by Olga Stein
Liliane Kulainn, an enigmatic French woman of a certain age, is giving a harpsichord performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations in her home. There are thirty variations. Her audience, too, is made up of thirty guests. For the sake of intimacy, Liliane has gathered them in her and her lover's candle-lit bedroom. She is beautiful, old enough to have had a rich history of relationships, yet young enough to inspire a mixture of envy and admiration, sexual curiosity and desire. As she executes each variation, the guests-a strange mix, numerous male and female ex-lovers among them-speak their inner thoughts; with every variation, we are offered a glimpse of the musings, recollections, and emotions that are aroused in each listener by the music, Liliane, and the concert's unusual circumstances.
This scenario serves as both backdrop and plot for Nancy Huston's novel The Goldberg Variations. To be more accurate, there is no plot. Instead, a collection of interior monologues are linked by an associative vocabulary which, throughout, rearticulates particular themes and suggests, but never commits itself, to certain meanings. In addition, the guests' observations about Liliane and Bernald Thorer, her lover, and what these observations gradually reveal form a narrative thread just as in the actual music the bass (basic melody) is always made present, by way of melodic and harmonic progressions, so as to achieve both continuity and development. Bach's genius is made apparent not by the continuity of the melodic line, however-it is demonstrated by his inventiveness, his use of the same basic elements (the melody) to generate tremendous variety. Similarly, Huston's achievement lies in her skilful use of a finite number of elements-semantic and thematic (the yearnings, insecurities, and resentments that afflict all of the guests in varying degrees and with varying consequences); as one speaker follows another, these elements are cleverly and playfully reconfigured to conceive new voices, different yet similar, distinct but consonant with one another. The product is a composition which is virtually audible, a literary counterpart to a suite of musical variations. It is a work that is clever, complex, and marvellously inventive.
Huston's novel begins like the music, with an opening that presages the spirit of the composition as a whole, but while the music itself conveys tranquillity (and was composed by Bach as an antidote for a Russian count's insomnia), the introductory chapter bespeaks spiritual unease. Liliane is not enjoying her own performance. It seems that she is playing not for pleasure (in fact, she must "feel nothing" as she plays); she is playing The Goldberg Variations-a work that requires the highest degree of precision and consistency, and, therefore, discipline and control-in order to master the music and herself. As she plays, Liliane has a sense of being at odds with the music and herself ("the real music depends on me for its existence. I can splinter it, I can crack it, I can smash it to bits...and I don't want to. So the two of us struggle together, in the world's most delicate wrestling match."). Her agitation introduces a recurring motif:
"Silence" is a fluid word in Huston's novel. Its malleability results in perhaps the most notable of a number of marvellous confluences: Liliane is a woman of silence. She is not merely reticent. She cultivates silence. "She uses silence like it was talking...." Liliane's lover, Bernald Thorer, a thinker and popular theorist, a man whose "life was composed entirely of words.books, lectures, radio programs, interviews," has, to everyone's amazement, ceased theorizing; he too, from a professional point of view, has rendered himself silent.
Huston does not explain Bernald's sudden withdrawal from public life. The reader is left to speculate. What is the meaning of Liliane's silence and why has Bernald followed suit? Liliane's silence may be one aspect of her obsession with clarity. She eschews everything-be it in speech or music-that she believes can distort meaning. Has Bernald, too, had an epiphany, grasping some truth he feels cannot be conveyed through theories or words? Or is Huston suggesting something different? She takes a subtle but unexpected turn in direction by revealing that Liliane Kulainn's mother was a woman of "impenetrable silence"; she was afflicted with madness and committed suicide when Liliane was a child. Is Liliane's silence a sign that she, like her mother, is predisposed to madness? And is Bernald Thorer's silence the consequence, as many of his friends and colleagues suspect, of a breakdown, a lapse into madness? Again, Huston confirms nothing. It seems she does not wish to promote a single interpretation. She is more interested in possibilities-the effects of suggestion and subtle alterations of context, on meaning. A remark made by Bernald on Bach's Variations could perhaps be taken as Huston's playful reflection on her own work. "There is no progression towards a climax, no revelation of an ultimate meaning-there could be a thousand variations, couldn't there?" There may indeed be no ultimate meaning in Liliane's and Bernald's silence, but like everything else in Huston's novel, silence generates tones and textures that are a pleasure to experience.
Olga Stein is the production editor of Books in Canada. Huston's Goldberg Variations brought back memories of piano lessons with her late mother, who taught her to hear the breathtakingly beautiful voices of Bach's inventions.