Monday, September 11, 2017

Mathias Enard's Compass

Someday I'll compose an opera called Schopenhauer's Dog--it will be about love and compassion, Vedic India, Buddhism, and vegetarianism. The dog in question will be a music-loving Labrador its master takes to the opera, a Wagnerian dog...The dog will be a witness to the ruin of culture and the return of barbarism; in the last act, Schopenhauer's ghost will rise from the flames to save the dog (but only the dog) from destruction.

I don't know, I found that funny. Was I supposed to? I think so. And I say that without knowing anything particular about Schopenhauer, Vedic India, Wagner, or the opera. I know no more about Buddhism than the average decently literate Westerner--we spent a couple of weeks on it in my high school World Religions class. I'm not even especially familiar with Labradors. This is a cat household.

Énard's novel won the Prix Goncourt for 2015--the major French literary book prize. It's a love story of sorts, or maybe better an obsession story: Franz Ritter is in love with Sarah; for at least quite a while, we see her thinking of him as no more than a friend. They are both academics, with expertise in obscure areas: he studies the introduction of Western musical forms (such as opera) into the "Orient." Her area of scholarship is more strictly literary. They talk about intellectual things. Edward Said's Orientalism is a major touchstone.

The frame of the novel (there are frequent flashbacks) takes place in one long sleepless night of Ritter's, when he's in his home town of Vienna. The above quote occurs in a section headlined 2:30 AM, and Ritter, as he fails to fall asleep, becomes more and more absurd until he reaches peak absurdity at that hour; as the dawn approaches, he returns to something like sense.

It's a complex novel, full of things I don't necessarily know very much about. I couldn't say much without doing some serious reading around it. I haven't read Énard's two earlier novels, both of which are also available in English, though now I might. And I got this from the library and it's due soon. Really I'm only going to be able to be shallow in anything I say.

And maybe that's OK.

What all that made me wonder about is, to what extent do we as readers need to understand intellectual referents in order to enjoy a novel about intellectual characters? I've read Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus twice--Mann is another touchstone for Énard's book--without knowing very much about music theory either time; in fact, I'm quite sure that the first time I read Doctor Faustus, I knew absolutely nothing about music theory; my youthful listening to the Clash and Graham Parker did nothing for my understanding of the late Beethoven piano sonatas and twelve-tone music. In fact, until I read Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise a few years ago, I suspect that all of my knowledge of music theory came from incompletely understood passages in Doctor Faustus.

A friend of mine hasn't read Doctor Faustus, even though she liked Mann's The Magic Mountain (equally full of intellectuals talking about intellectual things) because while she knows something about Western philosophy, (the intellectual domain of The Magic Mountain) she doesn't know anything about the music theory featured in Doctor Faustus. This always struck me as strange, because I was quite sure when I read The Magic Mountain for the first time, I knew next to nothing about the history of Western philosophy, and I liked it just fine. Both of those books of Mann's left me with a list of things I wanted to read, and that's one of the things that novels can do for a reader.

We can also simply enjoy the possibility of romance, which Énard offers as well: it's a story of eggheads in love.

Anyway it, too, left me with a bunch of things I'd like to read: Nizami's Layla and Majnun or that Schopenhauer in the first sentence. At least two of them are already on the shelves, bought in earlier fits of intellectual ambition that petered out before fulfillment: al-Shidyaq's Leg over Leg and Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet.

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