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Regular version of the site

Book chapter

Skizzen’s Sketches, Els’s Tweets: Streams of Incompletion in Two Musicalized Novels

P. 124-140.

Two mid-twentieth century Slavic aestheticians, both of whom applied the ‘polyphony’ metaphor to literature, inaugurated influential theories of incompletion. For Bakhtin (see 1963/1984), the polyphonic novel of Dostoevsky maintains an ongoing dialogue of characters’ discourses, which resists closure and can only be artificially aborted in the author’s ‘monologic’ finale. In Ingarden (see 1931/1973), the multi-layered structure of the literary work is brought together in a “polyphonic harmony” of aesthetic qualities, but its “stratum of represented objects” is merely a schema, which stays indeterminate no matter how much information is added to ‘concretize’ it. Neither Bakhtin nor Ingarden associates incompletion with the technical ending of the work. Instead, incompletion is inherent in the work’s parts – characters’ voices or structural layers; unfinished fragments permeate narrative from the inside. In this paper, I apply these theoretical insights to the subject beyond Bakhtin’s and Ingarden’s interest – musicalized novels. I discuss some recurrent patterns combined with frequent and extensive intermedial thematization of music (see Wolf 1999) in William H. Gass’s Middle C (2013) and Richard Powers’s Orfeo (2014) with respect to narrative ‘streams’ that account for the novels’ ‘polyphonic’ effect. In particular, I am interested in the digressive sequences of textual fragments that are composed by the two novels’ protagonists and incorporated into the novels’ surface plots. I focus on how, in Middle C, the impostor music professor Joseph Skizzen redrafts his one-sentence summary of human history until it turns into a verbal twelve-tone row, and how, in Orfeo, the composer Peter Els’s Twitter messages parallel his biomusical project that results in his being taken for a terrorist. Skizzen’s sketches of his sentence accumulate without replacing each other, while Els’s tweets shape his first-person narrative explaining how his music is bound to live forever in the bacterial DNA he has modified. These streams of incompletion not only provide the text with a means of intermedial imitation but also metafictionally designate the ability of narrative to continue beyond its own end, obtaining a quasi-temporality that Ingarden (see 1973/1986) associated with musical works.

In book

Skizzen’s Sketches, Els’s Tweets: Streams of Incompletion in Two Musicalized Novels
Vol. 18. Boston; Leiden: Brill, 2021.