A review of A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, translated from the Spanish by Fionn Petch
Of all the mesmerising books I have had the pleasure of reading recently, Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering is right up there with the best of them. A complex and extremely heartfelt ode to another art form, music, this slender volume does fascinating things with language and structure to become the very mirror of its subject. Wholly absorbing on both an intellectual and an emotional level, Sagasti’s prose is rendered into a beautifully lyrical English by Fionn Petch, who clearly has a fine ear for rhythm and melody himself, and comes to us from the ever-innovative Edinburgh-based Charco Press.
The world is full of books about music – biographies dedicated to performers and composers, theoretical tomes, novels built around the subject, works that attempt to explain music’s origins or humans’ mysterious relationship with the art – but A Musical Offering fights a corner all its own, at least when it comes to my experience. Sagasti’s book is a work of non-fiction that reads almost like a novel, the kind of literature that refuses to be boxed, that begins and ends seemingly nowhere. Instead, it is like a piece of music itself: a symphony or sonata whose main purpose is simply to be beautiful.
Yet the idea of something being solely beautiful does go slightly against the grain of this book, which aims to impart an interesting assortment of facts and is in essence an exploration of what music can be beyond merely enjoyable. Sagasti picks out apparently at random a number of episodes from music’s history – and indeed future – describing topics as diverse as the first performance of John Cage’s 4’ 33”, the creation of a space capsule containing various samples of music, the opera sung by concentration camp prisoners in Dachau, the disaster that befell the ‘Great Organ of Himmelheim’, the relationship between Leo Tolstoy and the celebrated harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and the fates of the last remaining Japanese soldiers on the Pacific island battlegrounds of World War II. What sounds at first like a hodgepodge of random themes actually proves to be a collection of carefully chosen snippets, each carrying far greater meaning than the bare facts of the story – interesting in their own right – would suggest. Most importantly, when read together they form a unique and hugely effective reflection of the human experience.
And it is in this combining of fragments that A Musical Offering really begins to sing. Sagasti has done something quite remarkable with structure here, which is in many ways all the more astonishing because of its simplicity. He begins with a short chapter on the Goldberg Variations, composed by J. S. Bach and first performed by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg as a sort of lullaby for one insomniac Count Keyserling, and proceeds to structure the remainder of the book as a mirror image of this particular piece of music. He continually introduces new stories – very occasionally as standalone episodes, but most often left unfinished – and circles back to them again and again, reinserting brief reminders of people or events at strategic points throughout the text. Just as Bach’s composition contains brief repeated phrases, passages rendered only slightly different by the addition of an extra ornament, sections returned to in another octave or key, so too does Sagasti reach continually for the same motifs, hauling our attention away from one story and on to the next or nudging us into a recap of something already mentioned. At first this chopping and changing of subjects might seem arbitrary or confusing, but go with the flow for even a few pages and it soon proves to have an utterly hypnotic quality.
At this point the hard work of the translator must be mentioned, which especially in literature of this sort goes a long way to making the book the joy that it is. Keeping on top of such a complex narrative structure presents many challenges, but Petch has deftly captured the repetitive nature of Sagasti’s text and adopted his own key for each episode, allowing the reader to dive back in to each refreshed mention with ease. Individual chapters and stories appear to have their own tone, ranging from sombre to jovial, and the overall effect is one of flowing prose that carries the reader along on its rhythms. The hearts and souls of both author and translator appear to have gone into this book – they would have to have, I think, to create something so unusual – and this is palpable on every page.
Besides the fact that it is structurally adventurous and linguistically beautiful, A Musical Offering is an enjoyable read purely on the surface. Packed full of fascinating anecdotes and curious characters, it will enrich the life of anyone even vaguely interested in music. As well as being extremely well versed in his subject, Sagasti approaches music with a range of different emotions, inserting a playful streak into his writing that keeps the entire book from becoming too intellectually challenging. Flashes of great levity abound – when describing one famous painter’s propensity for visiting New York’s jazz clubs, he opines that ‘we are very fortunate that Mondrian’s moves were never recorded on film’ – but are always tempered with moments of gravity. The concerts, both impromptu and organised, held during times of war, for example, or the ways in which human beings pushed to extremes cling on to or find unity in music. For one of the most poignant episodes of all, Sagasti even moves beyond the human domain to tell us the story of ‘the loneliest whale in the world’, a marine giant whose eerie song returns to haunt the pages of the book on more than one occasion.
Just like the greatest symphonies, Sagasti’s A Musical Offering is a work of immense complexity, great balance and extraordinary beauty. A tribute to the joy that can be taken in creation – on the part of both creator and consumer – this is literature that defies genres and rules of every sort to become something more akin to a moment: pure inspiration captured on the page and, fortunately for us readers, there to return to again and again.