Follow Here To Purchase The Variations: A Novel

Author:  John Donatich

Publisher: Henry Holt

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9438-1

The first chapter of this novel weighed in at 62 pages and provided more information  than I was ready for about Father Dominick and an emotionally disturbed parishioner named Dolores but I forged ahead because of the promise of music and was richly rewarded in chapter two. These 30 pages presented multi layered characterizations of the piano student James and his teacher Rosa which were harmonious, complex and moving. Entire life stories could be glimpsed in a few paragraphs and I felt the author had hit his stride. He later describes James approaching a writing project about these piano pieces and it may well have described what he himself wanted to do when he decided to weave his story of an ambivalent priest on the warp of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Virtuosity in Bach delights not so much in answering its own musical questions (like Mozart) but in puzzling out the possible range of resolutions.  Contemplative, sober, evenhanded, Bach’s rapture is careful and self contained. Not pleased with itself, the way playing Mozart or Handel made James feel. Not incomplete, unsettled or unpleased with himself the way he felt playing Chopin or Schubert.  Playing Bach, he felt not so much lyrical as experienced.

Bach reaches conclusions but is never conclusive. His compositions have a general infrastructure that is scalable, allow for an infinite capacity for asking questions and posing problems. The courage to ask such difficult questions rests on the confidence that they may in fact be answered – even as he recognizes that the more complex  the structure of understanding, the more is revealed as hidden and inaccessible. In this way, as musical historians have noted, Bach writes theology.” (p.152)

The book then delves more deeply into Father Dominick’s difficulties with his priestly vocation, his suspicions about a sexual affair between his deceased mentor Father Carl and the suicidal Dolores and the source of Dolores’ pain. This young girl simply cannot get over all the pain she sees in the world. Conversations between Father Dominick and Dolores will resonate with anyone who has wondered if god is truly good and powerful then why is our world plagued with so much evil and suffering.

The real ingenuity of the Church; it understands that the goal of reaching the perfect self is impossible so it externalizes the challenge, leaves it to a great and remote God to set the impossible standard we can’t help but disappoint.”

So you’re saying God is a myth?”0

No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying it doesn’t really matter. We need to believe in what God winds up being for us rather than pretending to know who God is. The more imagination your faith practices, the more alive and convincing God will be.” (p. 117)

and later:

I just have to do something. Sometimes I feel like I just walk down the street – and all the people that pass me? I can see their pain and it just like pours into me. I take it from them; I absorb it all.”

Dolores unfortunately they will continue to suffer – no matter how much you do,” Dominck said.

Fine, so what? Just get an abortion, just kill yourself?”

I’m not saying that.”

But how do people even live? How do they get up in the morning, smell themselves and move into their day? How do they eat and just live?  How is it all possible?”  (p. 169)

The Variations is  sometimes terribly sad, sometimes hopeful, but always an unusual and interesting blend of insight into music, both its composition and its performance (and perhaps it purpose) and reflections on the meanings and purpose of the Catholic religion and will resonate with anyone who has pondered what to make of (and perhaps how to change) this puzzling world of ours.

Follow Here To Purchase The Variations: A Novel