."



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