Underground Fugue

By Dooley, Gillian | Transnational Literature, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Underground Fugue


Dooley, Gillian, Transnational Literature


Margot Singer, Underground Fugue (Melville House, 2017)

Can a novel be a fugue? This is the question US writer Margot Singer asks herself, implicitly in her first novel, Underground Fugue, and explicitly in a Paris Review article. 'Could I write a novel about fugues in the form of a fugue? The idea was thrilling.'1 As I have been pondering questions about the links between music and literature recently, the article caught my attention and I decided to read the novel.

Singer's four protagonists are temporary neighbours in early twenty-first century London. Lonia, a refugee from Hitler's Europe, is dying. Her daughter Esther has come from America to look after her in her final weeks. Next door, Javad, a neurologist originally from Iran, lives in a state of preoccupied alienation from his teenage son, Amir, whose secret life he hardly suspects. Threaded through the narrative, anchored by a prologue, is the slowly developing story of a mysterious man who has washed up on a beach in Kent without identification, unable or unwilling to speak in any language but the music he plays on the piano in the mental institution.

He plays for hours, his body swaying, his fingers tracing patterns along the keys: chord progressions, arpeggios, halftones, quavers, counterpoint.

Listen: everything you want to know is in the music.

The voices rise and fall, call and answer, take flight. (4)

Javad is called in as a consultant to see if he can help this man, 'a possible case of dissociative fugue' (57). Esther follows the story in a desultory way in the media, between other more pressing personal concerns. Esther is herself an amateur pianist and Javad hears her through the party wall playing Bach fugues on her mother's old German piano. The narrative flow is handed back and forth among the four characters, mother and daughter, father and son, each in turn taking up themes of flight and connection, memory and loss. Their lives touch, intersect, part, combine, separate again. Each of the seven parts starts the pattern of countervoices again, with variations introduced to the order and the number of the voices as the novel progresses. Structure is clearly vital.

But can a novel be a fugue? Singer is not the first to take up the challenge of trying out the idea. …

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