Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Where the Clay Revolts

The Wake by Margo Glantz

Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point.

                        Blaise Pascal

If you like the novels of Thomas Bernhardt (I’m reading his Extinction right now), you are certain to enjoy this deft, erudite, intellectually relentless short novel about one woman’s struggles to come to terms with the death, by heart attack, of her former husband and friend, a well-known Mexican pianist and composer.

Told in retrospect by cellist, Nora García, in a single, swirling, vertiginous narration, the novel begins with Nora’s reluctant return to the small house and village, where she’d lived with her husband, to attend his wake. Reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s classic novel, Pedro Páramo, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the narrative turns round and round its subject with all the rapacity of a vulture on a high. Nora is clearly haunted by her late husband, by their fraught if artistically charged relationship, and by the labyrinthine complexity of her own voluminous grief. As the oft-repeated epigraph of this post implies, surfacing as it does throughout the story like a musical motif, the novel is first and foremost about Nora’s attempt to uncover the many cryptic reasons of her heart—how and why she feels the way she does.

Almost equally compelling, however, are her detailed and lengthy recollections of the many conversations she’d had with her late husband, Juan, heady, erudite, often contentious late-night discussions of music and musicians—of Bach and Beethoven, of  pianos and castrati, of Franz Schubert, Sviatoslav Richter, José Alfredo Jiménez, and András Schiff. Of all the topics, however, there is none more central to the story, more stubborn, more plainly musical, in its recurrence, than that of Glenn Gould himself, a musician with whom Juan (like Thomas Bernhardt, like the author, Margo Glantz) was particularly obsessed. Reading this novel is a bit like eavesdropping on a literary salon in Á la recherche du temps perdu—only set in Mexico, around a wake, and in the mind of a single person. And there are mariachis, too!
Margo Glantz, an award-winning novelist, is one of the most prolific and respected writers of Mexico. Lecturer, critic, journalist and translator, she teaches literature at the University of Mexico and has been a writer and scholar in residence at numerous universities in the United States, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. Her father, a man deeply devoted to Modern Mexican art, had been friends with such Mexican notables as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. 

* Lead illustration by Mexican political printmaker and engraver, José Gaudalupe Posada (1852-1913)

Peter Adam Nash

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