The Distant Sound by Gert Jonke

Normance BY Louis-Ferdinand Celine. edited by Marlon Jones (translator). Dalkey Archive Pr. Paperback, 328 pages. $14.
The cover of Normance

An author who would go on to write rigorous experimental fiction, Gert Jonke was born in 1946 in Klagenfurt, Austria—Robert Musil’s hometown. A talented pianist, he studied music but left the conservatory to be a writer, and found quick success with the 1969 publication of Geometric Regional Novel, a satire that Peter Handke praised in Der Spiegel. In fact many of his poems, novels, and plays reveal that his interest in music never subsided—they often feature characters lost in music, like the nameless composer who narrates The Distant Sound, his latest book to be translated into English. After Jonke died in 2009, his compatriot and fellow novelist Elfriede Jelinek, the 2004 Nobel laureate (and the author of The Piano Teacher), immediately issued a statement that touched on his abilities: “He could conjure a universe with two or three choice words. Like a great jazz musician, his improvisations refined as they branched out from a single theme.”

The Distant Sound feels gargantuan—a dark and dense barrage of riffs and arias, as if the author tried to pour a free-jazz opera into the mold of a three-hundred-page novel. There are no chapters, and no quotation marks. Published in 1979, The Distant Sound is part two of a trilogy that began with Homage to Czerny (translated in 2008), also narrated in part by a composer. It’s difficult reading and also stunning, with a tongue-in-cheek style that is, to quote a minor character, “recklessly extravagant with the most economical means.” Though a challenge, it is Jonke’s richest and most inventive novel to be seen in English so far.

The plot begins after the composer has attempted suicide. This lands him in a psychiatric clinic from which he escapes into “a divinely celestial joking cosmedy” to pursue a woman he loves across a nameless city. He sees “the metamorphosis of the daylight into a solid body.” A tightrope walker floats. The composer takes a circular train trip and strolls through an orgiastic revolution (in reality a ticker-tape parade and carnival). Like a concerto, the story proceeds with a thematic series of ominous sounds, hence the title. It beings with noise bursting from a house, features a vision of “a gigantic polyphonic mountain flute complex,” and describes the “groaning” of a cornfield ravaged by insects. There is also a fantastical centerpiece about urban river control, ending with a lawsuit against the river. The broad metaphor of the composer’s journey is that his own suicide attempt is a response to the grand suicide of civilization that surrounds him, in the form of rampant industrialization. This message probably sounded wise when the novel was first published three decades ago and, thanks to recent oil spills and other environmental problems, it’s certainly still apt.

Much of Jonke’s fiction operates as a sort of picaresque thought experiment. A character ventures out and we get to see a vision of how the world acts on his mind. By using a suicidal composer to narrate The Distant Sound, Jonke has found the perfect man for his storytelling model: an artist who’d rather destroy (himself, no less) than create. Introspection sends him spinning:

I see myself as a sort of subject that I’m observing, as someone walking along beside me. . . . Of course, it’s strange that you can think about yourself the way one thinks about someone else—you think to yourself—because you’ve never been especially good at thinking about other people.

Because the composer represents the human capacity for creativity and witnesses slow, widespread destruction, there is a moral heft to this adventure. When he is able to find humor (“I would like to feel that the world around me is a little more dependent on being perceived by me,” he remarks), it feels like a small human triumph. Still, the arc of his story is grim. It begins with a vague memory of a violent act and ends with better knowledge of its specifics. Jonke is a playful writer, but given his topics, he wisely submits to the role of honest tragedian. The composer travels from a grand ambition—“to compose that music that has not yet even touched the farthest reaches of the imagination”—to a seriocomic complaint: “It is unpleasant for me to feel constantly caught up in my existence.”

Jean M. Snook, who won the 2009 Austrian Cultural Forum’s Translation Prize for this book, reports that the final part of the trilogy is titled Awakening to the Great Sleep War. I can’t imagine what kind of world we’d live in if wars were fought using sleep as the primary weapon. But I’m glad Jonke can, and I am eager to see what else he’s invented.

Matthew Jakubowski is a writer in Philadelphia.