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Literature compared to chess or fugues

Fascinating interview with Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag:

AJ: In a previous interview you gave for CONTEXT magazine, you compared your book Vain Art of the Fugue, published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2007, to a musical fugue, to a canon for two voices, and by doing so you were referring to a musical structure that always influences the formal structure of your novels. In Pigeon Post, the narrator claims that “music and chess are the lifeblood of [his] literature.” Could you first explain the difference of the influence of music in Vain Art of the Fugue and in Pigeon Post, and then explain your specific double-sided interest for music and chess? How are they related to each other?

DT: In the French text, the word used for lifeblood is “breast,” as in: “music and chess are the two nourishing breasts of my literature.” Breasts are linked to their owner—or to the author, as in the already conventional metaphor used by Tiresias—by the rest of the body, mostly by the head. One of the breasts usually is larger than the other—or in this case, more important than the other. For instance, music—the mother of all arts, the origin of European art. Music is important because it creates pure structure. The tune, or melody, is but a pretext.

Chess is all about structures too: the winner of the game is the one who finds the best structure on the chessboard. To checkmate one’s opponent is to impose one final structure to them. A resigned death
. . . You lay your king down on the board, accept its defeat, but the king does not die. The defeated player can play another chess game.

The player is indeed not king. He is, just as an author, but the puppeteer who pulls the strings behind the scenes. He thinks he is immortal, which is of course the height of irony . . .

The overall model or structure for music and chess all the same is still the act of dreaming. Nighttime dreaming, which is quickly forgotten about. When one wakes up, the memory of the dream slowly fades away. It’s just like listening to music. In order to make sense out of a dream, it’s necessary to piece things back together, to interpret. This is the case for music too, of course.

What about chess? When you think about it, chess can be compared to dreaming too. If you want to win a chess game, you must decipher your opponent’s every move, his secret, malicious, lethal intentions. It’s a lot of work! Beyond mere appearances, the “latent content” is very significant, even though it was subjected to a certain abstraction.

One can write down every move in a chess game, but the result would only be the outlines of the subject matter and would exclude what went on in the players’ minds during the game.

Vain Art of the Fugue is more obviously structured by music: a canon for two voices, as you would say. Or more precisely, rectus and inversus: the theme takes one step ahead and then one step back and so on. The theme is impeded by pitfalls and traps that account for the movement.

Pigeon Post’s case is slightly more complex. At first sight, one is reminded of Flaubert’s project of a “book about nothing.” But Pigeon Post deals more with the rejection of a preconceived subject matter, and with the submission to music, seen as a nutrient, as lifeblood. It’s not a submission to classical music, but to atonal music, which bears the seeds of the end: the end of music, of art in general.

What else to say?

The fragmented structure of my text plays a great role. One can speak of “thematic cells,” which correspond in literature to what I call, somewhere else, “the shadow of a theme, ectoplasms of things and beings.” I also refer to Boulez there. But I’m also referring to the wizard in this fragment, Webern. But please don’t lure me into pedantry—that is, analyzing my own texts.

I would like to add one last thing. There isn’t such a thing as a subject matter that exists before the text is being written; however, after a few pages, a quantity of subjects are being suggested, one by one, and several different stories and anecdotes intermingle and mix like a pigeon in flight; among those pigeons are carrier pigeons that carry not just one but several messages; once put together, those ill-assorted messages claim the death of a certain kind of literature: the literature that still harbors the illusion that it can endlessly replenish itself.

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