Thresholds

We cross thresholds, we readers. Each book we read is entered through a portal, and marking those portals—projected onto the membrane between this and that, self and other, known and novel, given and made—there are images. I am not speaking metaphorically. For the last ten years, in my day job, I have been engaged in the serious business of judging books by their covers. That work, conducted in a small public library, has alerted me to the value of the binding within which we receive the words of writers. The small book I have just read, for example, Fionn Petch’s translation of Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering, has been printed and bound with care equal to that with which it is written.

Charco Press have decided that their paperback books deserve paper of a high enough quality that I frequently thought I had turned two pages instead of one, and a heavy matt-laminate cover with luxurious French flaps. This one is perfect bound, but in four separate sheaves, making it as physically durable as its publisher evidently believes it will be on literary grounds. The cover is graced with strong, clever graphics—an image from the mind of Salvador Dali realised in the manner of Saul Bass—and carefully balanced typography. This book, then, is an end in itself, not a means to the apprehension of some abstract, disembodied tale.

In Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, the young protagonist visits a vast, ancient library in the city of Nessus, whose blind custodian notes the irony of his sightlessness, and explains how the inaccessibility of their texts has brought him to a new appreciation of books as objects, as instances of texture and aroma. Nessus is cognate with Buenos Aires in the unimaginably distant future, and Ultan, the blind librarian, with Jorge Luis Borges, Sagasti’s compatriot—to whom he is compared as a writer on the back cover of this bibliological artefact. This then is the portal through which I enter A Musical Offering: through piano keys falling as bombs, and through all the mysteries which the words ‘Jorge Luis Borges’ summon to my mind.

Sagasti’s text does not deal with book covers, or with doorways, but with sibling members of a larger class in which these species may be located—with other liminalities. He begins with J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and takes a particular interest in the form and potential of the hiatus between each variation—elided in their first performances at the fiat of the nobleman whose insomnia they were composed to alleviate, but elevated, as Sagasti has it, to signifying elements of the larger structure in the performances recorded by Glenn Gould. He is also interested in the composition’s implicit cyclicity, ending as it does with a restatement of its opening theme—he is interested in the idea that the Variations neither begin nor end, but continue indefinitely, attaining the functional silence of a clock that has been ticking for so long that we no longer hear it.

I won’t write what I think Sagasti thinks about such things. It’s barely possible to write what it is I think he’s interested in without being drawn into an untraversable labyrinth of allusions and synaptic intertextualities. But these two themes, the entr’acte and the recursion, recur throughout his text, and emerge from its caesuras, until he ends where he began, with Gould and Bach, circling the square which this slim paperback inscribes on the world. Instead of failing to adequately paraphrase him, or glibly miscategorising him, I’ll attempt instead to say what shape his writing takes.

A Musical Offering is a novel, apparently. I guess it has attracted this description on the basis that some of the scenarios he describes are invented or unverifiable. However, it does not possess many of the features that are supposed to be proper to the novel: there is no plot, little dialogue, and only a passing interest in the literary construct known as ‘character’. Various musicians, artists, and historical figures appear—sometimes in the course of what appears to be a critical discussion, and sometimes in narrative or dramatic vignettes, whose narrator’s relative omniscience is really the book’s sole conventional fictional trope. Sagasti is interested in what these people did, and in what they mean, but in order to get at those truths he sometimes resorts to imaginatively reconstructing pieces of their biographies. That is the only sense in which A Musical Offering is a work of fiction.

These accounts of the lives of interesting figures sometimes put me in mind of W.G. Sebald, for example the opening section of Vertigo, which recounts at length an episode from the life of Stendhal. But where Sebald appears to be trying to recuperate the irrecoverable material of his subjects’ experience, Sagasti alights on his subjects momentarily before flitting onto the next, assembling a dizzying web of connections and relationships that keep returning to his structuring motif—that of hiatus and return. In beginnings there are endings, and he is entranced by the idea that for each new object (let’s say a song) that enters the world, there must be an old one that leaves it. He is fascinated by the moment of exit, the last time that the song is sung—the exact threshold of forgetting. What he offers the reader is the prerequisite to that moment: a beginning. He speaks so that he can fall silent, because there is no silence without the cessation of sound, and without silence, sound cannot begin. We cross thresholds, we readers.

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