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Mark Kingwell
Mark Kingwell

From Saturday's Books section

The Kingwell variations Add to ...



Mark Kingwell has taken on the difficult task of saying something new - and necessary - about Glenn Gould. Difficult because so many have used Gould as a subject or character: from the great Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard to the countless Canadian poets who have explored Gould's life and legacy.

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More difficult still: Kingwell's Glenn Gould is part of Penguin's series called Extraordinary Canadians, but it comes after Kevin Bazzana's Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould and Otto Friedrich's Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations, both of them superior biographies.





In fact, it's probably important to say, from the beginning, that Kingwell's book is not what is commonly taken for biography. It does not follow its subject from birth to grave, giving off anecdotes, like sparks, to illuminate the subject's character. Kingwell has something entirely different in mind. His Glenn Gould is an effort to take Gould's ideas seriously, to illuminate the man's thinking, rather than the life he lived. Here is a portion of Kingwell's mission statement:

"In fashioning a philosophical biography, I have abandoned standard narrative form and instead adopted a kaleidoscopic frame. Each of my takes is a version of Gould, always partial, always unfinished. ... Gould is here the subject of a sort of bio-philosophical recording session."

It's an unusual tack, one that allows Kingwell to mimic the "contradictory, paradoxical, mischievous and deliberately provocative" character of Gould's own thinking - though, curiously, the fractured Gould who emerges from Kingwell's kaleidoscope is one we know from elsewhere: thoughtful, shy, possessed of multiple selves, possessed of a near eidetic memory for music, a prodigy, paranoid, solitary, competitive, a man who couldn't stand cruelty to animals, a man obsessed with architectonics, a man with a brilliant if eccentric mind.





Each of Kingwell's 21 chapters deals with ideas Gould himself dealt with or adumbrated: Time, Silence, Architecture, Memory, Play, North, Genius etc. The chapters follow one another not logically but organically, one suggestively leading to the next. A number of the chapters deal with Gould himself only tangentially, but over all, it is an inventive and at times amusing book that manages to highlight some of the deeper implications of Gould's thought. It's also a book that has "prickles" (flaws or virtues, depending) in its conception and execution.

To speak of conceptual matters first: If you take a look at his "mission statement" again, you'll notice Kingwell's insistence on his methods, the admission that this book is composed of his takes on Glenn Gould. In other words, he treats Gould the way Gould treated Bach's work, bending Gould's life and thought to his (Kingwell's) needs, as Gould bent the score of the Goldberg Variations to his own.





[The book]provokes thought about the nature of biography and the relationship of biographer to subject




In both cases, the idea is to create a work tied to the sensibility of the interpretive artist. And, as it is with Gould's Goldberg (s), so it is here: There are times when I feel this is a book about Mark Kingwell, his thoughts, his philosophical speculations, and that the book is less "Gould by Kingwell" than "Kingwell through Gould." How you feel about this will have to do with many things, but if you're looking for a work that brings Gould forward, keeps him there and articulates, in another key so to speak, Gould's mind, you're likely to be disappointed.

As for Kingwell's style, it's a mixture of "straight talk" and philosophical banter. If his Gould were a book of philosophy, you could criticize it for its (at times) poor exposition: terms left insufficiently qualified, arguments too dependent on a reader's prior knowledge, half thoughts left on the page as if they were complete. His sentences are sometimes elliptical to the point of creating confusion, confusion for me, anyway. Or they go too quickly.



Mark Kingwell on the 'huge' error he made in Gould biography



For instance, in trying to define consciousness, Kingwell writes: "Consciousness is the mysterious ability to spatialize time, to move a 'self' through a metaphoric space." The two parts of that sentence don't quite fit together. Consciousness is the ability to turn time (succession, a concept) into a thing (space).

Okay, that's interesting and it leads to interesting questions: Is consciousness like our other abilities: the ability to transform oxygen to CO{-2}, for instance?

While thinking about that, you're told - as if the second phrase were merely fleshing out the first - that consciousness is the ability to move a "self" through "metaphoric space." Also interesting. But it's a separate thought. In my reading, the sentence needs an "and" here, because Kingwell is telling us two distinct things about the "ability" that is consciousness.

Now, it would be inane to criticize a writer for missing an "and" in a sentence. It's not as if, without it, the sentence is meaningless. One could even call the sentence, as is, "suggestive." But this shotgun wedding of disparate ideas is entirely characteristic of Kingwell's style. Ideas are thrown about, sometimes in ways that are enlightening, sometimes in ways that defer meaning, sometimes in ways that make meaning opaque. It's done, I think, to take us to the heart of the contradictions, swerves of thought and tangents of Glenn Gould's own thinking. But it can make for frustrating or bewildering reading.

In the end, I want to say that this is both a brilliant book and one that is flawed. It is a book that, intentionally, provokes thought about the nature of biography and the relationship of biographer to subject. And I'm grateful for the provocation, enough so that it is a book I would recommend. (It's difficult not to like a book that ropes in Thomas Bernhard, Jeremy Dodds, Aristotle, Santayana, John Cage, Petula Clark and Mackey Sasser, among many others.)

But Kingwell's Gould is at times careless in its considerations of music. For instance, I would like to have read just how Gould's ideas influenced his performances of, say, Mozart, a composer he did not like. But perhaps the most woeful of this book's lapses is its inclusion of the first bar and two-thirds of the Aria from The Goldberg Variations. These bars are, in fact, inscribed on Glenn Gould's tomb. A fitting - and moving - epitaph.

But in Kingwell's Gould, they are printed without time signature (3/4) and, worse, without key signature. (It's in G major, so the F should be sharp.) For anyone who reads music, this is a bit of a desecration, since if played as given in this book, the beginning of The Goldberg Variations has a horrid sour note. This blunder is made twice - including once on the final page of text - and it can almost stand for the book's chief flaw: At times, Mark Kingwell is too exhilarated by ideas - not all of them worth his attention - to give the mundane (but necessary) details their due.

Contributing reviewer André Alexis can play the banjo, but only at gunpoint. Otherwise, he writes novels, the latest of which is Asylum. His next novel is Pastoral.

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