Dresden, 1741: A count lies suffering from chronic insomnia. To soothe his misery, he orders a musician to play to him every night, a ritual that necessitates the composition of pieces for the young clavier player. The task is assigned, a set of thirty variations on a theme is written, and one of the masterpieces of Western music is born. The insomniac is Hermann Karl von Keyserling; the harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg; and the composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. So goes the creation myth of the Goldberg Variations, a tightly assembled rotation of elements including canons, genres, and arabesques. Its structure is the organizing principle and its conception the theme of Gabriel Josipovici’s captivating novel Goldberg: Variations.
Bach’s composition has earned its own list of variations (not least, Glenn Gould’s famous recording, recently digitized for a player piano; a Jerome Robbins ballet; and Richard Powers’s novel The Gold Bug Variations). Yet Josipovici has done something delightfully daring for his homage: With the trick of a colon, his rendition proposes variations on Goldberg himself. The novel’s setting is not Germany but nineteenth-century England; the insomniac is not a count but a wealthy aristocrat unmoved by music; and Goldberg, here named Samuel, is not a musician but a storyteller—a Scheherazade plagued with writer’s block for whom Queneau-esque variations are the only solution. Samuel recounts tales of Scottish villages buried in sand and butterflies that reside in little girls’ heads, just as he confronts ordinary agonies of love and loss. His seemingly disjunctive anecdotes reach from Odysseus’s Ithaca to contemporary London. If Bach’s Variations exhilarate partly in one’s anticipation of the next segment, Josipovici’s remind us that one must not forget the importance of “that which lies in between” the details. The reader is informed that “sleep is the goal of art as it is of man”; it is the “blessed” ending allowed when truth is discovered between stories, and “only a true work will allow him to sleep well when he has closed the book.” Inevitably, sleep comes when the insomniac accepts the reliability of silence over the ambiguity of tales.
Like Bach, Josipovici plays with canon (Homer, Shakespeare, Bellow), genre (the epistolary novel, the domestic melodrama), and arabesque (in the end, Goldberg revises the story of his visit— once dark and mephitic, now full of dancing and cheer). Bach’s eighteenth-century moment is, after all, credited with the birth of the novel, and inevitably, the book’s subject becomes that very invention. Samuel must contend with literary history and all its emerging forms, and this burden mutates him into a metafiction within the narrative as another, contemporary author emerges to voice his concern for the artistic process: “You have to feel that more is at stake than the skillful telling of thirty anecdotes . . . that all will add up to more than the sum of the parts.” Josipovici finally suggests that all novels—and, in a sense, all lives—are indispensable variations on one another.