The Baroque Emptiness of Jonathan Buckley: On “The Great Concert of the Night”

Jonathan Buckley cover

When we think of the baroque, we tend to think of complexity wedded to fineness. Images of darkened ballrooms extending indefinitely into the distance, mirrors framed elaborately in gold, and candle-bearing chandeliers as spindly and diffuse as ancient jellyfish come to mind. Fiction-wise, though, there’s not really an immediate image to latch onto, mostly because the novel as we understand it today (especially in English) didn’t crystallize as a form until the eighteenth century. There are, however, plenty of books being written today that could comfortably be classified as baroque, works by writers like Javier Marías and W.G. Sebald that have in common a respect for antiquity and an elegant, unfolding prose style, as well as a certain covetousness, as though the world were constantly slipping away and needed to woven together again by language. 

You could probably add the English writer Jonathan Buckley to that list. Buckley’s latest novel, The Great Concert of the Night, is supposed to be some sort of a break, though it’s not clear what the presumptive market for his fiction is. Discursive and antiquarian, the book—like a lot of highly cosmopolitan and intellectual European literature—relies on an almost mystical respect for European culture and its densely ramified past in order to cohere. A minor motif in the book concerns brandea, or the relics of saints, scrips of material said to have been touched by the saint and which carry within them some trace of holy fulgor, a palliative property indissolubly tied to their status as fragments. The Great Concert of the Night relies on a similar mechanism to justify itself, though the magic in question isn’t saint-dependent, deriving instead from the sacredness of the European cultural tradition. 

The novel takes the form of a year-long journal written by David, a wispy non-entity employed as a curator at the Sanderson-Perceval Museum in southern England, a failing institution whose cloyingly patchwork collection includes “porcelain, musical instruments, crystals, velvet mushrooms…glass jellyfish” and also a room devoted entirely to casts of aborted fetuses. The plot is light and rambling. David, divorced, recalls the time he spent with Imogen, a spellbinding actress who recently passed away from cancer. He watches Imogen’s films on tape and when they pop up sporadically on television; he has dinner with his ex-wife Samantha and her new partner, Val, a wellness adviser for large corporations; and he helps a drifter that Imogen was once kind to get back on his feet. 

David is a muted ponderer. His sentences (and Buckley’s) are carefully wrought, elegant, and frequently posh—his words, tea-toned and somber, often sound like they’re being strained through the nib-like front teeth of a Habsburg jaw. Buckley’s usually praised as a novelist in the grand European tradition, which basically means he gets all slobbery over European culture and occasionally writes paragraphs like this:

We were in the Luxembourg gardens, on a bench at the Medici fountain, when Imogen told me that she was beginning to think that she would have to come back to England for the end. It was late afternoon; the air was warm in the shade of the plane trees; the reflection of the leaves put a pale green glaze on the water; a picturesque enclave of stage-managed nature.

When he’s not being solemn in the Luxembourg gardens, he’s being solemn in the park of the Villa Borghese (at dusk, obviously) or describing an aging actor’s receding hairline as “photogenic in a Mahler-like way.” Culture is reduced to name-dropping, so that the novel’s erudite allusions come on like a flurry of snowflakes on a slushy sidewalk, melting away at once, never having the chance to add up to anything more. 

Buckley’s images are often sugary and luxurious to the point of sickliness. A woman in a photo wears “a Fortuny silk gown, a thousand-pleated thing that fit[s] her body like a flow of syrup.” Elsewhere we read about “an exquisite piece of Burano lace, as delicate as frost,” and in a photo of Imogen that David contemplates, “her hands are raised in a way that I have seen only in paintings by Poussin.” Which isn’t to say Buckley can’t be startingly great sometimes, as when he observes that the terminally ill Imogen’s hand has “about as much weight as a playing card.” Throughout the book, Buckley’s fetishism for profusion is on abundant display; you can’t escape the impression that the elaboration of surfaces whose multiplicative detail lies beyond the grasp of the eye, and by extension the pen, is ultimately an evasion on Buckley’s part.

Buckley’s descriptions of artifacts draw the prose down into a sphere of subcreation, where his sentences gesture at a phantom complexity, leaving us with the mystery of language’s failure to fully express the intricacies of the materially baroque. Although this strategy can generate a pleasantly airy feeling, it’s ultimately a hollow effect. At one point, Imogen’s eye is caught by an ad for an exhibit at the Musée des Arts et Métiers that shows “a close-up of a mechanism of incomprehensible complication, a thicket of golden cogs.” In a way, The Grand Concert of the Night feels symptomatic of a certain breed of contemporary fiction whose inability to express emotional complexity finds solace in the baroque, and more specifically in the warm burrows of filiation.

Ultimately, the book’s ambience is so rarefied that there’s hardly any space for emotions to bloom. Like Banville and Nabokov, Buckley loses himself in the spun-glass cathedral of his prose, the spurs and spicules of his style jutting out like a hedgehog’s quills and keeping the realia of emotional commitment, sadly, at bay. (It’s no coincidence that Nabokov’s most emotionally resonant book, Pnin, is buoyed along by the simple pathos of its bumbling professor.) When, in a brief essay on Tacitus, Barthes defines the baroque as “the torment of finality in profusion,” he gets to a central truth about the art of fiction. Though profusion might seem to mask death, in reality it offers no true solace, which is one reason baroque profusion is so closely tied up with the synthetic. After all, the baroque also brings to mind powdered wigs and perfumes—which is to say, a chalky white dust and an atomized scent, spreading out and falling to the earth and fading, leaving nothing in their wake. 


The Great Concert of the Night
by Jonathan Buckley
New York Review Books; 304 p.

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