Can a Novel Be a Fugue?


Arts & Culture

The final page of Contrapunctus XIV.


Learning to play the piano as a kid, I was not especially fond of Bach. I loved Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorák, Brahms. Bach, on the other hand, hurt my head. Bach had to be practiced slowly, evenly, preferably with a metronome, and neither patience nor evenness was my strong suit. The melody was not predictably given to the right hand but passed from the right to the left and back, split into multiple voices that straddled the staffs, so that at any moment one might simultaneously be playing four or more melodic lines. In the pricey, blue-bound Henle urtext editions she had insisted I buy, my piano teacher marked with brackets the entrance of each voice. I couldn’t do it myself. If Brahms felt like poetry, Bach felt like math. It was a kind of logic puzzle that I couldn’t solve. 


I struggled with the beginnings of my first novel for several years, as many writers do. I wrote a hundred pages and threw them out, unable to find the story’s shape. I tried again. The germ of the story I was trying to figure out had come to me after hearing an April 2005 NPR piece about a mysterious man who had turned up on the southern coast of England, soaking wet, dressed in a formal suit. He couldn’t say who he was or where he was from, but reportedly he played the piano like a virtuoso. Dubbed the “Piano Man” by the British tabloids, he seemed to be in the throes of a dissociative fugue. The image of this lost musician resonated with me, as it did with the thousands of people from around the world who called in to the missing-persons help line, thinking they recognized him, wanting to identify him, even as he so clearly seemed to want to evade identification, to escape.

The idea of a “fugue state” intrigued me: it spoke to migration as a flight not only from one’s homeland but also from one’s identity. Even though images of desperate refugees washing up on foreign shores had not yet become part of our public consciousness, the Piano Man piece got me thinking about what it meant to flee, to try to remake one’s life in a new place, to forge a new identity. My Jewish grandparents on both sides had escaped Nazi Europe in 1939, almost too late, and although my family never used the word refugee, my childhood was shadowed by the unspoken question of who, if not for the war, we might have been. I wanted the figure of the Piano Man to shadow the narrative as a reminder of the losses and transformations that border crossings bring.

The word fugue comes from the Latin fugo, “flight,” as well as fugere, “to flee” (as do the words fugitive and refugee). Migration and flight formed my novel’s central themes. The novel’s main character, Esther, has left her failing marriage and come to London following the death of her son. Esther’s elderly mother, Lonia, floating in a kind of morphine-induced fugue, returns to memories of fleeing Eastern Europe in 1939. Esther’s next-door neighbor, Javad, is a divorced neuroscientist who ran away from revolutionary Iran. And Javad’s teenage son, Amir, escapes daily life by exploring the city’s forbidden underground spaces. But I soon discovered that the real story was not about what my characters were running away from but about what they were running to—about their desire to connect.


As I wrangled with the novel’s early drafts, I found myself drawn not only to the psychiatric sort of fugue but to the musical kind. I wrote with headphones on, listening obsessively to Bach. Merriam-Webster’s defines the fugue as “a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts.” I grew excited by the notion of a narrative structured, like a fugue, around “successively entering voices” and a counterpoint of interwoven images and themes. In fact, the terminology of the fugue explicitly suggests a narrative: the main theme of the fugue is called its subject, the individual parts are voices, an altered form of the subject presents an answer, and so on. Originally a form of vocal music, early fugues drew on the canzone, a type of Italian lyric poetry or song. If poetry was a kind of music, I wondered, could a novel be a fugue?

Modernist and postmodernist novelists have long sought alternatives to traditional narrative form. “If the writer were a free man and not a slave,” Virginia Woolf once lamented, “there would be no plot.” Milan Kundera decried the novel’s reliance on “rules that do the author’s work for him.” But if you jettison conventional technique, what then? What principles of composition can give the novel what Henry James called “a deep-breathing economy and an organic form”?

One possibility is music. “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” the Victorian critic Walter Pater famously said, alluding to the way music unifies subject matter and form. “I always think of my books as music before I write them,” Virginia Woolf confided in a letter to the violinist Elizabeth Trevelyan. Shostakovich said he was “certain that Chekhov had constructed his short story ‘The Black Monk’ in sonata form”; Chekhov himself called another of his short stories, “Fortune,” a “quasi-symphony.” Anthony Burgess’s novel Napoleon Symphony (1974) takes its shape from Beethoven’s Eroica, as Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations (1991) does from Bach. With a nod to Bakhtin, Kundera describes his approach to writing as “polyphonic,” a kind of “novelistic counterpoint” that works like “poetry much more than technique.” Could I write a novel about fugues in the form of a fugue? The idea was thrilling. It seemed I’d finally found the key.


But what would a novel in the form of a fugue actually look like? The sheer difficulty of translating a musical fugue into prose actually seems to have attracted many writers to the project, although—perhaps fortunately—I didn’t know it when I set out to try. While the terminology of the fugue suggests a story, strict fugal technique—in which the subject is repeated in almost exactly the same terms with the entrance of each voice—would make for a very strange narrative indeed. Likewise, the simultaneity characteristic of counterpoint is impossible to replicate in prose. Scholars have long debated whether Joyce succeeded, in “The Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, in exactly replicating “a fugue with all the musical notations,” although Burgess claimed that even “Joyce knew all along that he could not reproduce the form of a fugue.”

Nevertheless, Dostoyevsky, Gide, Kundera, Nabokov, and Woolf, among others, were all attracted, in various ways, to the challenges of the fugue. For some, like Pound, the fugue evoked a “mystery” or “vortex” of pattern. To others, it offered a way of creating symmetry and contrast, a formal corollary to the lyricism of their prose. In his 1928 novel, Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley strove to create a sense of harmony and modulation by juxtaposing multiple characters and themes. As the novel’s character Philip Quarles (widely read as a stand-in for Huxley) writes in his notebook: “The musicalization of fiction … Get this in a novel. How? The transitions are easy enough. All you need is a sufficiency of characters and parallel, contrapuntal plots.” Huxley’s “ambitious novel” only very loosely follows the “rules” of a fugue, but it illustrates how fugal structure can help make narrative meaning, supplementing (even transforming) the all-too-often tedious mechanics of plot.


By the last decade of Bach’s life, counterpoint had fallen out of favor. Enlightenment critics renounced the complexity and coded symbolism favored by Baroque composers, championing instead a less coolly esoteric, more emotional approach. By the 1740s, the idea of music as a “horizontal” interweaving of individual voices was giving way to the “vertical” method of composition, focused on a melody supported by a harmonic substructure of chords, that’s still the norm today. But Bach didn’t care about audience-pleasing melodies. Counterpoint, to him, represented more than a compositional technique: it marked the supreme expression of both cosmic order and the ineffable divine. As the composer and critic Wilfrid Mellers once quipped, Bach “plays to God and himself in an empty church.” The writer James R. Gaines explains that “[Bach] was attempting to come as close as anyone had come before to the celestial music of a divinely ordered universe, the very music of Creation.” His late works—including the Musical Offering, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of Fugue—display a contrapuntal sophistication never seen before or since. Mirror canons, crab canons, augmentation and diminution canons, canons at every interval, canonic fugues, double, triple, and quadruple fugues: The Art of Fugue contains them all, each “contrapunctus” a variation on one central D-minor theme. For the pianist Glenn Gould, the piece calls up “an endless range of gray tints … It leaves the extraordinary impression of an infinitely expanding universe.” Meaning, in Bach, is inseparable from form.

Nearly blind and debilitated by a stroke, Bach died before completing The Art of Fugue, bequeathing to generations of musicologists an unsolvable mystery. The final fugue breaks off shortly after introducing its third subject, which, perhaps tellingly, leads off with the notes B-flat, A, C, and B-natural—the letters of Bach’s name (the letter h is b in German). Some say the four notes were Bach’s way of putting his signature on his life’s work. A few even argue that Bach may have deliberately left the fugue unfinished as an invitation to others to finish the composition in their own way. Whatever Bach intended, there is a powerful emotional impact to the way the “contrapuncti” of The Art of Fugue build in intricacy and grandeur before abruptly fading away. As Gould said: “I really can’t think of any music that moved me more deeply than that last fugue.”


Bach’s Art of Fugue gave me a structure—four alternating third-person points of view—as well as an early working title for my book. It also impelled me to focus on image patterns rather than on themes or plot. Early on, I spent a lot of time simply looking for connections. I found that I kept coming back to certain images: flight, heights, stars, water, grayness, music, underground. I even mapped these patterns—analogous to the repeated melodic elements of a fugue—on a chart that looked a bit like a musical staff. For example, Lonia’s memories of escaping occupied Czechoslovakia through a coal mine resonates with Amir’s exploration of a disused tunnel in the London Underground on the eve of the 7/7 terrorist attacks; ultimately, the “counterpoint” of images suggests broader parallels between the Holocaust and contemporary political violence and fears.

Novels that take a musical form demand a lot of readers, who must make connections among multiple storylines, nonsequential time frames, shifting points of view and narrative voices, and a greater complexity of repetition, rhythm, and other kinds of patterns than is found in more conventional, plot-driven texts. But for me, as a writer, the form was what I needed to open up the story. It offered a supple metaphor for the ways our lives may intertwine with others but remain so difficult to connect. Fleeing, chasing, and echoing in endless variation, the voices of the fugue illuminated the paths of my characters’ migrations through time and space.