Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique by Gert Jonke
We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean M. Snook. (Austria, Dalkey Archive)
Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique is the second Jonke book that Dalkey has published, the first being the insanely comic Geometric Regional Novel. And if you like these, there’s even more Jonke on the horizon. In 2009, Ariadne Press is bringing out Blinding Moment: Four Pieces about Composers and Dalkey is doing another (can’t find the title right now) next fall.
This particular novel consists of two linked novellas. The first is “The Presence of Memory” and centers around an annual party thrown by Anton Diabelli and his sister Johanna. But in contrast to past parties, the one this year is going to be different . . . er, exactly the same:
What’s your brother doing? I asked
He’s comparing the photos he took of last year’s party, Johanna answered, with the positions of things as they have been laid out for this evening.
So there aren’t any mistakes.
Everything should be exactly as it was at last year’s party, answered the photographer’s sister. [. . .]
What’s going to take place here this evening, said Johanna, is not supposed to be one of our usual summer parties, but rather an exact reflection, no, much more than a reflection: a REPETITION OF THE PARTY that we had last year on the same day at the same time.
It’s supposed to be exactly the same party again, added Diabelli.
Filled with strange conversations, and a nice twist at the end, “The Presence of Memory” is a cute story, made up of some nice, funny moments.
In my opinion, the stronger of the two novellas is the latter, “Gradus Ad Parnassum,” which is about two brothers—both formerly promising composers—stuck in the attic of the conservatory they attended with 111 dusty pianos.
The narrator was a very promising composer, whose career was derailed by his alcohol dependence, and who’s going through withdrawal while they’re trapped in the attic. His brother was a very promising student, except that he had a problem moving his fourth finger independently of the third or fifth, “and it’s this ability that ensures that you can play a scale or an arpeggio exactly evenly in every respect.” He addressed this problem—and failed in addressing it—in a very Jonke-ian way:
I remember that before we took our final examinations in music my brother had screwed a completely useless gadget around his fingers and soon after maintained that he couldn’t move his fingers at all anymore.
Eventually they’re rescued from the attic and the “mystery” of the 111 pianos is unveiled, leading to a pretty absurd predicament.
“. . . because you keep on dreaming your dream about flying and open our eyes to a freedom that might not really exist but that we couldn’t live without.” This tribute to Gert Jonke was spoken by the artistic director of the Burgtheater in Vienna in conferring a significant theater prize last October. By then, the cancer that ended Jonke’s life on January 4 had visibly marked him. Americans can recall the sorrow over David Foster Wallace’s death to feel a similar loss. Wallace died unexpectedly, Jonke by stages the public saw, for he did not cut back on his appearances and was planning on making his debut as an actor later this month. But both writers had exceptional talent, versatility and virtuosity, and clarity within complexity. Decent men, too, people agree—Jonke was never known to say a bad word about anyone, focusing on his craft and ignoring hype and buzz. [. . .]
Jonke was the first recipient of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1977 and later he won almost every prize, distinction, award, grant, and honor imaginable, but there wasn’t a whiff of competitiveness about him. While others postured and strutted and pontificated at awards ceremonies in his honor, he would get up and rhapsodize a half-impromptu acceptance speech richer and more satisfying than any item on the select menu. He never pretended to take awards for granted, and it was clear he was having a grand old time. He told me how happy he was to see his work better known, and he was especially taken with Italian and French renderings of his novels. Translators who came to pay their respects usually left feeling as if they were the main event.
It’s a sad loss for literature, and I’m especially glad that Homage made the long list—it’s a small way of honoring his literary achievements and bringing some additional attention to his work.