Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique by Gert Jonke
No sooner is an (almost) new writer introduced to us than he disappears. Homage to Czerny, by the Austrian Gert Jonke, was published by Dalkey Archive in November; two months later the author died. Jonke’s foothold in English letters had been precarious, and belated. His very first book appeared — again from Dalkey, as Geometrical Regional Novel — in 2000, over three decades after it was published. With this new book, his second to come out in English, the gap has been maintained almost exactly. At this rate we can expect to see Jonke’s later works in the 2030s.
This doesn’t seem quite right. Born in 1946, the same year as Elfriede Jelinek, Jonke wrote novels, plays and radio plays. Music was evidently important to him, his novels including The Distant Sound (taking its title from Franz Schreker’s best known opera) and The Head of George Frederick Handel. Homage to Czerny is, of course, a musical book, too. It comprises two pieces, related in length roughly by the ratio 2:1 (an octave) and both featuring a composer as the rather passive narrator — so passive that he could easily be the same character in both, though need not be. The longer piece is set at a fantastical party in a fantastical city with quite a number of fantastical characters; the shorter has the narrator and his brother stuck in the attic of a music school, with 111 decrepit grand pianos, this being the opus number of Beethoven’s last sonata.
Jonke titled this curious pairing of stories after the Op.299 of the great piano pedagogue and Beethoven pupil Carl Czerny: School of Velocity. Dalkey’s renaming is fair enough, though it is a pity that we lose the word ‘velocity’, which seems important to Jonke’s thinking and our response to it. His party piece, as it were, starts out with a couple of nice conceits. Anton Diabelli (by no means the only character to share a name with someone else) has decked his gardens with paintings that reproduce the scenes they block (never mind what problems of perspective this might entail), and has also determined that his annual soirée will unfold in every detail exactly as it did the year before. Here, one might think, are ideas ripe for unmasking. But no, Jonke whips on through a sequence of bizarre dialogues, in which Diabelli’s guests reveal themselves as having little familiarity with the city in which they live or with common probability. Buildings, one person thinks, may be made of smoke. No, others contend, the smoke falls from chimneys, which, however high they may be built, can never quite catch the wind, which rises to escape them. The most appealing character is the painter of the substitute landscapes, who, our narrator is advised, should be approached only when his eyes are closed, because when they are open he will be observing and will not tolerate disturbance. Even so, caution is needed. When his eyes are closed he may easily be asleep.
Perhaps everyone is asleep in this bizarre tale, though there is nothing dreamy about Jonke’s language (as translated by Jean M. Snook), which is clear and exact, even when evoking the mysterious, magical music the narrator finds emanating from a pond in Diabelli’s garden:
...I had the sensation of overlapping wandering clouds of notes and gathering mists of tones that shifted into one another, surging forward and back, a very quiet, barely audible, devastatingly beautiful music, such as I had never experienced before, very high, but at the same time very low, agreeably subdued, slightly blurry gossamer-thin aerial chordal expanses...
So it is in the other piece, which bears a separate Czernian title, Gradus ad Parnassum. The narrator’s brother here is a Bernhardesque ranter, but on a small scale, and the piece again is nicely and neatly odd. Its conservatory — with an attic full of disused pianos: culture turned to junk — might be an allegory of the current state of the world (in 1977, when the book was originally published, or now), of Austria (ditto) or of a person (ditto, too), this last suspicion echoing through the closing lines:
...for a long time now I’ve barely been able to feel that I was a person at all, but instead only a (more or less miserable) condition that was being communicated to me via my head...