I’m not quite sure how to write about Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici. I want to sing its praises and string together sentences calling it amazing, brilliant, fantastic, marvelous. I want to tell everyone that they have to read this book. I want to say I feel inadequate to describe this book and leave it with just one word: wow. But none of that is satisfactory. I must try to say something to both help me understand what it was I read, and to try and compel you to read the book too.
Goldberg, a writer, is engaged by Tobias Westfield to read to him at night until he falls asleep. Westfield has insomnia and he hopes that someone reading to him will cure him of it. Goldberg arrives and prepares to begin reading. But Westfield wants to talk first. He tells Goldberg he does not want to hear any of the books that already exist. He wants Goldberg to read him something new every night. Goldberg is a writer after all, this should not be a difficult task. And so we are launched into the story of an artist asked to create something under a deadline, and please, make it good.
The book is composed of short “stories” that we are to suppose are what Goldberg writes and reads to Westfield every night. The stories circle around and around each other, characters and objects popping in out and never quite the same in each piece. Thus the variation. But what it all amounts to is a meditation on creativity and art–especially writing, but also the art of creating the self.
The reader is treated to expositions of The Odyssey, descriptions of containers, stories in which a butterfly flies into someone’s ear, stories of Westfield’s son making fun of him in various ways from stealing his mistress to forging a letter from God for Westfield to add to his collection of letters from great personages. We also get stories with Goldberg in them, struggling to write, visiting kings, or playing the role of wise sage. We even hear from Mrs. Goldberg who also likes to write and keeps a diary she doesn’t show her husband. Hers is a wonderful story in which she asks why we write. Her answer? It brings relief:
The feeling is palpable. As one writes the pain around the heart eases, the knots inside one are loosed, the state of shock into which one had been thrown gives way to something else, one picks up ones normal rhythm of breathing again, of moving. Not for long of course. There is no telling when the world will strike again…But writing down the simple facts seems to act as a release, as if one had at last come to accept what before one had refused to acknowledge…But why does writing do that to one when thinking cannot? What is the secret balm that lies in the simple act of putting words down on paper as I am doing now?
Mrs. Goldberg’s release stands in contrast to her husband’s anxiety over not being able to produce writing that will satisfy Westfield enough to keep him employed. But we have to wonder too why Goldberg writes and if he experiences, in spite of the surrounding anxiety to produce something, a form of release as well?
There is another story about the art of the fugue and how it contains a pursuer and a fleer, how they will never meet, can never meet, and how they are mirror images of one another. This is later, in another story, used to describe the writer and the story. I found this an intriguing idea. The pursuer and the pursued can never meet, yet they are always together, cannot be without each other, and even exist in one person–the writer is the story and the story is the writer, each pursue and possess and are possessed by the other but yet are never completely and entirely one.
I could go on and on. This book would be a fantastic book group book if the people in the group are adventurous and willing to trust that all the disparate pieces come together in the end. It takes work though, it is not an easy book. There are layers upon layers; you can stay on the surface or mine for gold. The book is so very discussable. It is one of those books that has Ideas in it, wrapped up in beautiful writing and a good story. It is the kind of book that lends itself to re-reading, and re-read it I will. Not right away though. I have to allow the first reading to sit for awhile and stew.
At last I know why all those who have been raving about Josipovici for the last year or so have been so excited about him. I am now an admirer and making plans for acquiring more of his books. It’s a bit too early yet to tell, but it looks promising that he will make it onto my list of favorite authors. Yup. He’s that good.