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Borrowed FormsThe Music and Ethics of Transnational Fiction$

Kathryn Lachman

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781781380307

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781380307.001.0001

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Glenn Gould and the Birth of the AuthorVariation and Performance in Nancy Huston's Les variations Goldberg

Glenn Gould and the Birth of the AuthorVariation and Performance in Nancy Huston's Les variations Goldberg

(p.89) Chapter Three Glenn Gould and the Birth of the AuthorVariation and Performance in Nancy Huston's Les variations Goldberg
Borrowed Forms

Kathryn Lachman

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the relationship between performance and authority in Nancy Huston's debut novel, Les variations Goldberg. The novel adopts the formal structure of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations: an aria, thirty contrasting variations, and the return of the opening aria. While critics have remarked on Huston's impressive engagement with musical form and bilingualism, they have invariably neglected to consider her work in relation to the controversial ideas of her compatriot, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Gould famously withdrew from the concert stage at the peak of his career and upheld recording as more democratic than live performance. Huston's novel suggests that Gould's revolutionary understanding of performance anticipated important shifts in literary theory concerning the relation among author, text, and reader—ideas that were expressed in such seminal essays as Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and realized in the nouveau roman. Situated at the interstices between music and literature, Huston's novel calls attention to the changing attitudes to performance and authority in both fields, and points to an unacknowledged but fertile exchange across disciplinary borders.

Keywords:   Goldberg Variations, Nancy Huston, Glenn Gould, Roland Barthes, performance, variation form, bilingualism, authority, Bach

More than two decades after Canadian pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the music scene in 1955 with revolutionary performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, the young writer Nancy Huston made her literary debut with a novel called Les variations Goldberg/The Goldberg Variations (1981).1 The story unfolds on a mid-summer evening, as Liliane Kulainn performs Bach's Goldberg variations for friends at her Parisian apartment. As she plays, Liliane imagines the thoughts of the people in the audience, authoring thirty potential responses to her performance.

The novel itself is a remarkable performance on several levels: firstly, Huston chooses to write in French, a language she adopted as an adult. Second, the novel's form mirrors its content.2 It appropriates the structure of Bach's Goldberg Variations—thirty variations framed by an aria on either end—in order to stage a performance and its critical reception. The author paints a portrait of contemporary Parisian society while presenting wide-ranging perspectives on music and performance. Significantly, she brings music performance into relation with ongoing literary debates over the nature of voice, the role of the author, and the practice of interpretation.

Huston, like Samuel Beckett, writes interchangeably in French and English, and translates her own works.3 Born in Calgary, Canada in 1953, and raised first in Alberta and then Boston, her childhood was marked by the traumatic departure of her mother when she was only six years old. Huston embarked for Paris as a twenty-year-old college student and fell in love. Although she initially intended to spend just the academic year in France, she stayed on to write her Masters thesis under the supervision of Roland Barthes, and developed a keen sensitivity to the ideology of language and style. According (p.90) to Huston, Barthes often fantasized about writing fiction, but was too caught up in technical questions.4 She began work on her first novel shortly after her mentor's death and never looked back, producing a dozen novels, three works of theater, and multiple collections of essays.5 Her fiction has earned France's top literary prizes, including the Prix Femina (in 2006 for Lignes de faille/ Fault Lines) and the Goncourt des lycéens (in 1996 for L'empreinte de l'ange/ The Mark of the Angel), and garnered prestigious—if controversial—awards in Britain and Canada as well.6 Despite her success as a bestselling author on both sides of the Atlantic and high profile in French literary circles,7 Huston's work only began to receive commensurate scholarly attention in the past decade, primarily from critics interested in questions of bilingualism, self-translation, and the relationship between music and literature.8

Because she is not a native French speaker, Huston's name invariably comes up as an instance of how writers from outside France have come to shape the direction of French literature.9 Yet, although a francophone writer by virtue of her use of French, Huston's position with regard to the language differs considerably from that of writers from former French colonies. She chose to adopt French out of a personal affinity for the language, and has often described it as emotionally neutral territory—a claim few francophone Caribbean or African writers would make, coming from contexts where French has served (and in many cases, continues to serve) as a vehicle of political, linguistic, or cultural oppression.10 In the early stages of her career, Huston collaborated with Algerian writer Leila Sebbar on a series of letters,Les lettres parisiennes: autopsie de l'exil, in which both authors reflect on their relation to the French language as outsiders. Huston claims that writing (and living) in French enabled her to approach language differently, to hear things she might otherwise not have noticed. As she writes to Sebbar, “Je ne subis pas l'écart, je le cherche” [“I am not subjected to difference; I seek it out”] (Proulx, 2000, 84). This productive distance—or dissonance—informs her writing, most visibly in her exploration of the gaps between languages, and between music and literature. Several of her works call on the metaphor of distempered and dissonant instruments to convey a sense of difference and displacement. Huston (2003, 55) sees her interest in performance as an inevitable consequence of living between languages: “A person who decides voluntarily, as an adult, unconstrained by outside circumstances, to leave her native land and adopt a hitherto unfamiliar language and culture must face the fact that for the rest of her life she will be involved with theater, imitation, make-believe.”

(p.91) Huston's novels push the boundaries of literary form and confront existential and historical questions with unflinching intensity and nuance.11 Nearly all of her works use music, whether as a figure for the arts in general, as a way of integrating multiple perspectives and temporalities, or as a formal device. The relation of her work to music can at times be transparent, as in the case of Les variations Goldberg, or more implicit, as we will see in later novels.12 Huston's experimental approach to form, of which music is one dimension, suggests a debt to the New Novelists, especially to Nathalie Sarraute whose Les fruits d'or [The Golden Fruits] eschews a traditional plot and instead anticipates how the novel itself will be received by critics and the public.13 Les variations Goldberg similarly focuses on reception.

Few critics have grappled substantively with Les variations Goldberg, perhaps because the author herself has dismissed the novel as overly facile, as too much of an intellectual game (Barca, 2009). Nonetheless, Wolf (1999, 352) one of the most active scholars in the field of interdisciplinary criticism, cites the novel as an impressive instance of postmodern intermedial writing because its formal structure conforms so closely to a musical model.14 Wolf argues that the novel's experimental form presents challenges for the reader that match those we experience when grappling with a difficult piece of music; both endeavors reward us with the sensual pleasure that comes from having achieved something through concentrated effort. For Wolf, then, Huston uses music to enhance the sensuality (and corporality) of the literary experience, drawing on a Barthesian understanding of music as linked to the body. Frédérique Arroyas (2007) situates Huston's interest in open-ended Baroque forms in relation to the wider Baroque revival in the mid twentieth-century, a turn which reflects the leftist social movements of the 1960s and the widespread impatience with bourgeois values and fixed ideas.15 According to Arroyas, Huston desacralizes music by calling attention to the material conditions of its production, bringing amateur voices into a conversation often dominated by experts, showing how music has traditionally privileged male voices at the expense of women, and exploring the expressive eccentricity of particular Baroque instruments: the mistuned violin and the tempered harpsichord.

Surprisingly, in reading Huston's Les variations Goldberg, nearly all critics have missed its overt relation to Gould—and this is the thread we take up here.16 Huston chose for her entry into fiction the very work on which Gould began his astonishing career. Unlike the many other literary adaptations of the Goldberg Variations, the novel explicitly addresses the problem of (p.92) performance, an area where Gould made an indelible mark. Its pivotal variation, Variation XV or “Roche” (Rock), features a celebrated public intellectual Bernald Thorer who abruptly interrupts a vibrant career and decides to stop writing, despite the protests of students, colleagues, and readers—a move that recalls Gould's withdrawal from the concert stage in 1962 in order to focus exclusively on recording.17 Gould's influence is even more evident in the recorded adaptation of the novel, Pérégrinations Goldberg/ Goldberg Wanderings, that Huston produced in 2000 in collaboration with harpsichordist Freddy Eichelberger, guitarist Philippe de Schepper, and serpent (Baroque tuba) player, Michel Godard.18 In the recording, Huston reads the arias and select variations against an eclectic musical score that includes fragments of the Goldberg Variations on harpsichord, a Frescobaldi song,19 and several original compositions.20 The range of vocal timbres, intonation, and accents that she calls upon in these readings emphasizes the musicality of speech. The overall effect of Pérégrinations Goldberg is very similar to the “contrapuntal radio” recordings Gould produced between 1967 and 1977, particularly The Idea of North (1967), a haunting piece for five voices that evokes the experience of living in northern Canada. Gould treats the voices like five independent contrapuntal lines, setting them against each other above the ostinato sound tapestry of a train and Sibelius's Symphony No. 5.21

The fact that both Gould and Huston returned to the Goldberg Variations multiple times over the course of their careers illustrates the pull Bach's work exerted over both artists. Gould first recorded the Goldberg Variations at the outset of his career, and felt compelled to return to them in 1981 to offer a new reading of the work. Huston similarly revisited the variations several times: first to produce her own English translation of the novel in 1996, and then to create the Pérégrinations Goldberg four years later.

This chapter sets out to examine Huston's use of variation form in Les variations Goldberg and to read the novel both as a response to Gould and as an intervention in contemporary debates on performance, authority and democracy. The first section considers the subversive theatricality of the novel; the second part offers a close look at variation form and the issues it poses for literary adaptation; we then examine the role of musical strategies across Huston's later fiction; the final section illustrates the influence of Gould's revolutionary ideas on Huston's understanding of both performance and authorship.

(p.93) The Mise-en-Scène

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Huston's debut novel is the way the narrative is situated spatially and temporally within a performance. Yet, instead of remaining grounded in the physical confines of the theater, the narrative moves into the expansive territory of the imagination, leaving bounded, everyday time for the subjective, flexible time opened by music.22 Each variation presents the thoughts of a different individual in the audience. In an unexpected twist, however, these different subjectivities are then subsumed into the imagination of a single narrator, the performer, who claims she has invented them all. The novel thus gives readers the illusion of access into the thoughts of thirty characters, only later to reveal that we have been “played” by the performer. The concert becomes a scene of writing, the performer an author.

The deliberate attention accorded to the mise-en-scène of the concert evokes the commitment of early music practitioners to use period instruments and recreate the “authentic” conditions for which Baroque music was intended: following the indication on the score, Liliane performs the Goldberg Variations on a double-manual harpsichord.23 She selects an intimate setting illuminated by candlelight. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that this staging is determined not by the search for authenticity, but on the contrary, by repeated instances of wordplay. Liliane gives a literal reading to the expression “chamber” music, positioning the instrument inside her bedroom: it is a “concert de chambre dans une chambre” [“a chamber music concert in a bed chamber”] (Huston, 1981, 32). This move exemplifies Huston's playful approach to language, and particularly, her interest in puns and untranslatable expressions. Similarly, the expression “sur leur trenteetun” [“dressed to the nines”] is literally realized in the thirty-one people assembled for the concert, and in the thirty variations and aria that comprise Bach's work. Liliane enhances the sense of occasion by setting out a lavish reception to follow the concert, with hors d'oeuvres and champagne laid out on the balcony. The hors d'oeuvres off-stage serve as a playful riposte to the musical oeuvre on stage, signaling to the audience that they will be expected to participate in the obligatory exchange of critical judgments and small talk once the concert comes to a close. The novel thus examines both the performance and reception of a musical work. The prevalence of wordplay here and throughout the novel defamiliarizes language, and introduces a tone of irreverence that undermines notions of “authenticity.”

(p.94) An exaggerated theatricality permeates other aspects of the mise-en-scène as well. Liliane's cousin greets the guests at the door in a maid's uniform, playing the part of a servant, prompting reflections on social class and privilege. The musician herself is in a long black dress that dramatically sets off her pale complexion. This theatricality unsettles the audience, who begin to wonder what role they are to play. In what sense are they too part of the spectacle? What, alongside Bach, is being performed? To what degree is the performance a parody? From the harpsichord's unorthodox position in the bedroom to the costumed maid, the concert compels the audience to interrogate their own positioning vis à vis the musical experience and one another. The staging thus raises questions concerning the value of attending a concert. How does live performance impact the performer, the individual audience member, and the community, and to what extent does it transform the relations among those present?

As one character informs us, the staging of the concert is intentionally designed to disorient the audience and provoke them to dream and reflect (127). Liliane holds the concert on June 24, the night of Saint John, in an allusion to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The novel thus reaches not only towards music, but also towards the theater.24 In A Midsummer Night's Dream, moreover, the fanciful play-within-the-play undermines established power structures by bringing the political and magical orders into contact, so that the evocative universe of dreams, fairies, and forest creatures contaminates that of the court and law. The performance in the novel similarly destabilizes the social order. The concert's mise-en-scène and the performer's explicit reflections on her role introduce a Brechtian effect of alienation, revealing the ideological and institutional codes that govern how classical music is produced and consumed.25 The performer consciously agrees to execute the music from beginning to end, adhering as closely as possible to the score. Once she commits a note to sound, she cannot take it back or revise it. The audience, in turn, maintains an attentive silence throughout the concert and applauds only at appropriate moments. Beneath this respectful veneer, however, the novel exposes the underlying violence that structures even the most refined cultural performance. The audience prepares to critique not only Liliane's interpretation and technical skill, but also, because she is a woman, her physique, style, marital status, and sexuality. She suspects that their pleasure comes, not from the music, but from the sadistic prospect of witnessing her extreme vulnerability. Like spectators at a bullfight, they want to see her test her physical limits, recalling (p.95) Edmund Burke's notion of the sublime as “[w]hatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, […] is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke 1759, 1958, 113, qtd in Sisman, 1993, 13). As Liliane observes, “Les gens s'assemblent, plus ou moins sur leur trenteetun, pour assister au déroulement d'un rituel. Corrida en sol majeur. Mais qu'espèrentils y ressentir? Et qu'estce que j'y ressens? Quant à moi, rien. C'est même la condition” (Huston, 1981, 15). [“People gather, more or less in their Sunday best, to watch the ritual unfold. Corrida in g minor. But what do they hope to feel in it? And what do I feel? As for me, nothing. It's the very condition.”]

Liliane circumvents this oppressive structure by diverting her attention outwards to the audience.26 Thus, in each successive variation, she puts herself in the place of a different individual in the audience, anticipating their thoughts and reactions. The performer makes the audience the object of her scrutiny, and forestalls its criticism by producing it herself. Again, this strategy recalls Sarraute's Les fruits d'or which similarly anticipates and parodies every possible response, except that Huston inserts an additional layer of critical distance into her text. Whereas Sarraute imagines and preempts the reception of the very novel she is writing (and we, by extension, are reading), so much so that the entire text is given over to critical response, Huston's novel recounts a musical performance and simultaneously weaves audience response into the fabric of the performance itself.

Liliane's ability to invent the thoughts of her audience while playing the Goldberg Variations challenges one of the most persistent myths associated with musical activity: that music grants fullness of presence. Instead, it generates states of absence and excess. Moreover, at the opening of the narrative, Liliane recounts a dream in which she finds herself in a room with a perfectly square keyboard. The instrument's strings are all equal in length and its keys produce the exact same note, “la même perfection” (Huston, 1981, 17): “mi.” She sits down at the keyboard and plays through the entire concert repertoire, converting passionate flurries of notes and chords into pure, undifferentiated expression, an endless repetition of identical “mis.” The dream conveys the desire for a transparent expression of the self, as the “mi” clearly stands in for “me,”27 but music fails to provide this immediacy. Even within the dream, Liliane remains exterior to the experience, listening to herself as if from the outside, not at one with the music.

The novel confronts us with an instance of amateur performance, one motivated by pleasure and leisure, rather than by economic necessity.28 While (p.96) Liliane is a highly accomplished player, she earns her living as an interpreter at UNESCO, which facilitates the comparison that Huston explicitly draws between performance and translation, and plays on the French use of the word “interprète” for musician. Both music performance and translation position the practitioner as a mediator between a source text and an audience, but music performance involves temporal constraints and a level of precision that interpretation generally does not require. Liliane observes that when she translates for a UN congress, she can vary her words so long as it does not alter the speaker's meaning. She can take her time, correct herself, even stumble:

Ici et là, c'est l'expression de quelqu'un d'autre qui passe à travers mon corps. Ici et là je suis l'interprète et surtout pas le créateur. Seulement, ce sont des mots qui entrent par mes oreilles, subissent un traitement dans mon cerveau et ressortent par ma bouche dans une autre langue, je peux hésiter, corriger, balbutier et même faire de erreurs de syntaxe sans que le contenu soit altéré. Ici, le contenu c'est la forme—chaque faute infléchit, gauchit un peu le sens même du message—, et donc, le jugement porte sur chaque seconde. (Huston, 1981, 14)

[Here and there, someone else's expression goes through my body. Here and there I am the interpreter and above all, not the creator. Only, words enter my ears, undergo a treatment in my brain, and exit through my mouth in another language, I can hesitate, correct, mumble, and even make syntactical errors without altering the content. Here, the content is the form—every mistake inflects, destroys a little the sense of the message itself—, and thus, every second is critical.]

Liliane understands performance as much more unforgiving than translation. When translating an oral text, the message is not always dependent on the form.29 By contrast, the form and the message are indistinguishable in music. This provides a key to understanding how Huston conceives of music: music exemplifies the perfect integration of form and content to which she aspires. Only the beginning and end of the novel truly achieve this marriage of form and content. The first words of the text are “Maintenant, c'est commencé” [“Now it has started”] while its final statement is: “oui, c'est la fin maintenant” [“yes, this is the end now”]. Both constitute exemplary performative statements, as they accomplish—or perform—exactly what they (p.97) announce. The deictic utterance “now” brings the performance to completion, and with it, the writing and reading of the novel. This simple word makes three distinct temporalities—and the three corresponding creative acts of writing, performing, reading—coincide as one.

On Variation Form and Literary Adaptation

Thus far we have focused primarily on the mise-en-scène and the relationship between performance, language, and theatricality in the novel. We shift here to more formal considerations, to evaluate how the novel deploys the musical form of theme and variations. Variation form occupies an ambivalent status in music history and criticism, partly because it was commonly used as a pedagogical exercise for beginning composers who were assigned the task of writing variations on a given melody or harmonic sequence. Variations typically involve borrowed material. In as much as novice composers would hone their craft by writing variations on an assigned theme, Huston's first attempt at writing fiction borrows its theme and structure from Bach. Other commonly cited weaknesses of variation form include its tendency to involve excessive repetition, and to privilege embellishment and virtuosity over substance. Sets of variations are often paratactic and lack organic inevitability because they consist of items in a linear series. According to Elaine Sisman, the most satisfying sets of variations—those of Bach, certainly, and later Haydn and his successors—are organized in ways that “seek the advantages of repetition while […] also mitigating it.”30

While this is not the place for an extended analysis of the history of variation form, it is important to call attention to the considerable interest the form has sparked in literary and cultural studies, especially among postcolonial critics who embrace repetition and variation as alternatives to dominant forms of European discourse. Antonio Benítez-Rojo makes repetition the signature trope of a Caribbean aesthetic in The Repeating Island (1997). Said (1991), (98) embraces the possibilities offered by variation form, and holds it up as an openended mode of inquiry that facilitates non-hierarchical relationships. He cites the work of Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum as an exemplary instance of variation form, whose style comprises of “exfoliating variation, in which repetition, a sort of meditative fixation on one or two small patterns, and an almost total absence of development tension were the key elements.” He argues that the point of her performance was “to (p.98) luxuriate in all sorts of byways, to linger over details and changes in text, to digress and then digress from digression.” This exploratory aesthetic seemed to offer a complete departure from the contrapuntal and goal-driven Western classical repertoire he had previously encountered, although he later locates a similar aesthetic in Beethoven's late works, in Richard Strauss, and in Bach's Goldberg Variations. Said (1983, 113–14) expressed particular appreciation for “the quiet triumph that occurs at the end of the Goldberg Variations, as the theme returns in its exact first form to close off the aberrant variations it has generated.”31

Indeed, Bach's Goldberg Variations represent an exceptionally sophisticated instance of variation form, because of their rigorous, symmetrical organization and the fact that the variations proceed not from a common melodic theme, but from the varied treatment of a given harmonic progression. The work consists of thirty-two sections (an aria, thirty variations, and an aria), and the opening aria itself contains exactly thirty-two bars. Each variation consists of two halves that are both played twice” (Williams, 2001, 44). The thirty variations fall into two grand-scale schemes: they can be seen as ten sets of three, each culminating in a canon, or alternatively, as two sets of fifteen. The sixteenth variation, a French overture, occupies a central position, and introduces the increasingly virtuosic style that characterizes the second part of the work. As Charles Rosen notes, the Goldberg Variations resemble “an encyclopedia: a survey of the world of secular music. […] [Bach] absorbs and transforms the popular styles of his time.”32

Huston deliberately focuses on major formal aspects of the Goldberg Variations—their underlying harmonic structure, stylistic diversity, da capo form, and mathematical design—and adopts innovative strategies to reproduce these features in the novel. For instance, the novel achieves the effect of a constant harmonic progression by positioning Liliane as the source of all of the constituent voices in the text. Although thirty characters successively occupy the position of speaker, they ultimately flow from Liliane's dominating voice. This constitutes an audacious experiment with the flexibility of narrative voice, the extent to which fiction can create “other” subjectivities—and erase them. As the author later reminisced, “Je dis ‘je’ à la place de trente personnes différentes! En effet, je voudrais pouvoir être tout le monde” (Argand, 2001). [“I say ‘I’ from the position of thirty different people! In effect, I'd like the ability to be everyone.”] The text unfurls these voices like an accordion or arpeggiated chord, only (p.99) to later fold them all into one.33 Significantly, the novel features a woman performer, who serves as the generative source of this heteroglossia and the site of creative authority.

The thirty speakers in the text represent a wide spectrum of ages, professions, socioeconomic classes, and national backgrounds, including a French-Canadian, an African American, and an Irishman, and the text plays up these differences by exploring the different dialects of each. The title of each chapter/variation indicates its general theme or mood, in keeping with the musical convention whereby the title of a movement dictates its tempo and character. The chapter titles, however, are more abstract and varied than those typically deployed in classical music. They include “Ombrage” (Shadow), “Vents” (Winds), “Filiation,” “Insomnia,” “Joual” (the French-Canadian dialect), “Profit,” “Fatigue,” and so on. Key motifs circulate throughout all of the variations—time, sexuality, memory, and desire—lending a thematic coherence to the work as a whole. The intense mathematical structure of Bach's work comes into play on a thematic level, as several variations involve mathematical figures and measurements. For instance, Variation XXVII, ‘Mesure’ (Measure), features an eighteen-year-old narrator, Nathalie Fournier, who is obsessed with numbers and counting. Embroiled in a power struggle with her mother—she wants a career in music but her mother is bent on persuading her otherwise—she struggles to remember whether there are thirty or thirty-one variations in the piece, and spends the duration of the concert reducing her existence to a series of mathematical calculations: the number of days in a calendar month, the length of a typical menstrual cycle, how many cherries and lettuce leaves she consumed, when she will turn twenty, thirty, and so on.

The aria da capo form of the Goldberg Variations poses a particular challenge for literary adaptation. Bach's work opens with an aria, a sarabande, which returns at the end in what is known as an aria da capo. The indication da capo (“from the head”) instructs the performer to go back and repeat the beginning until reaching the sign “fine” (“end”). The aria da capo form was especially popular in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century operas, and posed a major difficulty to librettists. Although repetition is satisfying on a musical level, it inevitably hinders the emotional development of characters by preventing the plot from moving forward. The form remained a point of contention between composers and librettists until the late eighteenth century when Christoph Willibald Gluck reformed opera by abolishing the da capo aria on the grounds that it was excessively artificial and compromised (p.100) the dramatic action. In Bach's work, the aria and aria da capo are identical to one another, lending the work a circular symmetry.34 In Huston's subsequent literary adaptation of the work, this circularity poses a unique challenge.

Significantly, Huston opts not to reproduce strict da capo form in the novel. Apart from the fact that the novel begins and ends on the same word “maintenant” (“now”), the initial and final arias are very different, which emphasizes Huston's understanding of performance—and writing—as transformative. Liliane's situation changes significantly over the course of the concert. In the opening aria, she is anxious about how the concert will unfold; in the final aria, she is relieved at having reached the end, inspired by what she has learned in the process, and ready to claim her role as the “author” of the preceding monologues. In a sense, this turns out to be a very clever way of bringing the idea of da capo form into play, as a pun, since all the constituent voices of the text emerge from Liliane's imagination—from her head. Thus, once again, Huston takes a figurative expression and makes it literal.35

A similar wordplay marks Huston's treatment of the musical notion of invention. The chapters of the novel—like Bach's musical inventions, short vocal or instrumental piece(s) whose defining characteristics are “novelty of form” and “original ideas”36—take on highly original and fragmentary forms, often trailing off in mid-sentence. Taking this kind of linguistic exploration one step further, Huston destabilizes the French expression “assister à un concert.” The verb “assister” means either to attend or to help, depending on context; generally, in the case of a concert, it simply means to attend. Liliane merges these two meanings to claim that the audience's attendance has “helped” her gain a new understanding of the Goldberg Variations, of performance, and of herself. This brings the audience into the signifying process, while enhancing the reciprocity between performer and audience.

It is worth reflecting on the differences between the da capo form of Huston's novel and the circular forms of major modernist novels of the early twentieth century. Both Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Time Past] and Sartre's La Nausée [Nausea] leave off with their narrators having finally come to understand how fiction works and on the cusp of writing a novel. Marcel and Roquentin announce something to the effect of, “Now that I know how to write, I just hope to have the time.” In each case, the text in the reader's hands could well stand in for the one that each of these narrators aims to write. By contrast, Huston's text aspires to the condition of performance and embraces the premise that each performance is a singular, unrepeatable event. As the narrator argues, any subsequent encounter (p.101) with the Goldberg Variations would produce an entirely different text. This implies that there is no single, authoritative reading of the work—an idea that is reinforced by the fact that Huston herself returned to adapt the work in 1996 for her English translation and again in 2000 for the recorded version, just as Gould also returned to refine his interpretation of the piece in 1981. Instead of anticipating a future writing as if none has already occurred, Huston's narrator (like that of Sarraute's Les fruits d'or) acknowledges the performance she has just completed and the audience's role, as if to say, “I accomplished what I set out to do; I might do it again—differently, of course; I appreciate your accompanying me and helping me through this performance.” The reciprocity she brings to performance also makes space for the reader who, like the audience at the concert, becomes an active agent in the signifying process.

While the novel engages with diverse aspects of performance—performance as a function of language, following J. L. Austin's notion that language does what it says (as we saw in several examples in the preceding discussion); musical performance, marked by an awareness of current debates triggered both by Gould and by early music practitioners; and gender performance, anticipating Judith Butler's demonstration that sexuality is not natural, but articulated and performed37—it also makes the case that writing itself is a mode of performance. One speaker regards writing as much more forgiving than musical performance because it is produced away from the public eye, whereas music performance unfolds in the present (“dans le temps”) and every single instant is subject to critical judgment (Huston, 1981, 95). Another character fantasizes about abolishing this distance between writing and the public, by imagining a text that would record the act of writing. Such a text would include blank spaces every time the writer hesitated, which the reader could then choose to fill or leave empty:

Si par exemple il lui fallait dix seconds pour écrire une ligne, alors un minute d'hésitation vaudrait six lignes de blanc. Ainsi de suite. Des pages entières seraient blanches, et comme ça les lecteurs verraient que l'inspiration de l'écrivain ne coulait jamais de source. En plus il pourrait écrire eux-mêmes dans les blancs tout ce qu'ils voudraient… (45)

[If for example it took her ten seconds to write a line, one minute's hesitation would be worth six blank lines. And so on and so forth. Entire pages would be white, and in this way readers would see that a writer's

(p.102) inspiration never flows smoothly. In addition, they themselves could write whatever they wish in the blank spaces…]

The novel subsequently enacts this idea by introducing ten lines of blank space into the paragraph, calling attention to the performative aspect of writing.

The relationship between writing and performance crystalizes around the figure of Bernald Thorer, a highly successful public intellectual who inexplicably renounces his academic career, abandoning both writing and public lectures. When a journal editor asks him for a reaction to the Cambodian killing fields, he refuses to turn out the eloquent moral outrage expected of him and instead produces an unintelligible statement, leaving the editor at a loss as to whether to read the text as a bad joke, or as evidence of a mental breakdown: “Il n'y avait presque rien écrit dessus, à peine quelques mots: ‘c'est horrible’, ‘non’, ‘c'est--’, des mots illisibles, et même des sortes d'onomatopées genre band dessinée: ‘Aaaargh’” (135). [“There was barely anything written on it, hardly a few words, ‘it's horrible,’ ‘no,’ ‘it's---,’ illegible words and even the kind of onomatopoeias one finds in comics: ‘Aaaargh.’”] Bernald later participates in a televised roundtable discussion, during the course of which he falls embarrassingly silent when asked to comment on whether or not the world is veering towards catastrophe. Finally, he breaks down into uncontrolled laughter in the French national library,38 introducing physical excess and disorder into the very edifice where reason and order are held most sacrosanct. In choosing suddenly to abandon his activities as a public intellectual, Bernald resembles Gould, who similarly left off performance at the height of his performing career. Whereas Gould saw the body as a threat to the integrity of his performance, however, Bernald uses the body to contest the ideological production of meaning. Bernald's physical and non-verbal “performances” indicate his refusal to participate in practices that sanction a political violence and intellectual hypocrisy he finds abhorrent.

Musical Form in Huston's Literary Production

It is Huston's practice to give her fictional works a specific generic designation in addition to their titles: these range from the more conventional roman (novel) in the case of Dolce agonia, Plainsong, Instruments of Darkness, and Mark of the Angel to the more inventive “polyphonie” for Prodige/Prodigy. Les variations Goldberg stand out as the only text Huston labels as a romance. (p.103) Unlike the masculine roman, the French word for romance is feminine, which underscores the feminine aesthetic at play in the text, particularly in its nonlinear structure, engagement with the body, and interest in how a woman's performance is marked as different.39 By affiliating her first novel to the category of romance, Huston calls attention to her use of French, the Romance language par excellence. On a formal level, romance conveys an improvisational and experimental approach to form, while gesturing to the tradition of medieval literary romances that feature a hero who undergoes a series of ordeals, to emerge with newfound self-knowledge—as Liliane does at the keyboard.

Music thus occupies a central and highly visible role in Les variations Goldberg: the concert functions as the narrative device that gathers a diverse cast of characters in a unified space and time, while Bach's work organizes these voices around a unifying focal topic. Musical devices take on similar importance in Huston's later novels as well, although often in less explicit ways. Instruments des ténèbres/Instruments of Darkness (1996) engages with another cornerstone work of the Baroque instrumental repertoire, Heinrich Biber's Resurrection Sonata, one of the Rosary Sonatas for solo violin (also known as the Mystery Sonatas). The novel uses Biber to interweave two distinct plotlines, both of which feature female protagonists who experience trauma and recovery. The first of these plotlines is the journal of Nadia, a New York-based author, who documents her efforts to complete a novel while coping with her father's alcoholism, her mother's acute dementia, and her own history of repeated abortions and failed relationships. The second narrative thread consists of the novel that Nadia is writing: the story of Barb, a young woman in seventeenth-century France who loses her mother at birth, endures abuse and rape as a domestic servant, commits infanticide against her own child, and ultimately becomes a healer. Nadia calls her journal the Scordatura Notebook in reference to the musical technique that Biber deploys involving the tuning of an instrument's strings to irregular pitches. It is a gesture of homage to her mother, a former concert violinist who made Biber's sonata into one of her signature pieces. Nadia's commitment to writing and creative work contrasts with her mother's lack of choice a generation earlier; her mother was forced to sacrifice her musical career to raise children. Weighed down by serial pregnancies and caught in an abusive marriage, she developed debilitating dementia—Nadia is determined not to fall into the same trap.

Just as Les variations Goldberg borrows the variation form of Bach's work, Instruments of Darkness follows the twelve different stages of the Virgin (p.104) Mary's life as evoked in Biber's Resurrection Sonata.40 Within this narrative arc, the text shuttles back and forth between the protagonist's journal and the novel she is writing, between present-day Manhattan and seventeenth-century rural France. Ironically, although Nadia laments that all writing is maddeningly linear,41 the structure of the text is everything but linear due to its constant spatial and temporal disruptions.42 But despite the narrative fragmentation, the novel follows the sonata's redemptive structure: both Nadia and Barb ultimately recover a sense of self and purpose through writing (in the case of Nadia) and the practice of women's traditional medicine (for Barb). It becomes clear that the instruments of darkness evoked in the title are not only the mistuned violin, but also feminine writing and traditional forms of healing.

Scordatura, the principal musical metaphor in Instruments of Darkness, was a favorite technique of Biber's. Changing the tuning of the violin opens up new harmonic possibilities and engages the virtuosic capabilities of the composer—somewhat like writing in a foreign language. The irregular tuning defamiliarizes the instrument by creating an unsettling visual and audial disconnect between the notes written on the score and the sounds the instrument produces.43 When performing a composition that involves scordatura, a musician reads and plays the note “mi,” but the instrument produces a different sound (Lindley, 2012). Huston's novel invites us to consider fiction itself as a form of scordatura as it submits language to an alternative “tuning”: in any first-person narrative, the word “me” is understood as belonging neither to the reader nor to the author, but to another who exists only within the space of the text.

An even more productive way to understand scordatura—and music itself—in the context of Huston's writing is in relation to bilingualism. It is illuminating to consider the musical aspects of her work in relation to the questions of translation, self-translation, displacement, and deterritorialization. At the outset of her career, Huston chose to write in French in order to make language unfamiliar and strange. Over the years, as she became more adept at writing in French and made her life in Paris, English, too, took on an aspect of strangeness. She later wrote, “The acquisition of a second tongue destroys the ‘naturalness’ of the first; from then on, nothing can be self-evident in any tongue; nothing belongs to you wholly and irrefutably; nothing will ever ‘go without saying’ again” (Huston, 2003, 62). In writing Instruments of Darkness, Huston experimented at producing a novel simultaneously in both languages; she wrote alternatively in French or English, (p.105) translating as she went along. This process of crafting a text in one language, and instantaneously carrying it across into the other, achieves an unsettling, shifting effect of deterritorialization, similar to what scordatura produces in music.44 The presence of the other language initiates the dismantling of figurative expressions that occurs throughout Huston's work, as we saw earlier in Les variations Goldberg in such expressions as “musique de chambre,” “sur leur trenteetun,” “assister à un concert,” “interprète,” and “da capo.”

The relationship between bilingualism and music can be seen in yet another light if we consider Huston's bilingual writing as a “minorization” of both French and English. Deleuze and Guattari make a distinction between major and minor literatures, calling on categories that invoke not only the political concept of the majority (as the site of agency and power), but also the musical modes of major and minor. They use the metaphor of stuttering to convey what great writers do to language: they “make the language itself stutter,” by creating within language “a sort of foreign language, which is not a different language, nor a rediscovered patois, but a becoming-other of the language, a minorization of that major language, a delirium that carries it away, a sorcerer's line that escapes the dominant system” (Bogue, 2004, 70). This link between minorization, music and sorcery is important, as it captures what is at stake in the connections between writing, performance, and witchcraft that Huston lays out in Instruments of Darkness, in opposition to a tradition that has suppressed women's voices and discouraged or devalued their creative pursuits.

It is important to note that Huston brings a comparable complexity of form into later novels that are not as explicitly musical, but nonetheless adapt musical ideas to resolve distinct narratological challenges. All of her novels deploy multiple voices, feature narrative fragmentation, and are obsessed with time. Dolce agonia exemplifies these concerns, and is staged around the successive courses of a traditional Thanksgiving feast. The ritual of the meal fulfills a similar function as the concert in Les variations Goldberg—and the wake in Maryse Condé's Traversée de la mangrove, discussed in Chapter One. The celebratory meal brings together multiple protagonists, and provides an organizing structure: the novel begins with the preparation of the food, and proceeds through the arrival of the guests and the various courses of the meal, to culminate in their departure. The host, Sean, a specialist in Irish poetry (who subsequently appears in another of Huston's novels, Virevolte), has recently learned he has terminal lung-cancer, but has yet to tell any of the friends, colleagues, and former lovers who have gathered to celebrate the (p.106) holiday with him. Beneath the flow of conversation, all those present struggle with loss and mortality. Huston knits together the different sections of the text by using God as a narrator, an irreverent but effective strategy. This fully omniscient voice announces how and when each of the characters will die, giving the meal the somber aspect of “the last supper” as we learn the fate of each character in the intervals between each course.

A more recent novel, Fault Lines/Lignes de faille (2006), provides an example of how Huston brings structural aspects of the musical fugue into her writing. The text deploys four narrators who enter one after another at different temporal intervals to tell the history of a family over the course of four generations. The novel begins in the present and proceeds backwards into time, unpeeling the layers of family history and catching each successive narrator at the age of six.45 The interventions of these four six-year-olds, spaced at distinct intervals, evoke the entries in imitation that characterize a fugue or canon. The word fugue comes from the Latin fuga, a term related both to fugere, “to flee,” and fugare, “to chase,” and both notions come into play in the text as the protagonists seek to uncover their family's past, but flee from its implications. The opening of the novel presents all four narrators together: six-year-old Sol, an over-indulged child who secretly pours over graphic photos of the Abu Ghraib scandal and of Iraqi war casualties on the Internet; his father, Randall, who produces robot-controlled weapons for the US Army and has a palpable hatred of Arabs; his grandmother, Sadie, a well-known historian of the Holocaust; and his great-grandmother, Krystina Erra, a celebrated singer who specializes in songs without words, a style she developed in response to her traumatic childhood. She was raised by a German family and nurtured on German folksongs only to discover she had been kidnapped from Ukrainian parents as a baby as part of the sinister Nazi Lebensborn project designed to promote the Aryan race. The German folksongs she had come to love were suddenly no longer innocent, but part and parcel of a program of cultural and ideological indoctrination; at the same time, because she could not simply unlearn them, she created her own distinctive repertoire of wordless song.

According to the logic of a fugue, the first narrator, six-year-old Sol in California in 2004, announces the “subject”; the narrative cuts to his father Randall as a six-year-old in Haifa in 1982 who “answers” the subject in similar terms; the third section is narrated by Sadie, in Canada in 1962; and the final part presents Krystina in Germany in 1945–46. By moving backwards in time in such a disjointed manner, Huston catches her characters in the awkward and painful act of becoming; this fugal technique of narration creates empathetic (p.107) connections between the different generations that bridge the histories that divide them. If the novel's formal relation to music is more implicit than that of Les variations Goldberg, it similarly borrows and transforms a musical form (the fugue) to reveal the connections between the musical, the linguistic, the historical, and the political.

Gould and the Death of the Author

Huston's treatment of performance in the Les variations Goldberg reflects the enormous impact of Glenn Gould. The pianist's withdrawal from the concert stage is widely understood in relation to his intense anxiety about the body and the need to control his physical environment, but also reflects an important ethical dimension. Gould was famous for his mistrust of the body: he claimed that live concerts put the “‘naked fact of your humanity’ too much on display; and likewise the audience's humanity.” He was known to wear gloves, soak his hands in warm water, travel with the same old chair for use in performances, take innumerable pills, and follow a carefully scripted physical regimen before any appearance in order to achieve maximum control over the physical variables of his performances. He hated perspiring in public, and was equally repulsed at being exposed to the audience's perspiring bodies. Because he saw live performance as intolerably open to accident and contingency, studio recordings offered a “way of putting distance between human biology and art, none of the audience's bodily infirmities communicated to him, none of his to them” (Mansell, 1985, 61).

Gould's shift to recordings, however, was also largely motivated by ethical convictions about current practices in the music industry concerning how music is produced and consumed. He believed that recordings would extend the repertoire, make music more widely available, shape more informed listeners, and allow the public more control over their listening experience. He argued that recordings had already helped to revive interest in Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, in part because they brought music into people's homes, into the kinds of intimate spaces similar to those for which much of this repertoire was intended. Recordings also created a disciplined and knowledgeable basis to guide musicians in approaching early music, because they facilitated the comparison of different editions and interpretative practices. They offered artists more control in crafting interpretations, and also held out the promise of democratizing music: Gould's biographer Kenneth (p.108) Bazzana (2010, 266) explicitly highlights the ethical underpinning of Gould's retreat from the stage: “[R]ecording, like everything else, was ultimately about ethics. His powerful artistic ego notwithstanding, he approved of the ‘democratic’ and ‘anonymous’ nature of recordings, which is a collaborative process undertaken in private settings, out of the public eye and away from the constraints of real time and unburdened by ‘personality’ in the way that a concert performance is.” Thus, Gould saw recordings as “democratizing” and as a way to escape the vagaries and “distracting theatricality” of performance.

Gould's first recording featured, of course, the Goldberg Variations. When the twenty-two-year-old pianist approached the management at Columbia Records in 1955 with the project of using the Goldberg Variations for his debut album, they advised him that such a monumental and esoteric work was inappropriate for such a young artist at the beginning of his career. Gould insisted, and in hindsight, his unorthodox choice could not have been more auspicious; it is still impossible to mention the variations without Gould coming to mind. His 1955 and 1981 recordings of the work outsold other classical albums and remain benchmarks for subsequent interpretations, and are widely praised for bringing out the contrapuntal voices more than any other recording of the work. Gould described the variations as

thirty remarkable views of an entirely unremarkable ground bass theme, views which like snapshots randomly filed range back and forth over the decades, revealing at one moment the sturdy contrapuntal craft of Bach's maturity, at another the indulgent exhibitionism of his youth, and at all the best moments, the passionate aestheticism of his old age. (Monsaigneon, 1981)

Interestingly, Huston also chooses to render the variations as multigenerational perspectives, pairing each variation with a character from various moments in Liliane's life: “people she loves and has loved.”

Gould's advocacy of recording constituted a powerful—and controversial—statement about the production and reception of music, particularly since he openly embraced the technique of splicing, which allowed an artist to cobble together a recording by using segments from multiple takes. His critics argued that splicing was “dishonest and dehumanizing,” as it “sabotage[d] some unified architectural conception that [they presumed] the performer possesses.” Gould claimed the opposite, that splicing frees artists to realize a unified conception of a musical work, and accords them a fuller and more (p.109) determining role as performer and editor. In other words, the artist arrives at an interpretation through the process of recording and editing. Gould insisted that recording “eliminates those conditions of chance and accident upon which […] certain of the more unsavory traditions of Western music are founded,” and transforms a solitary act of interpretation into a collaborative effort, as the performer works with a team of technicians and editors (Gould, 1966). This represents a radical departure from the Romantic view of the artist as the sole authority behind a musical interpretation.

In Gould's view, it was entirely natural for classical music to evolve in the direction of increased collaboration and shared responsibility for interpretation, as a similar shift had already occurred in the film industry. “It would be impossible for the listener (of a recording) to establish at which point the authority of the performer gave way to that of the producer and the tape editor, just as even the most observant cinemagoer cannot ever be sure whether a particular sequence of shots derives from circumstances occasioned by the actor's performance, from the exigencies of the cutting-room, or from the director's a priori scheme.” The concept of authorship becomes much more complex. Moreover, Gould saw recording as enhancing the agency and involvement of the listening public:

This listener is no longer passively analytical; he is an associate whose tastes, preferences, and inclinations even now alter peripherally the experiences to which he gives his attention, and upon whose fuller participation the future of the art of music waits. He is also, of course, a threat, a potential usurper of power, an uninvited guest at the banquet of the arts, one whose presence threatens the familiar hierarchical setting of the musical establishment.

Until now, critics have not acknowledged how Gould's emphasis on the active involvement of the listener anticipates the role Barthes assigns the reader in “The Death of the Author” (1967). Barthes unseats the author as the traditional locus of authority in a text in order to clear the way for the reader to participate in the production of meaning. Two years earlier, however, Gould had already argued for an ethics of participation in music, asserting that “[r]ecording compels the performer to relinquish some control in favor of the listener, a state of affairs, by the way, which I happen to find both encouraging and charming, not to mention aesthetically appropriate and morally right.” Literary theorists—and Barthes in particular—seem to (p.110) have taken their cue from debates already circulating in music concerning the status of the audience.

While Gould embraced the more casual, engaged and intimate relationship that recording fosters between listeners and music, these changes are the object of critique in Said's essays on musical performance. Gould considered it a good thing that the performance of music had “ceased to be an occasion, requiring an excuse and tuxedo, and accorded, when encountered, an almost religious devotion; music has become a pervasive influence in our lives, and as our dependence upon it has increased, our reverence for it has, in a certain sense, declined.” Said countered that recordings degrade how people listen. Before the advent of recording, amateurs would gather together to play music themselves, and would often adapt symphonic or operatic scores to the keyboard. Recordings alienated listeners from the means of producing music, and conditioned the public to expect an artificial perfection that is in the reach of very few highly specialized musicians. Because digital recordings enable people to compare different interpretations of a piece by sampling recordings side by side, listening to music was transformed from a sensual pleasure, to an exercise in judgment. Said saw classical music as more available, but in many ways, less accessible, less participatory: it has been accorded the most “menial roles, serving as a mood regulator, a filler of feared emptiness, an identity marker…” (de Groot, 2005, 220). Ironically, in contrast to Gould's ruthless perfectionism, Said, Barthes, and Huston all champion amateur playing—although clumsy, amateur playing is truly participatory and democratic. These concerns form the subject of animated debate throughout Huston's variations, and the novel's innovative structure itself restores a participatory element to the concert and reading experience.

Ultimately, Huston's novel affirms the idea that something happens—emerges, develops, and transforms—in every performance, be it musical, theatrical, or textual. As the end of her performance (and the novel) approaches, Liliane reflects on what the concert will have achieved:

Tous, nous serons soulagés. Nous aurons accompli notre devoir. Nous aurons fait quelque chose de notre soirée. Nous pourrons dire qu'au lieu de lire un livre ou d'aller voir un film, nous avons écouté un concert. Ou donné, selon le cas. Nous aurons eu la patience et la civilité de tenir jusqu'à la fin. Nous aurons entendu toutes les variations, dans leur ordre invariable. Personne n'aura pleuré, personne n'aura éclaté de rire,

(p.111) personne n'aura proféré d'obscénités à haute voix. Nous pourrons nous en féliciter. (Huston, 1981, 245)

[We'll all be relieved. We will have fulfilled our duty. We will have done something with our evening. We will be able to say that instead of reading a book or going to a movie, we have listened to a concert. Or given one, depending on the case. We will have had the patience and civility to hold out until the end. We will have heard all the variations in their unchanging order. No one cried, no one burst out laughing, no one swore. We can congratulate ourselves.]

The passage makes little difference between giving or attending a concert, instead portraying both as interchangeable and necessary parts of a ritual distinct from other social activities. But the question remains: does live performance achieve something that recording cannot? What happens when we witness something together in the same time and space? Does instrumental performance, like the theater, provoke consciousness of the social order and one's place within it in such a way as to allow for change? Becker, Hernández, and Werth (2012, 3–4) argue that “the individuals who witness a performance constitute themselves as a theatrical audience or ‘public’ not simply by watching or listening to the real actions of the performers before them, but rather by transforming these actions into a representation through their individual interpretative acts and through the requisite consonance between these acts.” But can a novel that addresses performance and interpretation reproduce anything of the experience of a live performance, “its capacity to generate a human connection through sensorial intensity, social intimacy, and the joint physical presence of bodies on and offstage?”

The novel tests this possibility. Its fragmented form reproduces and parodies the mode of reading advocated by post-structuralist critics who seek to privilege an audience's situated engagement with a text instead of authorial intention. The novel creates the illusion of audience response by presenting thirty varied responses, while also reinforcing the authority of the performer/ writer. Like a palimpsest in which the incompletely effaced original writing remains visible, a reader can imagine the music of the Goldberg Variations as a concurrent narrative thread—all the more so because, as several audience members observe, Liliane's interpretation is faithful to a fault, and does not take the liberty of a single rubato. Bach's Goldberg Variations structure the novel and serve as a catalyst for the unfurling of contradictory views on music, (p.112) political crises, the lost opportunities of May 1968, the evolving role of women as artists, and of course, language and literary form.

Rewriting Genealogies and Shifting Boundaries

Huston's Les variations Goldberg represents a striking instance of musicalized fiction, laying the groundwork for the sophisticated and sustained engagement with music that marks the author's later works. As Huston's virtuosic debut, the novel displays a formal and linguistic bravura that matches Gould's first recording of the Goldberg Variations. More significantly, it exposes the indebtedness of literary debates over the role of the author to similar discussions in music, establishing Gould as an important precursor to Barthes and Foucault.

Why return to the novel today, and more pointedly, why do so in the context of transnational writing? What does Huston's writing have to say to the other novels considered here? Unlike the other works under discussion, Huston's novel represents an indepth engagement with a specific work of music and the history of its performance practice, while at the same time using variation and performance to open up new literary and ethical questions as well. The next chapter examines how J. M. Coetzee engages with opera in order to think about the role of the novel in contemporary Africa and the ethical demands of representing others—or rather, of not presuming to represent others. Huston deploys music in order to push representation to its limits, expanding and collapsing subjects. For Huston, performance and writing offer the possibility of creating and transforming the world as we know it. While she exposes the ideological, historical, political, and linguistic forces that shape every performance, she also configures it as a space of play. Gould argued that recording offers a more thoughtful and collaborative platform to create music than the concert stage, and foresaw the end of live performances; Huston, by contrast, recognizes performance as a dynamic site of ritual, play, risk, and reciprocity, and attempts to harness its magic and bring it into the novel. Some thirty years later, the novel retains the experimental excitement of using Bach's variations to interrogate boundaries—between literature and music, between languages, between performer and audience, and between writer and reader.


(1) Les variations Goldberg won the (appropriately named) Prix Contrepoint and was shortlisted for the Prix Femina. Huston's English translation of the novel appeared in 1996 as The Goldberg Variations, and earned the Governor General's Award for Translation.

(2) Huston (2003, 65) recalls Barthes' insistence that “form and content [be] as inseparable as oil and vinegar in a good salad dressing.”

(3) In an insightful study, Ioanna Chatzidimitriou (2009, 24) describes the linguistic disruption at work within translingual narratives in terms that are particularly resonant for Huston's work: “the ever more silent, disappearing mother tongue and the deafening, overly self-reflexive presence of the foreign language.”

(4) Barthes lost his life in 1980 at the age of sixty-five due to injuries sustained in a road accident. According to Huston, his death coincided with her birth as a writer (Shread, 2009, 57).

(5) Huston dedicates Les variations Goldberg to Barthes, “à celui qui est mort comme un enfant.” [“To someone who died like a child.”] In an autobiographical essay many years later, “The Mask and the Pen,” Huston (2003, 65–66) recalls Barthes's inability to write fiction: “Barthes himself had fantasies of writing a novel but was brought up short by the first obstacle he encountered—namely, the difficulty of inventing proper names for his characters and then believing in them. […] Like the proverbial centipede who can't figure out which leg to start with, Barthes was so paralyzed by his own need to understand how novels worked; therefore he had no choice but to renounce novel writing. […] Not by chance did I make the leap at least in 1980—daring to embark upon fiction-writing at last, just a few months after the death of Roland Barthes.” Ironically, Huston makes (p.162) Liliane a harpsichordist, notwithstanding the fact that Barthes openly proclaimed his distaste for the harpsichord in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (Noudelmann, 2012, 126). It was her instrument after all; she took up the harpsichord at the same time as she started learning French as a high school student in New Hampshire. In Nord perdu, Huston connects the piano to English and to the mother, and sees it as a vehicle for emotionalism, exaggerated dynamics, and manipulation; by contrast, she associates the harpsichord with neutrality, intellectualism, and the French language (Arroyas 2008, 93–105).

(6) Huston was awarded the Governor General's Award for a French-language novel in 1993 for Cantique des plaines, although some argued that the novel should not qualify for the award since the author first published it in English as Plainsong, and later translated it herself into French. Infrarouge/Infrared (2010) won the less coveted Literary Review's Bad Sex prize in 2012.

(7) Huston is married to Franco-Bulgarian critic Tzvetan Todorov.

(8) My aim here is to demonstrate how these aspects of Huston's work are inseparable.

(9) See in particular Kaiama L. Glover (2010, 99–110). Huston has called herself a “faux bilingue” (a false bilingual) in Nord perdu. Reda Bensmaïa and Rey Chow (2005, 249–52) take Huston's comments on bilingualism as an “invitation to reflect on the connotations of bilingualism as a cultural condition.”

(10) Interestingly, Huston accords French this neutral quality in opposition to English, which she affiliates with the mother, emotion, and excess. If Assia Djebar similarly refers to French as a stepmother tongue, she does not accord it the same neutrality—French supplanted the Berber and colloquial Arabic spoken in her childhood home, even while it also gave her the freedom to express herself, access to higher education, and the ability to move about in society, unlike many other of her peers who remained cloistered at home.

(11) Huston quotes Georges Sand in a collection of essays on contemporary literature, Professeurs du désespoir (2005): “L'homme est bon et mauvais. Mais il est quelque chose encore: la nuance, la nuance qui est pour moi le but de l'art.” Huston, like Djebar, is interested in the nuances in human experience that connect people across national or historical divides. Among the questions her work explores are affiliation (how one inherits or elects an affiliation), the difference between genius and bricolage, and what writing or music can do in the face of violence and trauma.

(12) Like many of her leading characters, Huston herself is an accomplished musician.

(13) Huston recognizes the influence of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute on (p.163) her writing, and notes her special affinity for Marguerite Duras, Romain Gary, and Samuel Beckett.

(14) Wolf considers music in The Goldberg Variations alongside film in David Lodge's Changing Places and painting in Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree.

(15) Thomas Forrest Kelly (2011, corroborates this connection between the early music movement and social protests: “The protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s—civil rights, antiwar, and the like—produced what many called a ‘counterculture’ resisting all that was passed down as traditional and elitist. To the extent that early music was seen as traditional and participatory, it could be seen as part of a cultural trend toward music of the people, music without pretense, music that expresses a general union of popular and learned. It cannot be sheer coincidence that the [movement] arose at the same time as a number of other populist movements: the folk-music revival, for example, propelled by Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and others.” Kelly speculates that early music performances appealed to audiences through their claim to offer spontaneous creativity in the moment; such performances drew on scholarship (not received ideas) and involved improvisation: “A substantial part of the activity of the modern early-music movement is an effort to evoke that excitement, the one-time, you-were-there effect of music being made now. […] The impetus for its existence is grounded in the idea of spontaneity, of excitement, of recapturing experiences otherwise lost to us.”

(16) Theodore Ziolkowski (2010) considers four contemporary literary renditions of the Goldberg Variations, including Huston's, and speculates that the resurgence of interest in Bach's work comes from a postmodern nostalgia for order and a widespread fascination with Glenn Gould. The three other novels he examines are Thomas Bernhard's Der Untergeher [1983, The Loser], Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations (1991), and Gabriel Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations (2002). Unfortunately, his readings are primarily plot-based and he glosses over Huston's novel very quickly. In his view, “despite the virtuoso formal display and the shrewd insights into thirty different personalities, the work never succeeds in making clear any connection, other than the structural one, between Bach's Variations and the performance [it] depict[s].” It is a pity that Ziolkowski brings up Gould right at the very end of the essay, as it prevents him from developing what is otherwise an important insight.

(17) While I do not wish to impose a psychological reading on Huston's work, it seems plausible that her fascination with Gould's sudden rejection of performance may stem from her own efforts to understand her mother's abrupt departure.

(18) Pérégrinations Goldberg was released under the record label Naïve in 2000.

(19) One character compares Liliane's halting way of speaking to the chords of Frescobaldi's music: “Elle pronounce plutôt une phrase, elle la laisse résonner comme l'accord de Frescobaldi, elle attend pour voir si l'arpège de quelqu'un d'autre ne viendra pas s'y intriguer, puis elle essaie une autre phrase” (Huston, 1981, 46). [“She pronounces a sentence, lets it resonate like a chord of Frescobaldi, waits to see if someone else's arpeggio will join in, then tries another sentence.”]

(20) Pérégrinations Goldberg consists of thirteen tracts. The first and last tracts feature Huston reading the first and last sections of the novel with the aria of the Goldberg Variations played on harpsichord in the background. The eleven intervening variations represent original compositions (with the exception of Frescobaldi's Canzona Terza) for harpsichord, percussion, serpent, and voice. They include: “Joual”; “L'Araignée” (Spider); “Mesure” (Measure); “Vert” (Green); “Figer” (Freeze); “Roche” (Rock); “L'Aile de la mort” (Death's Wing); “Tumeur” (Tumor); “Faux” (Out of Tune); and “Variation sur variation” (Variation on a Variation).

(21) In Huston's recording, the counterpoint is primarily between the voice and the instrument, and between the text and the music; each variation unfolds in sequence, unlike Gould's vertical layering of voices. Gould's experiments in contrapuntal radio reflect his interest in Renaissance and Baroque composers whom he identified as “the first people who recognized that it was possible and feasible and realistic to expect the human mind and the human ear to be aware of many simultaneous relationships, to follow their diverse courses and to be involved in all of them” (Kostelanetz, 1988, 567).

(22) The contrast between formal constraint and creative freedom figures at the very opening of the text in the two contradictory epigraphs: “Vous avez exactement quatre-vingt-seize minutes” [“You have exactly ninety-six minutes”] and “Vous avez tout votre temps” [“You have all your time”] (Huston, 1981: 10–11).

(23) Mary Coldwell recalls that while the 1970s saw a prevalence of recordings labeled “authentic performance” on “original instruments,” scholars in the 1980s (Taruskin, Dreyfus, and others) challenged the notion of “authenticity” on the grounds that it was “impossible to create a truly historically authentic Baroque performance 300 years after the fact, because among other things, contemporary audiences, venues, values, and contexts are so different. Also, in some cases the desire to create historically authentic replicas (a 20th-century ‘modernist’ idea) had led to rather boring, inexpressive performances—the opposite of ‘authentic’ performances in (p.165) the sense of performances that were truly imagined, created and owned by the performers.” http://earlymusic.org/what-early-music.

(24) In the sense that the concert brings together people Liliane loves or has loved, it recalls a scene from Proust's Le Temps retrouvé, in which many of the characters are reunited in the drawing room of the Princesse de Guermantes.

(25) One of the speakers explicitly evokes Brecht in relation to the cinema, the theater, and music, to argue that desire and taste are not personal, but “fabriqués par l'appareil idéologique mis en place par le pouvoir” [“fabricated by the ideological apparatus established by power”] (Huston, 1981, 226).

(26) Liliane reflects, “je ne dois penser qu'à mes doigts, et même à eux je ne dois pas vraiment penser. Sinon je sais qu'ils deviendront des bouts de chair, des boudins blancs, petits porcs frétillants, et je risquerai de m'interrompre horrifiée de les voir se rouler sur les morceaux d'ivoire” (Huston, 1982, 13). [“I should just think of my fingers, and still, I should not really think of them. If I do, I know they'll turn into bits of flesh, white sausages, wiggling little pigs, and I might interrupt myself, horrified at seeing them roll around on the ivory keys.”] Gould made a similar observation in 1981: “Part of the secret in playing the piano is to separate yourself from the instrument in every possible way […] I have to find a way of standing outside myself while at the same time being totally committed to what I'm doing” (Bazzana, 2004, 428).

(27) A variant of this dream reappears in Instruments of Darkness where the writer Nadia has a nightmare that she is packing suitcases and playing the violin (her mother's instrument), but the notes disintegrate and fray, until only a single note remains. Nadia recalls that Schumann's madness at the end of his life consisted in hearing a single note in his head, a persistent, repeated “la” (A) that she interprets as a form of recovered innocence. Considering the wordplay Huston creates in Les Variations Goldberg between the note “mi” and me (the self), the “la” could well have something to do with the feminine and with questions of gender, signaling the way classical music has (until recently) marginalized women performers and composers. Liliane's inability to focus her thoughts on her performance recalls a passage in Barthes's autobiography, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, in which the author evokes his own struggle to keep his mind from wandering during a student performance of Aeschylus's The Persians at the Sorbonne. “I was fascinated by the temptation of thinking of something else; through the tiny holes of the mask, I could only see very high up and far way. As I delivered the dead king's speeches, my eyes came to rest on inert—free—objects and books, a window, a (p.166) cornice, a piece of the sky: they at least weren't afraid. I excoriated myself for getting caught in this uncomfortable trap—while my voice continued its smooth delivery, resisting the expressions I should have given it” (Barthes, 1977, 33). His voice continues to produce the text as required, while his thoughts are elsewhere, truant, detached. For Timothy Scheie, this scene reveals something essential about performance: a “reluctant subject constrained to ‘be’ in a particular way; a desiring body palpable beneath an ideological mask; language and voice severed from their expressive function; and finally, a utopian dream of liberation from this predicament forever deferred by the inability—or unwillingness—to remove the imposed mask of meaning and subjectivity.” Scheie goes on to ask: “When is performance a liberating gesture and when is it a ‘trap’?” (Scheie, 2006, 21–22).

(28) An amateur pianist himself, Barthes extolled the virtues of amateur playing because its objective is pleasure rather than technical perfection (Noudelmann, 2012, 106–7).

(29) The passage makes some very simplistic and problematic assumptions about translation; if Liliane had compared the translation of spoken-word poetry to music, form and timing would be absolutely critical, just as they are in rendering a piece of music. An interesting element of this comparison is that while both the performer and interpreter may be vehicles of another's meaning, the interpreter is effaced in the act, while the performer of a piece of music receives particular attention.

(30) See Sisman's extensive discussion of the history and aesthetic problems of variation form in the Grove Music Online. She highlights a number of critical issues that come into play when analyzing any set of variations: What logic, if any, motivates the number and order of variations? How does the set of variations come to an end? Does the theme return, and if so, what kind of closure (artificial or revelatory) does this achieve? Elsewhere, Sisman observes that music critics tend to treat variations as “interpretations or criticisms of a theme,” as Edward Cone does in writing on Schubert (Sisman, 1993, 36).

(31) As is the case with much of Said's writing on music, critics have been quick to point out the flaws in his understanding of the Goldberg Variations: for instance, although she praises Said's efforts to consider music in relation to Vico's notion of history, Sisman (1993, 6) argues that one can hardly qualify the Goldberg Variations as “aberrant” as they adhere to a highly determined, mathematical logic.

(32) Rosen's program notes to Jerome Robbins's 1971 version of the Goldberg Variations at the New York City Ballet.

(33) In a sense, the novel—like other literary or artistic adaptations of musical (p.167) works—offers a highly creative response to Said and Daniel Baremboim's (2002, 156) question, “How does one give music a kind of resonance beyond itself? How does one give it a kind of extension?”

(34) Even so, some musicologists contend that listeners experience the return of the aria in an entirely different way from the opening of the piece, because the listener's understanding of that aria has been expanded and transformed over the course of the variations.

(35) Much as Barbara Johnson (1979) showed Baudelaire to do in his prose poems.

(36) See John Caldwell's entry on “Invention” for Grove Music Online. Caldwell argues that the word invention has “affinities with ‘ricercare’, with its connotation of ‘seeking out’ or ‘finding.’” He also notes that Bach used the word “invention” in the preface to the Clavier-Büchlein vor W. F. Bach (1720) to denote “original ideas.”

(37) These dimensions come together in the persona of Liliane, whose identity and self-expression as a woman is as much under critique as her musicianship. Liliane's controlled performance is explicitly contrasted to the highly sexualized, extroverted musical production of male performers who wield their instrument like a phallus that ejaculates on the public (Huston, 1981, 143–45). Feminine performance is at stake throughout the text, perhaps most remarkably in Variation XX: “Je plaque sur mon visage une expression quelconque en espérant que cet arrangement de ma physionomie correspondra à l'idée qu'ils se font d'une jeune fille ‘animée’ ou ‘curieuse’ ou ‘intelligente’; j'essaie de me voir à travers leurs yeux. Mais ensuite, je m'affole à l'idée qu'ils vont réellement me juger là-dessus: toute cette comédie aboutira fatalement à un avis sur ma personne, alors qu'elle n'a rien à voir avec ce que je suis au fond” (162). [“I put any old expression on my face, hoping that this arrangement of my physiognomy will correspond to their idea of a ‘vivacious,’ ‘curious,’ or ‘intelligent’ young woman; I try to see myself through their eyes. But then, I panic that they will really judge me by it: this whole comedy will fatally lead to an assessment of me, even though it will have nothing to do with who I really am at heart.”]

(38) The Bibliothèque National de France in Paris houses one of the nineteen original manuscript copies of Bach's Goldberg Variations, including corrections and additions made by the composer.

(39) Wolf (2002b, 21) calls attention to the “affinities between music, the ‘song of the body’, and a transgressive, anti-patriarchal écriture féminine, which disregards linear, rational discourse as described by Hélène Cixous with reference to musical terms.” He argues that a “possible parallel in musicalized fiction between the feminine as the Other of the masculine (p.168) and music as literature's Other is indeed an intriguing perspective. It has not yet received its due attention, and I would at least like to point it out here as deserving further investigation although the majority of experiments with musicalization seems so far to have been written by men without consciously attempting an écriture féminine.” Note that this movement from the masculine roman to the feminine romance is replicated in Variation XV; Bernald insists on contrasting music and meaning: he describes music as “roche” (a feminine term for rock that evokes a certain porosity) and meaning as “roc” (a masculine term that signifies hardness, solidity) (Huston, 1981, 127–28).

(40) Biber's patron, the Archbishop Max Gandolf von Khuenberg, was a member of an Austrian society devoted to the veneration of Mary. The sonata uses scordatura in such a way that the strings of the violin cross; the high and low registers exchange their conventional positions. Arroyas (2008, 110–11) argues that Huston deliberately uses the sonata and its association with the Virgin Mary “to criticize and subvert Christian orthodoxy,” “in opposition to the relegation of women to the role of procreation, […] as paving a way for women to gain access to the spiritual and divine orders, to be creators and not only procreators.”

(41) “Le roman est d'une linéarité enrageante” (Huston, 1996b, 50–51). [“Novels are maddeningly linear!”]

(42) According to Lévi-Strauss, musical performance holds the same social power as myth, since both music and myth are “instruments for the obliteration of time” (Dunsby, Grove Music Online).

(43) Cameron Fae Bushnell (2009) offers an insightful analysis of tuning and difference in Vikram Seth's An Unequal Music and Daniel Mason's The Piano Tuner in “The Art of Tuning: A Politics of Exile.”

(44) Huston comments, “J'ai composé l'histoire alternée de deux femmes dans Instruments des ténèbres, en passant de l'anglais au français, chapitre après chapitre. Tous les jours, je me repassais d'une langue sur l'autre et y puisais un regain d'énergie” [“I wrote the alternating stories of two women in Instruments of Darkness, passing from English to French chapter after chapter. Every day, I'd switch from one language to the other, tapping into a new burst of energy”] (Gazier, Laval and Bouchez, 1997, 4). As critics have observed, even if the writer forced herself to respect the norms in each language, the French version contains anglicisms, like adjectives before the verb. It is impossible to label either version an original, due to the fact that Huston produced both texts simultaneously, side by side.

(45) The narrative construction, focus on trauma, and historical concerns of the novel recall Nicole Krauss's fiction, particularly Great House (2011). In her insightful reading of Fault Lines, Katherine Kolb (2010) is particularly (p.169) attuned to the layers of meaning in Huston's title in both the French and English versions.