About a year ago, I read the book In Search of Klingsor, by Jorge Volpi – one of the most fascinating contemporary Latin American writers – with astonishment. It is a brilliant metaphysical detective novel that takes place at the end of WWII and focuses on the search for Hitler’s scientist. In fact, it is more a sort of play on the detective novel, for the novel is built entirely on different perspectives, chaotic movements through space and time and abstract contemplation of philosophical questions. Most of all, the novel demonstrates how the main question in the detective novel, for example “Where is Klingsor?”, can turn into a metaphysical question that concerns the actual possibility of knowing anything about the world.
The story before us, Maestoso, depicts a harp player who falls in love with music at a young age but, as she grows up, finds herself pressed by the rules of the music world – the press, public relations, concerts, parties – and loses touch with the thing she loved so much. The story focuses on a musician but seems to relate to artists of all fields these days. At least in my opinion, the question that arises in the story is the same one that occupied Volpi in the novel “In Search of Klingsor”: Is there a possibility of a total life, one in which a person dedicates himself entirely to the one thing that is at the very center of his being? In a world where there are various contradicting powers at play – bureaucratic, ideological and commercial powers – can a person retreat to a place where these powers have no hold over him? Is there such a place?
Gradually, the withdrawal of the protagonist portrayed in the story, back to music and music alone, takes an extreme form of separating herself from everything that she feels is holding her back, even her own self.
“Determined not to let anything bother her, when she woke up she stopped all the clocks and covered all the windows with heavy curtains so she would never know what time it was: she spent all her time with the baleful consolation of electric light. She wished that her body could put a halt to its own rhythm and needs… Almost without thinking she took off all her clothes: even they got in the way of her relationship with art…” And so, the question whether “there is such a place” gradually takes on a radical form; it is not only a matter of withdrawing from the world, but also of withdrawing from your habits, your body, your needs, maybe a sort of withdrawal from yourself for the one and only thing you believe that is yourself. The story offers no answers; like all of Volpi’s works, it makes you think.
Translated by: Kit Maude
Voulez-vous le récit de ces folles amours? (Offenbach, Les Contes de Hoffmann)
The frenetic applause barely moves her. The endless “Bravos!” from an audience universally on its feet in front of the stage — faces she can’t make out in the glare of the spotlights — reach her ears as a dense murmur, a rumbling that, rather than enjoying, she must make an effort to put up with. The echoing voices that in another time, when she was younger, made her heart beat harder in her chest, pumping blood into her cheeks, which she enjoyed almost as much as the performance, now have no effect on her at all. To the contrary, they annoy her, interrupting the precious silence, that unique effect, the only proper due that should be paid at the end of a concert, in return for the music received. But she wasn’t aware of her indifference until she noticed her dry cheeks, her relaxed body and the frustration she felt when she smiled and bowed. She hated the flowers that some invisible girl had placed next to her harp and immediately that hatred stung her. What was wrong with her? Had she grown accustomed to success? She was terrified by the idea that she had lost the ability to be moved. What would become of her, an artist after all, if not even the adoration of her fans could send a tingle down her spine? Tears now did indeed roll down her sweaty cheeks but on this occasion they were not of contained joy, but rueful pain.
Seeing her tears, the audience applauded even more enthusiastically, and this only accentuated her sadness. She patiently put up with four curtain calls, the first three along with the director, the last one alone, left to fend for herself in the adoring glare of the orchestra and public. The shouting wouldn’t stop: “More! More!”, accompanied by rhythmic hand clapping. She resisted, bowing over and over again in thanks, pleading for their mercy. It wasn’t that she hated the idea of playing again; she simply couldn’t. She usually gave two, three, or even four encores but at that moment she felt utterly unmusical. She walked across the stage toward the artists’ exit and, sobbing, asked the director to tell the orchestra to leave. The night concluded with a far-off whistle while she took refuge in her dressing room, slumped down in front of a mirror.
She was sure of it: she’d played Reinecke as she never had before, her hands had been two birds making love through the strings of the instrument, soaring and dancing in the air, barely touching, casting an enchanted spell on either side of the cage that separated them. So what had happened? As she listened, she had felt all the knowledge and passion she had accumulated over her career expressed in each of her movements with the clarity of a naked flame. An “allegro moderato” had embodied the laughter of a lover, while their doubts and worries followed in an “adagio” of ruptures, frustrations and oblivion. And then the “scherzo”… She had never imagined a scherzo like it, like a joke in bad taste, full of dark laughter, impotence and insanity. Her performance had been a genuinely creative act: it was inconceivable that suddenly none of this interested her. No, her dissatisfaction, both naive and obsessive, told her that something had gone wrong. It was the only convincing explanation: her displeasure was proof in itself of her mistakes.
It would be impossible for her to feel worse than she did at that moment, sitting in front of a mirror bordered with lights, looking at the dark rivulets running down from her eyes. This was awful. Ever since she was little, she had focused almost completely on music — cellist or singer, violinist or flautist, it didn’t matter — and becoming the b e s t player of her instrument in the world. In fact, she couldn’t remember the harp music her parents told her she had been bathed in when she was born, but when she was ten she rediscovered the instrument’s portentous sound and never looked back. Goodbye friends, parties, toys and hugs: goodbye also to the vagaries of adolescent love. From that moment on, all her time was dedicated to her studies at the Conservatoire. She spent more time in the harp room — quickly outclassing her few competitors — than her bedroom or school. For nine years, from eleven to twenty, she followed the same routine: she got up very early, was forced to go to preparatory or secondary school, and then went straight to the music school. Next to the harp, among quavers and scales, she ate anything she could get her hands on and didn’t come home until ten at night, and then only to dream of her future life playing concerts. In response to the teasing or advice of her schoolmates, who wanted her to live a more normal life, she’d exalt the merits of sacrifice in pursuit of future fame and recognition: her determination, mastery and solitude deserved, thanks to who knows what divine justice, the greatest happiness. On the day that she achieved her success, she’d be envied rather than condescended to.
And yet now, when she knew that that day had arrived, she did not explode with magical happiness. She was certainly admired across the globe, she’d appeared in innumerable cities, playing with the most important orchestras in Europe and America — she remembered with particular clarity some unforgettable evenings in Munich with Celibidache, in Amsterdam with Haitink and in London with Marriner — and had received superlative critical acclaim for her solo recitals, but that was no longer enough. It was as though she was back at the beginning and needed to start over. Only then did she understand what was happening: at a certain technical and interpretative level, one must begin again, as if the past had never happened, to recover their passion for the new, to get rid of any barriers and flaws and deliver oneself wholly to the music. She had to discard everything she had left in the world: her few friendships, her family and even the fame she had so longed for. Only that way could she achieve perfection. She finally understood that she had been mistaken, that at some point in her career she had allowed herself to get carried away by outside forces, neglecting her true vocation. When she was twenty-two, she fell in love — nobody can be alone forever, she thought — and by twenty-three, she was married. Two years later, however, she had become independent again. Five years wasted on anguish, reconciliations and alienation. How could she make him understand that music was the most important thing to her and that if he loved her he needed to accept that it must come before love? It was impossible. Before he left, after insulting her and telling her that she was sick and obsessed, his ears still resounded with the heated chords by Mozart that she plucked as she cried to herself in another room. After he had turned away from her, she hadn’t even got up from her harp; she had continued to play, desperately, until she heard him shut the door. The pain was more intense than she had thought; every time she started to play she remembered his caresses, and her fingers sought out his skin among the strings. Although she never told him, it was very hard for her to forget him: in her best performances she still cried over him, introducing the tears into the sounds and silences. How many ghosts would come back to haunt her now that she had decided to give up everything, even her past, to achieve her goal and justify her life? For now, she wouldn’t play in public again, not until she was not just one of the best, but t h e best harp player in history, until she had transfigured her flesh into music through the medium of the harp. The clock in the dressing room showed that it was three in the morning. She changed her clothes and let her long hair fall down over her shoulders. She left the building. A yellow moon was reflected in the ocean of her eyes.
The next day was set aside for preparation. She got up later than usual — maybe she had guessed that she wouldn’t be able to sleep so long in the future — took a shower and immediately went to her small study. The silent instrument rested among books, scores, records and programs, covered in a green cloth. She stood looking at it for a while before uncovering it, as though she wanted to guess at its shape first. Intermittent rays of light bathed the room through a tasteful blind. Motes of dust floated in the midday heat. After a few moments of expectation, she ran to the phone, called her agent and, without offering any explanation, cancelled all her performances, including the recording of the Händel concert with Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus from Vienna. Then she started to empty the studio until it was left completely bare.
All that was left was the harp, sitting in the sunlight.
She went over to it and removed the cover extremely carefully, sliding it down to the base. The gold-coated, carved wooden column, full of filigrees and flourishes, flowers and ribbons, looked like a mast stuck into the earth, as though the remains of a once grand ship had been left in her humble home. She walked around it several times, looking carefully at each detail, the strings first, then the wood and the pedals, trying to memorize everything before touching it. She wanted to flatter and seduce it. Submissively, she cleaned and polished the edges, and checked the mechanism and the tuning until she was satisfied. The night felt imperceptibly on them both. Eventually she rested a little. Before she went to sleep, she disabled the doorbell and unplugged the telephone: she needed to prevent any outside distractions.
Thus began her reclusion, her apprenticeship, her new path. At seven the next morning she sat in front of her instrument with her face clear and serene and her body ready to be fully given over to the pursuit of art. She started by exploring the sounds of the harp, its infinite variations and subtleties, its combinations, tricks and mysteries. As she went on, she discovered new, unknown oceans; tunnels leading to new abysses; unfathomable chasms stretching out before her. She sweated and suffered, catching glimpses of the future. Tears of rage ran down to her lips as her extremities fought with the chaos of music. How deep an understanding could she reach with an instrument? She challenged herself, only to answer: As deep as that one can have with another person. Her small victories gave her enormous pleasure, but they were nothing compared to her despair over her lengthy defeats. However, she was determined to overcome. She continued to pluck away at the strings until her hands collapsed in exhaustion, entangled among the cords, as though she were clinging to them, trying to keep herself from falling into the pit of insanity.
Determined not to let anything bother her, when she woke up she stopped all the clocks and covered all the windows with heavy curtains so she would never know what time it was: she spent all her time with the baleful consolation of electric light. She wished that her body could put a halt to its own rhythm and needs. At arbitrary junctures she slept or ate whatever she could find in the increasingly bare kitchen. She soon lost track of time: she had no idea how long she had spent in the room, stroking her beloved, satisfying its whims, introducing it into an erotic ritual. Almost without thinking she took off all her clothes: even they got in the way of her relationship with art. She sat down and looked at the harp, ecstatic, certain that it would soon fulfill all her desires. Her skin mingled with the dark tones of the wood, only the colors of her mouth and eyes stood out against the ochre, sepia and pink background. She opened her legs and took the harp between her knees. Her bare feet rested on the cold pedals and her calloused fingers stroked the strings once more. Mozart, Händel, Rodrigo, Boildieu, Bach, Debussy, and Gossec played without interruption, and went on to exchange movements and time signatures, merging together and blurring in an enormous sonorous mass. The composition seemed to stretch out infinitely, to swallow everything, to include all the music that had ever been written thus far. It was like a black hole sucking in elaborate, extravagant noises, the simplest melodies, rough, bizarre harmonies and everything in between. Music was embodied by the harp and naked body, which now shared a single form and spirit. A human voice soon joined the bacchanal: screams of pain and pleasure, fatigue and consumption, happiness and anguish provided a counterpoint to the harp’s rich chromatics. In the midst of the whirlwind, a thick liquid, hot like lava, started to run down the strings, dropping onto the pedals and spattering onto the woman’s taut, damp skin. The pain didn’t stop her: to the contrary, with greater gusto — and also, somehow, more softly — she continued her accumulation of sounds. The harp wouldn’t let her stop, she had to play, play, play herself to death, until she had reached perfection. The wounds on her legs and arms deepened, but she didn’t care, nothing mattered except for the music. Suddenly, when she couldn’t go on any more, when she was suffering from inconceivable fear, she knew that she was about to achieve it, that there, a little further on, right in front of her, was the goal she had always sought. She had triumphed. Then came the silence, the most cold and absolute silence. The only proper due that one should pay in return for music received.
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