Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations

1imagedbcgi.jpg Many thanks to Imani for writing so well about Gabriel Josipovici’s novel Goldberg: Variations and inspiring me to read it. I mentioned in an earlier post that I finished this book and then immediately read it again; this re-reading worked better than the time I re-read Nightwood immediately after finishing it: this time I was able to understand more of the book the second time around and I enjoyed staying in the world of the novel for a little while longer. I wouldn’t, in fact, mind reading it again; I won’t do it, but if someone asked me to for some reason, I wouldn’t object. There’s something soothing about reading the novel, which doesn’t sound like an appropriate way to describe a serious work of fiction, but that’s how I felt. In spite of the fact that the identity of the narrator/authorial presence is uncertain throughout much of the book, I felt like I was in the hands of someone I could trust.

The novel’s initial premise is that Samuel Goldberg, a writer, has been hired by Tobias Westfield, a wealthy English gentleman, to read to him until he falls asleep. Westfield suffers from terrible insomnia and is desperately searching for a cure. Goldberg begins to read to him, but Westfield engages him in conversation, and eventually asks him if he would write an original piece to read the next night. Goldberg agrees, but the next day he finds himself suffering from writer’s block. The only solution he can find is to write the story of coming to Westfield’s house, being asked to write an original composition, and failing. In other words, he will try to turn the failure itself into a success. And thus ends the first chapter.

What follows are 29 more chapters, each one a “variation,” each one telling some story about Goldberg and his family or Westfield and his family, or describing some local historical event, or narrating the conversations Goldberg and his friend Hammond have as Hammond drives him to the Westfield manor, or telling some other story that relates in some way to the others. Part of the fun of the book is figuring out how all these pieces fit together. In one chapter, Goldberg’s wife writes him a letter (this was one of my favorite chapters — her voice is beautiful); in another, we learn what happened to Westfield’s first wife; in another, we learn how he came to marry his second; in another, the narrator tells the story of Goldberg’s friend Isaac Sinclair, the poet who went mad.

Many of the chapters record conversations characters have about literature or philosophy, for example, the conversation Hammond and Goldberg have about the differences between Achilles and Odysseus as heroes, or the chapter where Goldberg gets summoned by the King (did I mention this takes place in the 18C?) and is asked to improvise a speech on this topic: “A man who had enough wanted everything … as a result he was left with nothing. Treat this not as a morality but as a tragedy.” Whereupon Goldberg pauses for a moment and then launches into a detailed explication of a John Donne poem illustrating the topic. When he arrives home afterwards, he decides he is unhappy with his response and sends the King something more pleasing — a series of stories illustrating the idea.

All these disquisitions are included in the novel, so that it has a patchwork feel — we are given narratives, descriptions, literary criticism, philosophical explorations, conversations, letters, fantastical stories, historical events, all of them ultimately fitting together in one way or another. In later chapters, new characters and new narrators are introduced, which puts the earlier material in a new light and broadens the scope of the novel. As you work your way through it, the novel comes to seem like a puzzle, the reader left wondering how each new piece, each new chapter, fits with the rest.

Many of the stories are about failure and loss, particularly the failure of artistic inspiration. Goldberg, upon his failure to compose a story that might put Westfield to sleep, contemplates the changes that have occurred in the circumstances of artistic production over the centuries; in an imaginary conversation with Westfield he says:

It may be the case, sir, that in the time of Greece and Rome, and even in the time of our glorious Shakespeare, a man of letters might have fulfilled your commission. The writers of those times might in a day have produced for you a dazzling series of variations on any theme of your choice. You would have had but to speak, but to outline, however briefly, the subject about which you wished them to discourse, and in an hour or two, or perhaps even less, they would have regaled you with the most delightful fancies and stirring sequences based upon your subject. But, alas, our own age is grown altogether less inventive and more melancholic, and few can now find it in their hearts ‘to take a point at pleasure and wrest and turn it as he list, making either much or little of it, according as shall seem best in his own conceit’, as an ancient writer on these matters puts it. For what we list has grown obscure and difficult to define.

Situated in the 18C, Goldberg is living in the transition time between the artist as craftsperson and the artist as Romantic genius, and his ability to improvise before the King and also his inability to write at Westfield’s command illustrates this tension. He is torn between these two definitions of the artist, longing to be a craftsman but recognizing that the artist-as-craftsman figure is disappearing:

The truth of the matter is that something deep within me yearns to be the kind of craftsman he believes me to be, but something else, equally deep, rejects the formulation. But if that is so, why do I still yearn for that other version of myself, why do I still hold up to myself as an ideal the image of the maker, skilled and inventive, capable of coping with every challenge?

He met the challenge of the King, yes, but he couldn’t resist writing another response later, one he could compose at leisure, when inspiration struck. He is subject to doubts, no longer able simply to create and enjoy what he created.

The novel is about artistic failure, but also about success: in her letter to Goldberg, Mrs. Goldberg writes beautifully about what writing can accomplish:

I had never thought of any of this till I sat down half an hour ago filled with the need to write about you. That is what writing is like. The sheet of paper before one and the pen in one’s hand seem to allow those things to emerge which one knew but didn’t know one knew. It may not be very interesting or very profound, but it brings relief. Like hugging you. But why is it not sufficient to sit in my chair and imagine myself hugging you? After all, when I write here in my notebook you are no more present than if I closed my eyes and thought of you. Indeed, less so perhaps, since if I close my eyes then I can see you, whereas when I write I certainly do not. But then when I hug you I do not see you, I feel you. And that is what seems to happen with writing. But why should that be so? To feel you, you have to be present and close to me, and now you are neither. Yet I am sure this is the truth, that when I close my eyes I see you but when I write I feel you.

Beautiful, yes? Do you see why I loved this book? Really, if this book sounds at all appealing to you, read it.


Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations

  1. Oo, I loved Mrs. Goldberg’s chapter as well, it was one of my favourites.

    Thanks so much for the compliment and also for that 18th century perspective which adds another dimension to the novel that I’d miss. Definitely an excuse to reread it (although I’m determined to read more Josipovici fiction before I give Variations another go).


  2. Oof, I corrected my typo, so that it now says “many thanks TO Imani” … that’s better. I’m determined to read more of his fiction too. I’ve got a copy of In the Fertile Land, which is a collection of stories, I now see. Or maybe I’ll get a hold of one of his other ones. The one Litlove read sounded very good.


  3. hepzibah

    that last quote was very profound and moving — how beautiful! Thank you for sharing it! When read something like that, we are once again reminded that we are a people of self-expression — and through poetry and writing — we can achieve this.


  4. This sounds so wonderful. And it sounds like it’s rather short. I’m certain I can fit it in to my reading somewhere!


  5. Several of my blogging friends have been reading this but it isn’t yet available in our library system. I’m going to have to nag at them because it sounds really very interesting indeed.


  6. Happy New Year to you, Dorothy! This is a wonderful post to round off 2007 with. I think you describe the experience of reading Josipovici beautifully. I felt gently ‘held’ by his narrative, somehow, informed and entertained (even when the content was melancholic) and soothed. I haven’t read this one by him yet, but I certainly will.


  7. This sounds excellent! Will check with the library first, but I know I definitely want the opportunity to read Goldberg: Variations. Wonderful review, Dorothy!


  8. I’m going to have to look for this. It sort of doesn’t sound like what I normally would choose (it sounds rather challenging, but challenging is good), but you make it sound so intriguing that I’d like to give it a try. I’ll be looking for a copy of it.


  9. Hepzibah — I’m glad you liked the quotation, and there’s more good stuff to be found in the rest of the book! 🙂

    Stefanie — it IS short, less than 200 pages, and they go by fast. So you should have no trouble fitting it in 🙂

    Ann — yes, do nag — it would be worth it!

    Litlove — thank you! And that is an excellent way to describe reading Josipovici. Sadness and melancholy are easier to deal with somehow.

    Jenclair — thank you, and I do hope you read and enjoy it!

    Danielle — I think you’d like it — it is really rather easy to read — yes, the chapters don’t always clearly relate and you have to work to put them together, but each one is crystal clear and easy to follow, and they do all come together, to one degree or another. It really is a good kind of challenging!


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