The Man Who Dies: Robert Pinget’s “Passacaglia”
How do I write about Robert Pinget’s gem of a book Passacaglia? The dilemma is that Pinget has woven his novel about passion and guilt so tightly knotted up that to unwind it is to start releasing spoilers. The first problem that Pinget presents us is that his narrator has a great deal of trouble telling a very simple story about a man who dies. He doesn’t tell the story once, he tells it more than a half dozen times and each version is different. Thus the book’s title. The word passacaglia (or passacaille in Spanish) originally referred to the type of interlude music that Spanish street musicians would strum between the dance music they were performing. These interludes were usually variations on a theme played over a bass line or an ostinato—in other words, they were a persistent motif. Pinget is using the man’s death as the variations on a theme. The reader’s challenge is to figure out the persistent motif, the theme behind the death.
Here’s the first version of the man’s death from page one. The setting is the outskirts of a remote French village, at the well-to-do farm dwelling of a man referred to simply as “the master.” (Just think of him as a sort of gentleman farmer; he doesn’t seem to work very hard work at farming.) The time is vaguely in the middle of the 20th century. A local peasant, hired as a sentry because of the master’s “mania,” is checking on him and has just peeked through the masters’ window and has seen him “apparently distinctly . . . put the clock out of action and then sit there prostrate in his chair, elbows on the table, head in his hands.” Soon thereafter, the master will be found dead on the nearby dung hill. Note the phrase “apparently distinctly.”
Some six or seven pages later, in the second version, we are told that the village mayor and doctor have found the master slumped over, dead at his desk, having knocked a book to the floor. Remember the book.
The narrator’s inability to tell this story straight is being strangely echoed by the master’s inability to finish writing his memoirs. The master has been writing his memoirs in a book—yes, that book—but he’s at a certain point where he has hit a wall. In the mean time he’s doing what many writers do in that event, he’s diddling with previous entries. “Working on marginal notes.” Over and over he tries to write further in his memoirs, but no. He will tell himself “source of information deficient” or that his memory is experiencing some sort of “hiccup.”
Throughout Passacaglia, Pinget demonstrates how language can be used to hide something, even our very own memories. We are given multiple versions of the master’s death to chose from, as if this were a lineup down at the police station. And we see the master hiding some memory away behind his ability to weave words into puzzlingly beautiful, but almost meaningless sentences, sentences which make him feel as if he has a genuine excuse not to pursue his memoir into certain territory.
Pinget’s poetic language may not be for everyone, but I happen to adore it.
Afterwards hours of pondering over all these snippets, there was nothing left on the page of memoirs but blots and graffiti, his life had emigrated elsewhere.
In the elms or the pine wood, in those carcasses everywhere, scintillations, nocturnal silences, dispersed, in disorder, irreparable, the book open at the old-fashioned illustration, the clock that doesn’t go, infinite disarray, words adrift like so many disavowals, pursued even into his dreams, the only history he would have now would be written, his only breath would be literary.
It was perhaps at this moment that the poultry dealer appeared at the gate, towards evening that is, the master became calmer, he asked the fellow to sit down and he let him go on about his obsessions, the doctor apparently said watch your liver, come and see me.
Blots and graffiti.
Other themes would emerge from disordered nerves. Working on marginal notes.
When the farm-hand had left the barn, it might have been half-past eight, night was falling, the last glimmer in the west, the line of the forest almost black, the terrace was deserted and the house had all its shutters closed, you could hear the frogs down by the marsh, it had been a hot day for the season.
Of that dreary, monotonous year.
There’s a kind of Where’s Waldo hide-and-seek when it comes to picking out what’s critical to know among all these phrases. Just as the master is hiding something from himself, Pinget seems to be hiding things from his readers. It feels like essential facts are buried in insignificant-looking passages or they get lost in flowery poetic language. For instance, it’s very easy to miss the moment when we are told that the master has been telling the doctor “the story of his death that he had imagined in detail, amplified over the years, tragic or touching according to the evening, by the fire, the bottle of spirits on the table.” In other words, all of these variations on the master’s deaths are just the late night ramblings that the master makes up when he and the doctor sit drinking in front of the fireplace. (Just as it’s easy to miss it when the master and the doctor are described as “intimate.”)
This is not an example of the “unreliable narrator” we see so often today. Part of what is going on is due to the fact that Pinget is sowing uncertainty in his reader’s mind as a matter of principle. He doesn’t want us to keep basing everything in our lives solely on reason. He wrote to his English translator, “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaille is directed against it.” But Pinget is also showing us the lengths that the master will go to evade his sense of guilt over a child whose story only emerges toward the end of the book, although hints about this aspect of the master’s life have been laid since the early pages. The master, it seems, had “adopted” a child. “I was stuck with the child, how old could he have been, about fifteen, I always thought of him as ‘the adopted child,’ feeble in both mind and body, his mother entrusted him to us not knowing what to do with him, we didn’t either, we gave him little jobs to do which he always made a mess of.” There was only one thing the master has insisted on.
that I should soap him myself in his tub every Saturday or 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, 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.
Then one day the boy dies after making what the master describes as a “wrong move” with a chain saw, and the master is not the same after that. But is never clear if this is an accident or a deliberate act of self-mutilation. This is the incident that the master keeps reimagining over and over in his memoirs, unable to move forward. He also keeps rewriting his will late at night in rambling prose that recalls, in shorthand, bits and pieces of the book’s plot.
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, sentry, 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, magpie or crow . . .
Depending on your point of view as a reader, either one of the more magical or more confounding aspects of Passacaglia is Pinget’s ability to bend time. Passages that begin at one moment in time segue invisibly a page or two later into events that are clearly in the past. The book’s final paragraph suggests, yet once again, that the master dies, “found deceased on the dunghill.” Or is this just another of the master’s late night tales by the fireplace?
I last read and wrote about Passacaglia in 2011. I clearly didn’t quite know what to make of it then and should have read it a few more times. One of the pleasures of rereading a book is finding passages missed the first time around. For example, on the second page, Pinget signals to the reader an essential clue to his book. He tells us that we need to pay attention to everything that alludes to the master’s past. (I have omitted the story of the master’s past and how he came to “adopt” the boy out of my commentary in order to not give away all the spoilers.)
The story would seem to have begun a long time before this, but talk about prudence, talk about vigilance, it looks as if only two or three episodes have been revealed, and that with some difficulty, the source of information being permanently deficient, that almost inaudible murmur interrupted by silences and hiccups, so that you might well have attached no importance to it and considered the whole thing started at the time when the clock was put out of action. Which side to take.
The reader has two basic choices with Robert Pinget’s Passacaglia: to read it straight through and enjoy it strictly for the beautiful writing, without worrying too much of having an accurate view of what is really taking place; or reading the book several times while parsing every sentence carefully. (It’s short, only 94 pages.) Both approaches are perfectly legitimate. But even the second approach won’t remove every ambiguity. In some novels, confusion is the story. Which side to take, indeed!
Robert Pinget. Passacaglia. Translated from the 1969 French original by Barbara Wright. My copy is the out-of-print edition published by Red Dust in 1978. The only English version of Passacaglia currently in print is part of the volume Trio, from Dalkey Archive Press, which includes two other short novellas by Pinget. It’s also the Barbara Wright translation.