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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Undivided Essay


Forget the story. What animates Bae Suah’s A Greater Music is the question of whether there are greater (and lesser) forms of art. Or perhaps “question” is the wrong word; perhaps “compulsion.” Perhaps “need,” or “hope,” or “memory.” Perhaps love. Perhaps grief. Perhaps what animates this little novel is the question of the capital letter in Art and how Love might mean more than a word, beyond sentiments; how a greater music might index the presence of a soul beyond death, an art beyond life, or a Love that can survive the ending of a love affair. It’s a novel about the persistence of something in the meaningless void, the faith that there might be something, and also the loneliness of living in the uncertainty. Or maybe it’s just a tone poem set to language, a dream of the lovely, dark, and deep edges of twilight in Berlin in the winter snow, and a love letter to a lost love.

As I try to write my way around what makes this novel feel like that, the words I’m writing turn into clichés, into the kinds of abstractions that make it feel sophomoric to dwell on the absolute. After all, art, love, death… are there words more thoroughly standardized and deadened by overuse? There are passages in A Greater Music that, if they are forced to stand on their own, might read like a freshman philosophy seminar, as when the novel begins with a radio announcer using the phrase, “A Greater Music,” words that provoke the narrator to reverie. “We never say ‘greater death,’” she remarks,

“death being an absolute value that does not admit comparison. Like one’s hand, that can be flipped to show either the back or the palm, it’s something that can exist as only one of two possibilities. Music is absolute, just like death. Just as ‘greater death’ or ‘lesser death’ is a logical impossibility, so the same can be said of music which is of the same order as the soul.”

Life, death, art… here, reduced to a grammatical problem, a question of definition. But it’s only when stripped of their context, in this attempt at a review of the novel, that these sentences get frozen into concepts, fossils of dead thought. By contrast, the novel itself flows: nothing is abstract because it un-freezes like water, a stream of consciousness in the most literal sense. Or rain. When she is moved by a piece of music—when Shostakovich’s “at the Santé prison” affects her, in ways she cannot immediately express—she leaves, abruptly, and begins walking into the night.

“The night was deep,” she writes, “the lamps stood unlit, and the paved road was uneven; the tram stop was some way off”:

“Beneath the raindrops, still more raindrops were falling, not at a constant speed, but continuously. Beside them other raindrops were falling, also at unappointed intervals, and beside them still more raindrops, and beside them still more . . . thus was the world beneath the massed clouds captured and occupied. It was the empire of a mathematics which, for all its exquisite detail, was freed from the strictures of an orderly rhythm, and played extempore.”

There is a story, of sorts. The protagonist is a Korean writer in Germany for eleven months—and also a return, years later—and her resemblance to Bae Suah is not a coincidence. A few things happen. She falls into a frozen river, for example; she begins and ends a love affair; she takes a drive in the rain; she takes German lessons; she goes to a terrible New Year’s Eve party. She walks a dog named Benny. And all of these things may or may not have happened to Bae Suah when she lived in Germany for eleven months, or when she returned. But the book is built more like a piece of classical music than a narrative. If there’s an architecture of themes and concerns, and a formal logic to how it develops—and as with life, there might or might not be—there’s nothing like a story that ties it all together, nothing at all like cause and effect. This is the problem: as with life—indeed, exactly as with life—the novel seems freed from the strictures of an orderly rhythm, and plays extempore. But it sings.


The innocently readable novel

invisibility cloak

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei (translated by Canaan Morse) begins and ends in the same place: a humble audio technician named Cui building a sound system for rich people.

It’s a short novel about China today, about the two decades of feverish economic growth that have transformed Beijing since the 1990’s. In the dwindling of our protagonist’s craft and fortunes, amidst the explosion of new wealth and new values that have made the New China whatever it is, there is a story about the downfall of labor: betrayed by family, by friends, and by his business, our protagonist Cui finally makes a tiny play for a modestly large score, with very mixed results. But despite the tragi-comic plot that would seem to move the novel forward—taking a character defined by his stuck-ness and placing him in motion—the fact that this novel begins and ends in the same place tells its own story about what isn’t so novel in China. Sometimes the times are changing, and everything is different, now; sometimes, nothing hides the continuity of the endless present like that very assertion of novelty. Sometimes nothing ever changes.

On the surface, the protagonist of Ge Fei’s novel is a recognizably down-trodden everyman, a soft-spoken narrator who describes himself to us—in the intimate first person of the narrative—as one of the handful of people in Beijing still capable of building a top-end tube amplifier, eking out a living by hand, producing top-quality, artisanal sound systems. Since the boom years in the 1990’s, when (Western) classical music was still revered and a skilled audio technicians were in hot demand, Cui has seen his craft dwindle and fade. His continued devotion to his craft, then, what he calls “the most insignificant industry in China today,” allows him to tell a simple story about the decline of labor: in a booming economy where “today’s craftsmen more or less exist on the same rung of the social ladder as beggars,” he describes his aesthetic labor as a figure for what has been left behind in the great economic leap forward. Most of his clients are clueless billionaires, aching for extravagance to spend their money on; the rest are self-important intellectuals, drowning in their own pomposity. No one appreciates the delicate art of his craft, or its product; his speakers are pearls bought by swine.

In one sense, these are simply the cruel wages of his craft. The sensitivity of his ear—and his devotion to sound—make him one in a billion, an artist of his own craft: only he can appreciate his own work, almost by definition. He is such a true audiophile, and so utterly without pretension, that even the word “audiophile” makes him uncomfortable. But there is also a distinct detachment to his work. His devotion to the music is so heart-felt that he struggles even to describe it. When prompted, he can only stammer that, well, some people like it; when challenged on his favorites—when a client derides him for his naïve love of Beethoven—he earnestly mulls over the question for months, carefully re-listening to all nine symphonies and the late quartets, before concluding, finally, that he is stuck with his tastes. “My life might be beyond hope,” he admits; “It was impossible for me not to like Beethoven.”

In this moment, Cui might be a latter-day Huckleberry Finn, his declaration functioning as his version of Huck’s “All right then, I’ll go to hell”: in the face of the prevailing society’s corruption, he says no, and will be what he will be, a quiet and humble dissident. Huck refused to be complicit in slavery, and helps Jim escape to freedom. Cui, for his part, refuses not to like Beethoven.

I make this comparison, however, only because it cuts both ways. As with Huck, the artless sincerity of this moment in the novel is moving, and truly, there is heroism in the individual at odds with a society awash in commercialism and growth. And if there is one thing Cui is, it’s sincere. But his author is much craftier than his craftsman, and the more I’ve sat with that moment of faith—that declaration that he’ll go to hell with Beethoven—the funnier it’s become. For all the naïve charm of this little novel about a well-meaning loser who likes music, Ge Fei has much more in common with the ironist Mark Twain than with his innocent protagonist. The Invisibility Cloak is Ge Fei’s first novel translated into English, but it’s the mature work of an avant garde writer who, in the 80’s, was “China’s Borges,” best known for postmodern experimental fiction. But in contrast to his earlier novella A Flock of Brown Birds—a 1989 novel about a writer named Ge Fei writing a novel (which will be published in translation in November by Penguin Books China)—the experiment of Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak is the traditional, craftsman-like feel: it’s a compulsively readable narrative about a sympathetic loser, beautifully devised and classical structured. And, as such, it’s about the very temptation that the novel seems to represent: the innocent lure of the well-wrought aesthetic object.

In his devotion to his craft, Cui’s naïveté leads him into temptation, just as Huck, after all, quickly fell into the hands of Tom Sawyer. Underneath the innocent pleasures of an extremely readable novel, this is the novel’s more perverse, and more cynical suggestion: that to fetishize the aesthetic as external to the economic, to imagine that labor can be an escape from economy. It is Cui’s innocent devotion to his own utopian dream of selfless collectivity—a memory of what socialism should have been, displaced onto the tiny society of sound craftsmen and audiophiles—that leaves him most helpless in the face of the new China, vulnerable to the petty greed that he thinks himself to be above. No one can be corrupted so completely as a true innocent.

In the final lines of the novel, we are where we were at the start, despite everything that has happened. And in such a context, repetition is dissonance: instead of developing the theme to its harmonic completion—instead of resolving the play of thesis and antithesis in conclusive narrative synthesis—we are left with a novel, and the new, that has left its protagonist behind. But if this is what I began this review by saying, I mean something different by it now: with the question mark the novel ends on (quite literally), Ge Fei asks us to stop reading forward by starting to look backwards, to re-think everything that has preceded that final mark of irresolution. In the final, earnest declarations of its protagonist—in his humble insistence on his principles and deep faith in the aesthetic through which he has lived his life—we also see a refusal to change and adapt that is as hollow and dead as the music itself, and as impossibly part of the times in which it finds itself, all the more so because it doesn’t realize its own complicity. To fool me once is tragic; to fool me twice is farce.


Ars longa, vita brevis


Elena Ferrante’s work is oceanic, and this is a stone thrown in it. This is important to remember, because ripples are splashy but fade away.

The reporter—and four newspapers, in four languages—that devoted “a months-long investigation” to doxing Elena Ferrante have done so because they think she is small and that they can diminish and comprehend her by asserting her real name and history. This is what makes it a violation, and a desecration. But this is also what makes them wrong, why it’s important to hold on to her story of herself, and to treat theirs with the contempt it deserves. They want to make her small, by making her a real person with a real history and real name and real background. They want to assert control over that person, and what it represents, by revealing it. But Elena Ferrante isn’t small because she isn’t real. She has written her books, and they remain.

The reporter who doxed her attempted to justify himself with this bit of weaseling:

“[B]y announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown. Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity.”

What logic is being expressed (or enfolded) into the words “in a way”? In what way? What “seems” to be the case to him?

The logic her is so shallow it’s transparent. He wants to pretend she had a right to disappear—which he would have respected, like the respectable person he is—and that she lost it (according to rules he just made up). What he’s actually doing is inventing the necessary rationale by which his invasion of her privacy is her fault. The accusation is that she wanted it. Her lies were her act of relinquishing “her right to disappear” (no matter what else she said); she and her publisher “seemed” to have deliberately interested the public in her identity, so (no matter what else she said) she has relinquished her right not to satisfy that public. She has no right to say no; she asked for it. She wanted it.

Meanwhile, Elena Ferrante has done anything but lie and hide. She has been very open and clear about why her pseudonymity was purposeful and necessary. She has explained. She has been vocal about her decision to say “no.” In the beginning, her decision was simple: she didn’t want to.

“Two decades are a long time, and the reasons for the decisions I made in 1990, when we first considered my need to avoid the rituals of publication, have changed. Back then, I was frightened at the thought of having to come out of my shell. Timidity prevailed.”

Once she had written a few novels, however, her understanding of what her name meant began to change. “I came to feel hostility toward the media,” she said, “which doesn’t pay attention to books themselves and values a work according to the author’s reputation.” And she became interested, as she put it, in “testifying against the self-promotion ­obsessively ­imposed by the media”:

“It’s not the book that counts, but the aura of its author. If the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors and the market is very happy to welcome you. If it’s not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image…This demand for self-promotion diminishes the ­actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist ­behind every work of art. The individual person is, of course, necessary, but I’m not talking about the individual—I’m talking about a manufactured image.”

As prescient as these words are, in light of what has happened–I mean!–her appeal for her privacy is devastating:

“What has never lost importance for me, over these two and a half ­decades, is the creative space that absence opened up for me. Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”

What is staggering and infuriating about all of this is that Elena Ferrante has not only explained, carefully, why her she needed this privacy, she wrote four books and 1700 words about it. By the time she wrote (what I think of as) The Napoliad, that gesture of refusal had become central to her artistic project. What began as a defensive screen became a creative project, and her imagined, created persona was an important part of it. It’s why her protagonist is a writer name Elena. To be as blunt as possible: her greatest work is literally a novel about the persona she created to write it, and why. The Neopolitan novels are literally and directly and magnificently about female self-making, the importance of names, and the meaning of being a woman in public. They are about control over your identity, and about the specific hostility of the patriarchy for that project. They are about the men who will say things like this and write articles like this. They are about why not to do this.

It is, obviously, this that this journalist—and the four newspapers that enabled him—have attacked. To radically, violently transform the context in which her work is created—to insist that, NO, HER REAL NAME IS—is to attack her creation, her art, and her standing as a creative artist. To strip away her privacy is to destroy the fictional persona she created, and to attack the fictions of these books themselves. This is why it was done.

For these people, who believe themselves to traffic in truth, Ferrante’s identity is a “secret.” But it is not. It is a fiction.

A secret is something withheld, something denied to us; a fiction is created, an imagined artifice spun as such. If you think her identity is a secret—if you feel that you have a right to know, and you resent her for withholding what is yours—then you might feel yourself justified in piercing that screen. It “seems,” after all, like a lie; she deserves it, “in a way,” for flaunting her secrets in front of our eyes. It will be the only thing you can think about, and what you can see will cease to seem important. What you don’t know, but only suspect, will become the key to everything else.

But Elena Ferrante is a fiction, explicitly so: she literally told people that she would lie about herself. She was honest about it. Her identity is not deception; it is creation. It was performance art, if you want to use those terms. But it was what it was: a stance that her art required, clearly and plainly explained as such.

Given that, we should think about why it was so important to publish this story, what “public interest” flows out of piercing her privacy. If you think of the public as having an interest in her work, in the creative product of her artistic mind, then the last thing the public would be interested in would be removing the conditions of its possibility. But if you think of the public as being interested, primarily, in burying what she said about herself under what others—men, mainly—could say about her, then it makes a lot of sense.

Doxing her in this way was not inevitable—because nothing is inevitable until it happens—but she has written an epic novel about why this kind of shit is everything except unsurprising. That reporter doxed her because he could. He utterly disregarded her artistic reasons for maintaining artistic control of her persona, not just because he wanted a story—though basic venal selfishness is, no doubt, part of it—but because he does not respect or value her work. It is impossible to construe that article as anything other than an attack on what her work is, what it represents, and why it is loved.

It is also why this doesn’t matter. They are aiming small; she is aiming big. They want to play with individuals and dates, like speculating about who “Homer” was. Meanwhile, she wrote an epic.