Different loops: On ‘Vain Art of the Fugue’

Dumitru Tsepeneag’s novel Vain Art of the Future (translated from the Romanian by Patrick Camiller and published by Dalkey Archive) does something so simple with its prose, yet so groundbreaking, that I can’t believe it’s not been done before. If it has, please let me know.

Here’s a longish extract, that shows what I mean. (The man has just run to catch a bus, and caught it just in time.)

The driver is wearing a leather jacket and seems very robust. Between us is a kind of glass pane held in place by aluminium bars, and between the glass and the bar on the far right is a space where my voice can get through to him.

“Please go faster, I don’t want to miss my train. You see, I took my bags there earlier in a friend’s car—he left this morning heading in a different direction. So, I’ve still got to pick my bags up from the luggage office. I didn’t leave this morning because I still had a few things to do: I had to visit someone (there was no point mentioning Maria’s name, as he wouldn’t have known who I meant, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t know Magda either)—anyway, to visit a woman.” The driver didn’t say a word, as if he were deaf and dumb. At some point a woman with an incredibly large stomach got on the bus; maybe she had a pillow under her dress . . .

It was warm and he felt good. He adjusted the pillow and turned over again, feeling himself begin to fall back asleep. He didn’t try to resist, although he knew that in the end he wouldn’t be able to stay in bed.

“Get up, you mustn’t be late,” Maria said, but he kept quiet and turned again to watch her dressing. Then they both went out onto the veranda, where she placed herself right in front of him. With a maternal gesture she adjusted the knot of his tie, smoothed the lapels of his jacket and kissed him on the cheeks. He wanted to kiss her too, but she darted away and descended the few steps to the garden. The gravel crunched beneath her feet. He took the bunch of flowers from the table on the veranda and said, you’re right, I should get going. Maria walked with him to the green-painted door: go then, and he left without looking back. A dog with the mouth of a fox stood in his way. In a courtyard a fat man was killing a pig, watched by several women in pink silk dresses, and blood was gushing onto the stone slabs; strangely, the pig made no sound. He didn’t stop. He walked on faster and faster, even though he could feel Maria watching him with her fingers still tight on the bars. He didn’t look back. He turned the corner onto a street where a cyclist in a top hat and striped jersey was pedalling furiously but not making any progress. A string bag with some fish was behind the cyclist on the saddle rack; he’d probably just been fishing.

Now he saw the stop and broke into a run. He managed to catch the bus right at the last moment.

After giving up one of my tickets, I went to sit behind the driver. “I’m in a real hurry,” I said.

This is quite near the beginning of the book. The central character has already caught for the bus once before it, slipped back to the house once before, too. He will go on to catch the bus again another, what – dozen, twenty times? (She will warn him not to be late another dozen times, too, although sometimes she’ll be Magda, not Maria, sometimes just M.)

The novel is a collection of repeated scenes (in the house, sometimes a hotel; running for the bus; on the bus, sometimes a tram; on the train itself; on a beach) that loop incessantly back, as if the gears of the narrative machine have slipped. But it’s no Groundhog Day – there is no temporal Ground Zero from which he starts. Nor is it a reworking of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, in which a short narrative (also set on bus, also set at a railway station) is redone 99 times, in wildly different styles – the prose style, here, is always the same, and furthermore there is no rationale behind the revisions and retreads. This is an anti-Oulipoian work, in which there is no formal constraint, no set of rules in evidence.

And note, too, that it goes on for 140 pages, without ever once getting boring! And without recourse to stylistic fireworks (which is all that Queneau’s book is, in the end) to hold your attention. Yes, things do become weird at times – that fish, and that pig, both get their moments centre stage – but more out of a strange inevitability than any desperate need.

What is amazing about the work is that it shows exactly how malleable, how uncertain, and how precarious the prose sentence is as carrier for a stable narrative. In a single paragraph, from one sentence to the next, third person can change to first, past tense to present tense, subjunctive to indicative, all without missing a beat, all without violating a single rule of grammar of syntax. As with a Mobius strip, you end up somewhere you shouldn’t be able to be, but without a tear, without a join, without a jolt.

Perhaps the closest comparison I can come up with at present is Julio Cortázar’s famous story ‘The Continuity of Parks’, in which the ‘consciousness’ of the story slips from the reader of a novel to the characters within it, who then, in their world, come upon the reader himself, seemingly intent on murdering him. This is close to a kind of Escher painting in prose, where two distinct and logically separate environments are found to bleed into each other, allowing for travel between them.

But Vain Art of the Fugue is different still. The various states and situations it presents are so fluid, and so indistinct from each other, and from their own other iterations, that the delightfully simple paradox of Cortázar’s story is never approached.

Likewise, it seems to reference, but does not mirror the Borges story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, in which a novel is posited that contains every possible permutation of effect from every cause – a multiverse of possible realities. But again, there is no real sense of the different states in Tsepeneag’s novel being truly distinct from each other – they are not parallel (or diverging) tracks, and nor do they foreground the changing conditions that might lead to the different outcomes.

The novel seems to echo all three of these forebears (Queneau, Cortázar, Borges) without specifically following any of them. And I would say it the equal of any of them. It’s that good.

Instead – the obvious comparison – it is like a piece of music, endlessly reworking its own possibilities. Yet there is no theme and variations, and there is no resolution, no base reality to start from or end at… and nor still is there any sense that this is a quantum game. It is just an exercise in the suppleness of prose narrative, and our dogged insistence on reading linearly, assuming cause and effect in every proposition, bounding across every full stop, every paragraph break. It is a tremendous piece of writing, and I urge anyone who has read this far in this post to seek it out. (And to tell me if indeed it has a forebear I am unaware of!)

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