Why the Fugue?

I clicked over to Margot Singer’s recent post at the Paris Review in a bit of a panic. Singer asks whether a novel can be a fugue, or can be structured akin to a fugue, and she offers up her own début, Underground Fugue, as an example of a novel built upon a fugal framework. Since I’m in the midst of writing a novel that also takes its cues from the fugue, I worried that Singer had beaten me to it and undercut me before I could even finish. Not that either one of us imagines that we might be the first writer to take this particular path (Joyce, Burgess, et al) but still, nobody wants to exhaust themselves labouring over a book that ends up reading mostly like an echo of someone else’s.

My panic rose at the sight of one of Singer’s early remarks. Like her novel, Winter Fugue is animated by the idea of a “fugue state” as a state of mind brought on by migration. Etymologically, as Singer points out, the roots of the word “fugue” also inform words like “fugitive” and “refugee,” and I felt she could’ve been describing my novel when I found her describing her aim to portray migration “as a flight not only from one’s homeland but also from one’s identity.” As she moved on to the details of her novel, however, and especially as she offered her account of what it might mean to write a novel like a fugue, my panic began to subside. Singer’s novel revolves around the Holocaust; Winter Fugue does not. Moreover, Singer says that she took inspiration from Bach’s unfinished Art of Fugue in order to structure her novel around “four alternating third-person points of view.” Classically, a fugue involves the initial statement of a theme, followed by the repetition and contrapuntal restatement of the theme by a series of voices that enter the music in succession and interweave as it unfolds. I can see how Singer’s structure might echo that of Bach’s. First one, then two, then three and four voices, all of them thematically related, interweaving as Singer cycles through them repeatedly.

Thankfully, though, my own structure is quite different. Winter Fugue begins with a standalone narrative sequence that offers an initial statement of the theme: the establishment of a narrator in a particular situation. What follows is a series of eight chapters, each one of which restates the theme by turning the narrator’s focus towards a character in a comparable situation. As these characters enter the narrative in succession, the novel interweaves their voices by carrying them over from chapter to chapter. The first chapter connects one character to the narrator; the second chapter connects another character to the first and to the narrator; the third chapter connects yet another character to the first two characters and the narrator, and so on. By the eighth chapter, the voices of eight characters have been interwoven around the voice of the narrator and have echoed and modified, each in their own ways, the narrator’s statement of the theme. The contrapuntal aspect of the fugue — the call and response of the voices — enters the novel through the alternation of the chapters. In the odd-numbered chapters, the narrator reaches out to contemporaneous characters he could conceivably approach and actually, physically interact with. In the even-numbered chapters, he reaches out to characters far from him in time and space, impossible to see in the flesh. So, I hope, the novel has both a seesawing quality to the rhythm of the chapters and a centripetal force, a back-and-forth of narratorial distance coupled with the continual, focused interweaving of voices.

That’s all quite difficult to describe. Of course it’s easier now that the panic has faded a little, now that I can see there’s no real structural competition between myself and someone else, but clearly the paragraph above creaks under the strain of my attempt to honour the various structural components of Winter Fugue. I was happy to see Singer engaged in much the same struggle in her blog post, and happier still to see her response to the question of why a novelist would be inclined to try a fugal structure in the first place. “Novels that take a musical form demand a lot of readers,” she writes, because readers “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.” That’s exactly what I’d say as well. I’d also say that I don’t feel as if I had a lot of choice in the matter — the structure of Winter Fugue is the result of something more ephemeral and intuitive than a process of conscious creative deliberation — but certainly, at this point in writing the novel, it’s the structural generation and elaboration of those complex patterns that gives me the energy to leap from one word to the next.

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