- Borrowed Forms: The Music and Ethics of Transnational Fiction by Kathryn Lachman
Kathryn Lachman’s book is not simply about the replication of musical form in literature but is a wide-ranging study of how writers and thinkers have engaged with the musical, its structures, and its performance across national traditions, and from which she extrapolates ethical concerns. The project is informed by a deep understanding of music and is transmitted through close readings of texts by the writers who form her four central case studies: Maryse Condé, Assia Djebar, Nancy Huston, and J. M. Coetzee. Lachman delineates how the musical dimension in these writers ‘is emblematic of an ongoing engagement with multiple literary traditions, in local and global issues, and in a virtuosic experimentation with narrative form’ (p. 9). This latter point has had significant coverage and it is a welcome departure to throw the role of music open to broader thematics such as transnational literature. A reading of polyphony in Condé (the focus is on Traversée de la mangrove ([Paris]: Mercure de France, 1989)) challenges assumptions of orality; instead, the musical here forestalls, signifying a breakdown in communication, and the voice of the writer herself is described as ‘necessarily fractured, borrowed, hybrid, provisional, written and silent’ (p. 57). Lachman then turns to counterpoint as she combines Edward Said’s appeal to Palestinians and Israelis to engage with one another ‘contrapuntally’ (p. 59) with Djebar’s Les Nuits de Strasbourg (Arles: Actes Sud, 1997). She draws on memory studies to illustrate narrative strategies of multiple conflicting experiences — displacing sites of trauma (Alsace and Algeria) — and she shows how readers must attend to the way these new interactions and juxtapositions sound together. Huston, herself an accomplished musician, is assessed through her debut novel Les Variations Goldberg (Paris: Seuil, 1981), structured according to the aria–variations–aria form of its musical model. Lachman’s innovation here is to relate the novel to the performance of the work (and its most famous one) by Glenn Gould, noting how spatiality and temporality of musical performance come into play in the novel. Indeed she seeks to establish Gould as a theoretical predecessor to Barthes and Foucault on the role of the author. Finally, opera is addressed in a chapter that gives a wide-ranging survey of the role of music in Coetzee’s early writing and in Disgrace (London: Secker and Warburg, 1999). Opera here is deliberately awkward, strange, and estranged — comic even — and while there is an evident empathy for lyricism, especially in its failures, the musical here is something that is disruptive, compelling readers to think about difference. Lachman’s claim at the end of this chapter is that assessing the music in this novel — which is fundamentally about race in South Africa as well as rape and its aftermath — permits a rethinking of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. This argument would benefit from further development. It is a stimulating book; even if Lachman’s own extemporizing developments seem to stray from the main issue at hand, they still offer tantalizing insights. It is a bold, broad, and innovative study. It will be of interest to all those who work with these complicated, engaging, and fascinating encounters between the literary and the musical.