The Magazine

Words and Music

What can happen when Art serves Power.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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Goldberg: Variations opens with a poverty-stricken novelist's first encounter with Tobias Westfield, a belligerent, wealthy insomniac who has paid the author to read him to sleep nightly. The catch is that Westfield, implausibly insisting he has read every worthwhile published story, demands the reading be a story composed that day, and he is not interested in any gripes about creativity on demand: "You are a writer, not a thinker," Westfield tells Samuel Goldberg, the earnest author. "I, alas, am a thinker. That is why you can sleep but I cannot."

On the fly and under pressure, Goldberg composes a series of interrelated stories--each, to borrow a snippet of Eugene Drucker's beautiful prose, "reworking the same harmonies in ever-shifting guises." Goldberg alternately casts himself impressing a Victorian royal court with his interpretation of John Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day," and then failing to hold the interest of a wife who adores the great artist she is sure resides within him, but is disenchanted by the self-absorbed brooding accompanying it.

Elsewhere in this series of difficult-to-follow stories, Goldberg's poet-friend descends into a creatively impotent insanity when his muse departs: "You see, your Lordship, a comma, a tiny little comma," the poet exclaims when he reads another's verse. "But without it the whole world would fall over. It would simply keel right over."

By placing the words in the mouth of a madman, Goldberg maintains plausible deniability concerning the sentiment expressed. But as the novel progresses, and Goldberg's stories become more assured and philosophical, it becomes clear he is beginning to accept the power of imagination. And it is not long before Goldberg turns on his employer.

During the carriage ride to Westfield's house--which may be a recounting or simply another tale composed on the fly--Goldberg and the driver discuss a recently discovered "wild boy"--which is to say, a boy of the traditional trees-and-wolves wild, not a child star with a cocaine-dusted nose outside a Hollywood club:

It does not take much, Goldberg says, to reduce us to his level.

Then you do not hold with the theories of M. Rousseau, Hammond says, that it is to his exalted level that we should all aspire? M. Rousseau and his opponents all speak the same language, Goldberg says. For the one our present civilization shows us the depths to which man can fall, for the other the heights to which he can rise. What is there to choose between them?

Both The Savior and Goldberg: Variations seem to suggest unheralded artistic heights may lead to the plummeting depths of civilization. "He paid me well, but what I did for him was beyond all payment," Goldberg writes to his wife in a farewell note as the once-dedicated husband and father prepares to unencumber himself of family and civilization, a wild boy with inkwell embarking on the path of the true artist. "Not one world but a multitude of worlds have come into being and then passed away since I kissed you goodbye and got into Hammond's carriage," he adds, heralding his emergence as a great artist, above common concerns and responsibilities. What can a wife, child, and gainful employment mean to a creator of worlds?

Drucker and Josipovici both offer well-crafted worlds, full of affecting situations and characters. As with Drucker's Keller, Goldberg has realized his power--and, if not in such a dramatic, visceral fashion, it has likewise ruined his life. Yet it's hard to shake the conclusion that only an extraordinarily accomplished musician and novelist, respectively, would be so bold as to portray their proven skills as powerful forces akin to a shotgun with the safety off.

Shawn Macomber is currently at work on a book about global class warfare.