A philosophical jigsaw puzzle of a novel dares the reader to discover how the pieces fit together.
Taking his structural cues from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Josipovici (Now, not reviewed) presents variations on recurring motifs through 30 interlocking stories. The result is a small work (most of the stories are little more than snippets) filled with big ideas, as the Italian-born, England-based professor (Univ. of Sussex) shows the wide range of literary interests and intellectual curiosity that have marked his prolific career as a writer of stories, novels, plays and criticism. The set-up is simple: A 19th century British gentleman named Tobias Westfield, who fancies himself a philosopher, suffers from insomnia caused by an overactive brain. After summoning a musician who isn’t able to play Westfield to sleep, he decides to hire a writer named Samuel Goldberg to read him to sleep. Goldberg needs the money enough to leave his beloved family for the assignment, yet soon discovers that the challenge is trickier than expected. Rather than reading to Westfield from books, whose ideas are so familiar that the insomniac can ignore them, Goldberg must write enough original material by day to fill the night until Westfield starts snoring. And the writing must be sufficiently compelling to relieve Westfield of his own thoughts, yet not so compelling as to keep him awake. In a labyrinthine fashion that occasionally recalls Borges or Calvino, the book the reader is reading initially appears to be the one Goldberg is writing—an extended letter to his wife. Yet subsequent chapters take different tacks, offering vignettes of the lives of the two men, meditations on memory and mortality, invocations of Homer and Shakespeare, and the belated appearance of another writer, whom the reader is invited to identify with the author, and who expresses his own dissatisfactions with the work in progress that the reader is reading.
Heady stuff, for readers who like to read writers writing about writers who write about writing.