The Goldberg Variations, by Nancy Huston. Book report #16 (2020)

The Goldberg Variations, by Nancy Huston. Pub 1981 in French, translated to English by the author, pub 1996.

This is yet another leftover, found in the same pile as Nocturnes and so likely purchased about the same time. I don’t know why I didn’t finish it when I first started, but since I remembered little about it and there were no bookmarks, I started from the beginning. Good thing as, like the eponymous music, it needs to be read start to finish. The “story” is set in the Paris apartment (specifically the bedroom) of one Liliane Kulainn, a harpsichordist who has invited 30 people to her performance of the Variations. The novel follows the 30 variations as 30 chapters, with each giving the brief inner monologue of one of the guests. The result is an interesting if somewhat disjointed look at Liliane from the perspective of her guests. While not every knows her directly, their thoughts and loose relationships provide a complex but incomplete picture of the musician. The result is an interesting and moderately engaging novel. It reads very well in English, likely because the author herself does the translation (and English is her first language); in fact, I didn’t know it was a translation until researching it for this review.
It has a somewhat funereal feel, although it’s just a summer evening of music. It got me to thinking about how I might structure such an event. In a way, I did once – for my 40th birthday, I had a party with ~40 friends. At one point early in the evening, several of them ended up in a circle, and went around saying how they knew me and comparing stories about me. It was such a good and strange feeling to see some of the timeline of my life represented in these disparate people and relationships, and it made me very happy to have such a rich and warm circle. Maybe I’ll try the same when I’m 60 :-).
I definitely purchased this book because of the title, as Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a favourite piece and one of the first pieces of classical music I truly loved, specifically Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording. A friend of my mom’s gave her the album when it first came out and I remember him over for coffee going on and on about how brilliant it was and the history of the piece and the recording. We had only the vinyl album and one record player, so listening was very rare. A few years later I bought the cassette tape version, later the CD, then a downloaded pirate version and now have a purchased version. Clearly a favourite, it is heard often in my headphones, a recording so clear that you can hear Gould muttering and humming (the recording is sometimes referred to as “Mumble Along with Glenn”). So when I saw the book title, I had to have it, too.
The book was published in 1981 and specifically references Gould’s recording so Huston must have been referring to Gould’s 1955 recording, which is much faster and more frenetic than the 1981. Regardless, I do wonder if the publication was at all timed to coincide with the 1981 recording.
I had hoped that each story would reflect the tone and tempo of each variation, but that would likely be too much of a trick, and indeed there is no clear relationship between them. For example, Variation XIV, an upbeat and perky piece, is paired in the novel with the chapter “Tumour”, in which Olga, dying of cancer, considers her past with anger and regret and plans for no compromises or prevarications in her limited future; perhaps within the perkiness is a bit of defiance? The flow of the chapters follows a literary pace and connection rather than a musical one. Regardless, it was an enjoyable read.
Fate: give to a friend.
6 – an author’s debut novel
7 – a novel with a female author
13 – a book with a name in the title (Goldberg)
20 – a book translated from (or in) another language
24 – a book by an author I’ve never read
28 – a book I have previously left unfinished

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