By Daniel Guebel
Translated by Jessica Sequeira
Daniel Guebel’s novel — his 15th, though the first to appear in English — is a quixotic enterprise concerned with a quixotic enterprise founded on a desire to understand and memorialize a succession of quixotic enterprises. For most of its length, “The Absolute” takes the form of a group biography, a labor of love by an unnamed female narrator trying to preserve the lives of five outsize male forebears — what her son calls a “chronicle of my family’s geniuses.” The result, published in Argentina in 2016, is both exhausting and exhilarating, not by turns but at the same time, by virtue of the same choices and flourishes.
The story begins with the unveiling of a tasteless sculpture commissioned in honor of a pair of twins: the narrator’s father, the pianist Sebastian Deliuskin; and her uncle, Alexander Scriabin, a real composer admired by Stravinsky and Glenn Gould who has been inserted — for reasons that never become explicit — into this heaving fictional genealogy. The narrator dismisses the “cubist eyesore,” and without throat-clearing, apology or segue, offers by way of recompense or riposte a “homage” of her own — verbal in form, corrective in aim (“treacherous posterity” being endlessly given to error), dogged yet digressive in its habits, inherently conjectural, covering two centuries and both hemispheres, and portraying along the way Napoleon Bonaparte, Franz Ferdinand and Madame Blavatsky.
The title baldly states the theme. Each successive narrative centers on the search for transcendence, with the chosen sites of inquiry being sex, theology, theosophy, political action and, above all, musical experimentation, starting with the “xylophonic performance technique” developed by the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, Frantisek Deliuskin, in the 18th century. The atmosphere is unflaggingly cerebral, both concerned with erudition and dependent on it. An accompanying “note” from Guebel’s translator, Jessica Sequeira, provides 16 pages of exegesis, including a section titled “Egg (Philosophy)” that explains the image on the front cover of a broken eggshell (“a symbol of the absolute, both contained whole and origin”).
The novel of ideas frequently hinges on the counterintuitive analogy — symbolic affiliations that sweep aside superficial trappings. In this case, inherited thinking about the opposition between theory and practice, the mystical and materialist, is tested and found wanting. Frantisek’s son, Andrei, for example, a sometime student of ballistics, numismatics, archaeology and metaphysics, ends up producing annotations of Ignatius of Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises” that, in revealing group prayer as “a conspiratorial activity,” serve as an inspiration to Lenin.
If Guebel’s taste for colliding paradoxes and collapsing dichotomies suggests a debt to Borges, then the worldliness, wild comedy and encroachment on the terrain of recorded fact recall Saul Bellow, who specialized in the hapless hero convinced that erudition would help him crack the code of existence. Or it might be characterized as a tribute to “Sunday in the Park With George,” the Sondheim-Lapine musical about obsessive creativity that crosses generations, but reconceived by the Tom Stoppard of “Jumpers” and “Travesties.”
The central quality on offer is the satisfying congruence of theme and form. The book we are reading, or the invented book it encases, is an embodiment of the questing syndrome under scrutiny, while Guebel himself, in composing a late-modernist hybrid of essay, psychoanalytic case study, history lesson, saga and farce, displays more than his share of symptoms. The novel’s final section serves up a clinching twist, revealing the human cost of the biographical legwork and also hinting at its deeper purpose. The past is defined not just by its telling but by the lessons it may bequeath, Guebel reveals, and in the process, rounds off his own Deliuskin-like grand vision.
The post A Family of Geniuses and Their Search for Transcendence appeared first on New York Times.