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30 degrees of observation

Goldberg: Variations A Novel Gabriel Josipovici Harper Perennial: 192 pp., $13.95 paper

March 25, 2007|Stephanie Zacharek | Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon.com.

CHAPTER 11 of Gabriel Josipovici's ambitious, frustrating, intricate puzzle of a novel, "Goldberg: Variations," consists solely of a description of a storeroom -- or maybe a painting of a storeroom -- containing 11 objects: Two books, a round box, seven bottles and jars (sitting on shelves and hanging from hooks) and a piece of fruit. In painstaking detail, Josipovici notes the exact position of each item, where it appears in this tableau, which of the other items it may be leaning against and which part of it may be slightly obscured by another item in front of it: "Returning to the left hand side, between the bottle and the lemon hangs a brown jar, one of whose handles is clearly visible, the other just discernible in the gloom." And so forth.

This storeroom, or painting, could be a metaphor for any number of things. But given the context of the book, it may be most useful as a metaphor for the British writer and scholar's brain, which is clearly a kind of interior Library of Congress holding a vast number of cultural and literary references, at least one or two of which spill out on nearly every page of "Goldberg: Variations," some of them just discernible in the gloom.

Josipovici, who has published more than two dozen books, including novels, plays, short-story collections and critical studies, now gives us a book vibrating with ideas. The title, with that foxily placed colon, drops a hint. "Goldberg: Variations" consists of 30 stories that -- just as Bach's 30 variations -- ultimately connect with one another, some tenuously, others with more vigorous glue. The first, and perhaps best, of these stories is set in the early 19th century and describes the arrival of a writer known as Goldberg at the sprawling manor of his new employer, Tobias Westfield. The philosopher has hired Goldberg to read to him -- specifically, to read him to sleep. He's already fired a harpsichordist whose nocturnal noodling failed to cure his insomnia.

Goldberg, it appears, will fare no better: He and Westfield burrow deep into conversation that first night, and Westfield confides that simply reading a book won't be enough, since he asserts that he's already read all the books ever written. Apparently gripped by dueling forces, a craving for art and a fear of it, Westfield believes that Goldberg can break the spell by writing a story every day. Only a completely new story "will give the person who reads or hears it the sense that the world has become alive again for him," he tells Goldberg. "[T]he world will start to breathe ... where before it had seemed as if made of ice or rock. And it is only in the arms of that which breathes that we can fall asleep, for only then are we confident that we will ourselves wake up alive."

Although this first story stands as a discrete and fully rounded entity, the rest expand on how Goldberg fulfills his task (or doesn't) and also serve as meditations on the ways art and literature can enrich and bolster our lives -- or, perhaps just as often, trip us up. Some of these stories are set in the present day, others in the 19th century, with reference points from many other eras. They include a fictionalized version of the life of German poet Friedrich Holderlin and a description of the prehistoric Scottish village of Skara Brae in Orkney, a cluster of huts, walls and roads that, even in their stony silence, give some sense of how people once lived. There is an account of a conversation between two learned men discussing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theories as they link to the wild child of Avignon, a "wolf boy" found in late 18th century France who was taught to speak and joined society, and a dissection of the form and function of the fugue. Several stories deal with the trauma of a modern writer struggling to wrest all of the above into some kind of meaningful narrative even as his marriage is falling apart.

"Goldberg: Variations" -- first published in Britain in 2002 -- is a hall of mirrors disguised as a novel, a place in which notions of what art and literature can mean to us are examined, turned inside out, temporarily cataloged and later dusted off for further observation. A work of fiction written by a literary critic and a retired professor of humanities like Josipovici is a double-edged sword: His store of references is broad and deep (in addition to the figures, works and places named above, the writings of Homer and a particular Paul Klee painting get a moment in the spotlight), and he shows boundless energy and enthusiasm for applying those references. Perhaps too much enthusiasm. The book may be the literary equivalent of a David Lynch movie aimed at intellectuals: You can easily imagine certain obsessive types poring over it, re-reading it two and three times to parse the meaning of every phrase and citation.

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