The Paris Review

Can a Novel Be a Fugue?

The final page of Contrapunctus XIV.

Learning to play the piano as a kid, I was not especially fond of Bach. I loved Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorák, Brahms. Bach, on the other hand, hurt my head. Bach had to be practiced slowly, evenly, preferably with a metronome, and neither patience nor evenness was my strong suit. The melody was not predictably given to the right hand but passed from the right to the left and back, split into multiple voices that straddled the staffs, so that at any moment one might simultaneously be playing four or more melodic lines. In the pricey, blue-bound Henle urtext editions she had insisted I buy, my piano teacher marked with brackets the entrance of each voice. I couldn’t do it myself. If Brahms felt like poetry, Bach felt like math. It was a kind of logic puzzle that I couldn’t solve. 

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I struggled with the beginnings of my first novel for several years, as many writers do. I wrote a hundred pages and threw them out, unable to find the story’s shape. I tried again. The germ of the story I was trying to figure out had come to me after

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