Literary variations on Bach's Goldberg

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This paper takes several fictional adaptations of Bach's Goldberg Variations to explore various modes through which musical form has been adapted in modern literature. Novels by Nancy Huston, Thomas Bernhard, Richard Powers, and Gabriel Josipovici provide four different models for the utilization of a specific musical work as literary theme and structure and thereby exemplify one precise approach to the relationship of music and literature. These adaptations are then located within the larger Bach renaissance of the late twentieth century.

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Decolonising impulses drove the production of Pacific writing. Asserting local experience against Western representations of Oceania entailed countering not only stereotypes from literature and art, but also undoing the print historical archive. Pacific writers have stressed embodied experience and oral transmission over distanced written record, disruptive narratives over smooth tales of progress, and have mixed evolutionary cycles including mythic roots with linear chronologies. Albert Wendt's writings illustrate these differences in “doing history”.
As a contribution to the "intermedial turn" that has characterized fiction after Modernism, a number of novels have attempted to "aspire towards the condition of music." Among them figures the latest work by the avant-garde author Gabriel Josipovici, Goldberg: Variations (2002). In fact, among the various ways in which this experimental novel refers to music, attempts at imitating musical forms (notably theme and variation) and modes of composition (such as polyphony) loom large. The essay analyzes the role music plays in this text and examines to what extent and for what purpose Josipovici tries to musicalize fiction and meets the expectation that his text is a verbal counterpart of the Goldberg Variationen of Bach alluded to in its title. Music, in particular classic music, is found, on the one hand, metonymically to represent the overwhelming creative capacity of the past and to contribute to a postmodern consciousness of exhausted possibilities; yet on the other hand the references to music, in particular the imitation of the form of theme and variation, also functions as a device for creating aesthetic coherence as well as an indirect means of reflecting on the literary medium, on art and meaning in general.