Wundor Author Essay
The Art of the Fugue
In Europe between 1860 and 1890, many men simply left home and gave themselves another name, became other people and ended up in villages miles away or in a different country, living under assumed identities and genuinely believing that they were somebody else. They were discovered decades later and doctors began to call this a fugal state. Now historically, there were two reasons for it. One was that military service had become almost universal and they were trying to avoid it, both consciously and unconsciously: it was fight or flight. Secondly, public transport became accessible, so trains and buses became more numerous, allowing further exploration, but it was the bicycle which encapsulated the idea of freedom. You could jump on a bicycle, ride a hundred miles, become someone else and not be found out, because at that time communications were not that good. Even up until 1894, regions in Europe were unique and unknown to each other. Some were in the wilderness; you might know someone from the next village but probably not someone from the one after.
My novel is not about that. It is set in Australia and China, but it shares similar flights of imagination. For example, a fugue in music is a flight of virtuosity, a contrapuntal dialogic between two hands. Fuguing is what a writer tries to do: to find a place elsewhere; to unleash a dialogue between various selves. Johann Sebastian Bach was of course a master of this, connecting music with a kind of speech. Both are about flight – flights of the imagination rendered with mathematical clarity and their return flights of fancy. The musical fugue takes on a contrapuntal dialogue set against a ground bass, which in this novel, is the weight of artistic provenance, legacy and inheritance. The flightier melody is represented by the bicycle, an access to self-locomotion which allows escape and freedom. So there is imagination and there is fraudulence and there is the music of chance – fragmentation and repetition – in my mind, everything that a novel should dare.
For my characters, checkered lives are counterpointed with others. Through various degrees of separation, they are all brought into connection again, viewed from very different perspectives and documented by the act of bathing. By forgetting who they are, perhaps in flight from themselves, lulled by the double-bass of a hot bath, they begin to dream and to write. In the act of bathing and writing, they are caught in embarrassment and in exhibition.
The novel came to me while riding my bicycle up and down some very steep hills. I trained for that, realising how easy it was to ride up a steep hill compared to the difficulty of writing. Death, while threatening, never came quite so close as facing the blank page. In fact I had so many blank pages it was easy to edit. In the end I figured out that less is more, more or less. The book, as you notice, is still quite hefty.
One day I intend to build a bath inside my library. All the books would become sodden and melt into one another. This is my ultimate dream of intertextuality. Lives, like novels, are soaked in memory requiring order. They can only be disentangled when drying out, hung on a clothesline, open to the winds and the birds. The best way to regard The Bath Fugues is to see it as composed of three novellas, so I suggest you break the spine, tear out chunks of about a hundred pages each and read them in the bath in whatever order you wish. Of course if you find this unwieldy, then please buy three copies.
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