Subterranean Homesick Blues
By Kevin Breathnach.
The Apartment, Greg Baxter, Penguin, 2012
Greg Baxter began his published, public life with his 2010 memoir, A Preparation for Death. Occupying a strange space between the diaries of Simon Gray, the novels of the Marquis de Sade and the auto-fictions of Patrick Modiano, A Preparation for Death achieved considerable critical success in Ireland, where its American author has lived and worked since 2003. While that book is a confessional of undeniable frankness — ‘I sometimes feel one drink away from whatever makes a dog hump women’s legs’ — it never quite succeeds in its aim of destroying the fictions surrounding the self. Not without constructing new ones, in any case. Written in ‘the very panic of the experiences that inspired it’, A Preparation for Death is uneven in form and melodramatic in parts. Its author, moreover, is never less than grandiose on the subject of his own disgrace. Though his debut novel, The Apartment, quite evidently draws on certain autobiographical aspects, Baxter’s writing benefits enormously from the distance fiction renders between author and narrator. It manages to sober the stuff up without turning it dull.
The Apartment is a dense and subtly-told novel about an unnamed American narrator walking around an unnamed eastern European city in search of an apartment to live in. There is more than a touch of the psychogeographer about this narrator who, varyingly unfamiliar with the highways and byways of the city, spends his leisurely days at one or two removes from his surroundings. It is not difficult for those who have read A Preparation for Death to identify the unnamed city, but it is left unnamed so that the reader might experience something of the narrator’s disorientation. ‘I don’t recognize the street,’ he says. ‘It seems strange that I have walked so many hours in this city and still don’t recognize the places.’ He is unfamiliar with the natives, too. He is unaware of how to act around them, he does not speak their language and he cannot read their newspapers, which he continues to buy in any case. He is an outsider, in other words. He exists in a state of isolation. The Apartment is much less about an apartment, then, than it is about ‘apart-ment’.
That is not to say he is alone — far from it. He is accompanied at almost all times by Saskia, an impossibly perfect (and, therefore, perfectly uninteresting) native of the city, with whom he managed to strike up a friendship while visiting the National Gallery. ‘She goes there for her lunch breaks. She works at an economics research institute; she expends a lot of energy every day on this and talks about it only if I ask her a direct question. She likes art and books and music, and that’s what she wants to talk about.’ How convenient. Of course, the narrator isn’t always up to this level of conversation and occasionally, when they don’t speak, ‘I worry that she may find me too quiet, or boring. I could fill the silence by talking about the past, but I try not to think about the past.’ And it’s true, he really does try: there are very few instances of past tense verbs in the first quarter of this book. Instead, we are treated to a minutely detailed description of the pair’s day out. ‘The roads are fine, but the visibility is poor. Saskia smokes the cigarette I have lit for her without hands, just holding it between her lips, breathing in and breathing out. She crosses her arms and looks down the road, at the bus, which is stuck in the traffic it towers over, wipers moving slowly across its windshield, and the whole scene is white and grey and lit up and smoking. I don’t know how long we wait. It is probably a minute, but it feels like ten.’ This is not an isolated passage I’ve drawn on selectively. The first quarter of the book is filled with whole pages of this frame-by-frame development. ‘The nights attained a state of extreme slow motion,’ the narrator writes in an early instance of the novel’s habit of self-commentary. The narrative proceeds so slowly, in fact, that eventually it ceases to travel forward at all and has no choice but to roll backwards into the past, a tense of greater verbal and ethical irregularity.
Where information seemed to spill out all at once onto the pages of A Preparation for Death, here it is handled differently. The narrator is a hoarder — his apartment will eventually be one of great clutter — and so his disclosures come at a much more considered pace than those in A Preparation for Death. At first, only fragments (‘a-part-ment’) of his history are revealed. We learn that he spent time in the navy, that he fought in Iraq and that he later returned as a civilian contractor. This second spell is originally portrayed as one spent working with people trying to locate and rescue looted Mesopotamian artefacts — themselves fragments of a more distance past. It isn’t until a little later that these fragments come to form a more complete mosaic: it emerges that he soon had to give up rescuing artefacts, so busy was he with other work in which he ‘assigned death from a distance, coordinated land and air strikes,’ and made an absolute fortune doing so. The narrator, it turns out, has come to this unnamed city with a great weight of guilt upon his shoulders. His intention here is to begin ‘a life that would represent the entombment of all the violence I have witnessed or imposed upon the world’.
You get the sense that this quietly tormented soul may be Baxter himself. He was researching this novel, after all, in the period in which he wrote his emphatically tormented memoir. Maybe so, but a novelist does not leave his protagonist unnamed unless he has reason to do so. The guilt felt for violence witnessed and imposed belongs not to one individual conscience, you suspect, but to the conscience of a nation. The Apartment is a novel generated by the forces of memory as it tries to come to terms with the horrors of our new century — it is Baxter’s attempt to deal in literary terms with the trauma of the War on Terror. If that last sentence seems phrased in somewhat familiar terms, it is because I lifted most of it from Gabriel Josipovici’s 1996 essay on W.G. Sebald, whose ghost haunts every room in The Apartment — and almost every decent hall in contemporary literature, too. Told in long, justified paragraphs without the aid of quotation marks or chapter breaks, The Apartment‘s debt to Sebald is clear from the beginning. ‘The more I try not to ape other writers, the less myself I sound,’ Baxter writes in A Preparation for Death. ‘I imitate; I repeat; and new selves emerge. Originality is not forged anew; it is borrowed. […] My favourites seethe through me. They boil right out of my eyes and ears and fingertips.” Sebald seethes clearly through the formatting of the book (fingertips); he seethes, too, through the book’s attempt to deal with the trauma of aggressive imperial warfare (eyes). But most of all he seethes through the essayistic, lecturely tone Baxter adopts for many of the book’s most startling passages (ears).
So, a disaffected historian is given space to speak about Baroque architecture (‘the first grand diminishment in human evolution in the West’), about humanism (‘the victory of man’s inner desire to be stupid in order to escape pain and to feel surprise’) and about contemporary warfare (‘mankind fights wars to spread Enlightenment, democracy, freedom, rights, but what he spreads is a despair of which he is entirely unaware’). He then directs the narrator to a small venue where, of a Tuesday evening, the music school gives free recitals. There, the narrator meets Professor Schmetterling, ‘a tall, well-built man, with silver hair, obviously gay’ (and probably based on Baxter’s cousin Walter) who proceeds to give a one-on-one lecture about Bach’s Solo Violin Partita No. 2, a piece of music they have just listened to which is otherwise known as the Chaconne.
‘The Chaconne, said Schmetterling, which lasts about fifteen minutes, depending on the interpretation, was the supreme artistic achievement of the Baroque era, across all forms, and is without argument the greatest piece of music ever written for the solo violin. It’s not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements across all human endeavour.’ Schmetterling moves then to speak about the technicalities of the piece: ‘Bach was able to achieve a uniquely complex counterpoint — a conversation between multiple instruments — with a single instrument.’ Finally, he says: ‘It is both a celebration of man and a proximity with God, or the story of how that might be possible, compressed into a single violin with many voices. It is a declaration of war on baseness and brutality and scepticism. But it was also written, quite certainly, in memory of his wife. So it is a personal statement, I think, rather than a political one. Had it merely been political, said Schmetterling … no, it could not have been achieved.’
Although he needs more than one instrument to do so, Baxter has himself achieved a complex counterpoint between the political (in the guise of the disaffected historian) and the personal (Professor Schmetterling), which any close reading of the text must take into account. Is this a political novel about Western geopolitical guilt? Or is it a personal novel about the psychology of its guilt-ridden narrator? It is both, of course. ‘The Chaconne resulted in the ascension of the violin as the most venerated of all Western instruments and, yes, the central cultural object in the West.’ But, he continues, ‘you may be surprised to hear that the violin was not, originally, a Western idea.’ This paradoxical history of the violin is a neatly composed political statement. But although it was delivered by Schmetterling, it was written by Greg Baxter, a writer who posts his own translations of Theodor Adorno on his website and so is almost certainly aware of the German musicologist’s pronouncement that, ‘it is not for nothing that the newly soulful tone of the violin counts among the great innovations of the age of Descartes.’
Had it merely been political…? No, I think not.
After all, this is a novel in which the subconscious mind is constantly evoked by references to spaces beneath the surface. The narrator recounts the long spells he spent working on board nuclear submarines. Saskia’s father, meanwhile, was a man whose work also involved an acquaintance with the underside of things: he designed sewers. That is to say nothing of the time the pair spend getting around on the underground transportation and a further spell beneath ‘wide, elevated tracks, from which very large icicles hang.’ Had the unnamed narrator felt a little differently about this unnamed city, the novel might as easily have been titled ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. But it isn’t. The narrator feels good about the unnamed city. He finds a suitable apartment before the day is out. All the little hyphens pinned into the word ‘apartment’ start to fade. The novel is called The Apartment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Breathnach is a freelance writer from Dublin, Ireland. He currently lives and works in Gwangju, South Korea.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 8th, 2012.