Book Review: The Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations, by Robert Hainault, is a work of fiction presented in thirty chapters framed by an aria. The musical work that inspired this structure was written for harpsichord by JS Bach in 1741. It was named for one of the composer’s pupils at this time who, at fourteen years of age was already an accomplished keyboardist.

The story’s protagonist is a harpsichord teacher named William Goldberg who, following a successful public recital in London, is persuaded by a lecherous stranger, Jack Borge, to take his talented young student on a concert tour of Poland. The boy, Daniel, is fourteen years old, although the mannerisms attributed to him appear more fitting of a younger child. He is gauche and malleable, easily led by the men despite his obvious discomfort at their actions.

Daniel’s mother trusts William to look after her son and he eagerly takes on the role of father figure on the tour. He hopes that Daniel may achieve the success that eluded him and that, as his teacher, he may bask in the boy’s reflected glory.

Jack Borge is a repulsive character. He is prurient and ill-mannered, making frequent inappropriate observations about Daniel and William. He plies them with drink and tries to take them to clubs where young boys are paid for sexual favours. When left alone, William takes Daniel for gelatinos, the sweetness and innocence of the treat offering a contrast to the disturbing imagery of the time spent with Jack.

The tour of Poland does not go as planned, although William appears first oblivious and then undeterred. The longer he spends with Daniel the less he can countenance being deprived of the boy’s company. He grows jealous when Daniel shows any interest in girls. The reader is left to interpret what is happening, the gradual contamination of the disturbing suggestions.

Like the music, the plot soars and crashes, wave after wave of beauty and melancholy. In a programme note the author explains:

The forms, figures, styles, moods and overall architecture of the piece have been integrated into the novel according to a system of symbols, puns, references, ciphers and plot points that comprise a musicological companion to the Bach.

Although competently written and offering an intriguing structure I found this book troubling. The thoughts and actions were too raw and unpleasant, what is pure overwhelmed by the grotesque.

The sexual fantasies involving a child brought to mind Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, indeed the book is referenced. However, this tale offers less subtlety, the transformation an intriguing puzzle but too sordid for my tastes. There is much about the content that is clever but I was overwhelmed by horror at the abuse described. It may be ‘daring’ and ‘phantasmagorical’, but was not enjoyable to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Ampersand.