As I read Robert Pinget’s 94-page long Passacaglia (originally published as Passacaille in 1969) I knew I was falling under the spell of one of those works of unsettling originality whose profundity was initially elusive and indescribable. Even as the story became more and more fractured, I found myself succumbing to Pinget’s writing, to his beautiful phrasing and masterful control of voice and pace.
The location is rural France. We have the Master of the farmhouse that serves as the main setting for the book, the local doctor, a plumber, a goat herder, and various other neighbors and villagers. A local idiot has died, a gentle youth of limited mental capacity who had been abandoned by his parents and informally “adopted” by the Master. Like a musical passacaglia, which involves the playing of a series of variations against a bass line, the narrator’s tale is recounted over and over, each time a new variation of the basic story. However, unlike the story of Rashomon, in which each character has a distinct perspective on the central event, the variations in Passacaglia do not represent a search for evidentiary truth. Here, it’s not the characters but the narrator who changes the tale each time, randomly and without fanfare reconfiguring events and relationships. Pinget himself is quoted on the back cover of the book saying “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaglia is directed against it.”
Woven through Pinget’s narrative, like a thread of a different color, is a more oracular voice that issues blunt phrases or sentences, gnomic status reports that function almost like a Greek chorus.
Something broken in the mechanism.
Something broken in the engine.
Leave nothing of memory’s suggestions intact.
The time is out of joint.
Source of information deficient.
Turn, return, revert.
As the book stutters forward, the chronology splinters and backtracks, the facts change willy-nilly, the variations contradict each other, and the omniscience of the narrator comes and goes like uncertain cellphone coverage. Passacaglia openly resists closure and yet it plunges the reader inexorably into its own vortex. About three-quarters of the way through, the Master suddenly tells the doctor how the boy came to live with him, and in doing so he reveals his special relationship with the idiot.
There was only one thing I insisted on, that I should soap him myself in his tub every Saturday more or less, with neither calendar nor passion I sometimes made a mistake and I felt less alone at those moments, I have his skin under my hand, I soap him all over without exception from A to Z which naturally took us by way of P, and maybe even concentrating on P, to tell the truth it’s less a chore than a pleasure, or if in my haste to be less alone I soap him twice a week attributing my miscalculation to the absence of a calendar
After this, Passacaglia seems to spin faster and faster toward its endpoint, as the collision of images becomes nearly hallucinatory. Here’s the Master, who has decided to rewrite his will.
I the undersigned in the cold room, hemlock, clock out of action, I the undersigned in the marsh, goat or bird’s carcass, I the undersigned at the bend in the road, in the master’s garden, maleficent old woman, sentry of the dead, satyr, scarecrow, in a van on the route deviated by the evil eye, plaything of that farce that is called conscience, no one, I the undersigned midnight in full daylight, overwhelmed with boredom, old owl or crow…
It’s probably worth noting that Passacaglia got onto my reading list last summer when I read Gabriel Josipovici’s praise for the book in his Whatever Happened to Modernism? Here’s Josipovici:
It leaves one, as one finishes it, with the sense of having lived through a half dozen or more potential novels: Simenon-like novels about murder in the rural hinterlands of France, Mauriac-like novels about petty jealousies behind tightly shut windows, Proust-like novels about authors in search of their subjects; of having lived through them or half-lived through them, and through so much else – child murder, desperate solitude, the system by and for which one has lived collapsing round and perhaps even within one. But more than that, the book leaves one with the sense of having participated in the birth of narrative itself.
Robert Pinget, Passacaglia. NY: Red Dust Books. Translated from the French by Barbara Wright.