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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Homage to Czerny

by
Gert Jonke


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Homage to Czerny



Title: Homage to Czerny
Author: Gert Jonke
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977, rev. 1985 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 149 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Homage to Czerny - US
Homage to Czerny - UK
Homage to Czerny - Canada
Schule der Geläufigkeit - Deutschland
  • Studies in Virtuoso Technique
  • German title: Schule der Geläufigkeit
  • Translated by Jean M. Snook

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Our Assessment:

B : clever ideas and bits, but not entirely satisfying

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Homage to Czerny is a two-part novel, its Studies in Virtuoso Technique essentially two different stories, episodes narrated by Fritz, a composer -- "one of our most promising", his old professor claims -- who also has a serious binge-drinking problem. The premise of the first is brilliant, and the second quite good too, but Jonke doesn't focus quite enough on these (and falls back too readily on his narrator's alcohol-dependency-caused confusion to present the surreality of the situations).
       In the first story, 'The Presence of Memory', Fritz show up early at the annual garden party the photographer Anton Diabelli and his sister Johanna throw at the height of summer. They let him in on a secret: the plan is to duplicate the previous year's party. Without telling the guests, the hosts hope to arrange everything so that:

     The same guests, said Johanna, are going to have the same conversations at the same time and tell the same stories they did last year, with the same movements, the same gestures, same looks, same sentiments.
       Fritz has his doubts, but the siblings are excited about their experiment:
     We have to see if it's possible to establish a congruity of chronologically sequential feelings, sensations, thoughts relationships, inferences, and insights, explained Diabelli -- possibly not just congruity, but identity. Don't you see what we're after ? Whether people can still feel, sense, think, experience, and discover exactly the same things one year later.
       Yes, it's déjà-vu all over again ..... But it's a clever premise, and begins well, with a set of oil paintings hung in the trees all around -- oil paintings that: "portrayed exactly those parts of the garden that were covered by the surfaces of the respective picture" -- so exactly, in fact, that people would constantly confuse reality and the paintings and not be aware which was which.
       Instead of focussing on repetition and echoes, however, Jonke then describes the party for the most part just as any other party might unfold -- though with more than its share of surreal conversation and confusing events. It's an entertaining send-up of (Austrian) society, but digressions on, for example, the mysterious smokestacks in the north of the city (constantly made higher, to no avail) or the calmly related horror stories of how: "people are still getting swallowed up by the bog with alarming regularity" and then the more bizarre turns of dialogue (a truffle ... no it's a Brusssel sprout, bounding away at the buffet, "and now it's starting to flutter", lifting off and flying away) make for uneven entertainment (admittedly: exactly as such parties generally are).
       Music plays a role throughout, and at one point Fritz desperately tries to capture what he's heard -- futilely, since: "it was music performed on unknown, unmanufacturable instruments, a music that had to be thought." Complete abstraction -- and yet it has been performed there. At the same time, a writer jots down a story and then insists on reading it, but it is too much -- too close to their reality -- for the assembled audience, leading them to turn on him.
       Fritz comes to consider the party a success, at least in terms of achieving exactly what the hosts had set out to do, but Jonke turns the tables nicely in the end, too. As already pointed out to him earlier, Fritz doesn't always see things exactly like everyone else does:
     But I really did experience everything exactly as I've told you, I replied.
     Yes, I'll gladly believe you, said Johanna, because even reality is often a good invention.
       The second story, 'Gradus ad parnassum' finds Fritz and his brother visiting the Conservatory where they had studied music, and winding up getting locked up in the attic, among 111 pianos. Their old professor -- now the institute's director -- and a caretaker find them, but it takes a while to get everything sorted out.
       The setting and situation allow for some interesting riffs on failure and expectation, with Fritz's brother Otto, once also among the most promising of piano students, reduced to being a piano mover. He's very successful and has built up a big business, but obviously it's a far cry from the artistic career everyone had imagined for him. Meanwhile, Fritz is a complete alcoholic -- and, as Otto observes: "you're projecting your predicament onto your environment".
       The use of alcoholism (or mind-altering-drugs abuse) as a crutch by writers, allowing them to blur the lines between the real and imagined and hallucinated, as well as of memory and forgetting, is a cheap trick that's hard to utilize effectively. It may be a valid issue to raise and use in a story, but especially with such potentially rich material as Jonke has in the first story it's a shame that he has to let it sink into an alcoholic haze and stupour.
       There's something of Thomas Bernhard in Homage to Czerny, but much of that is due simply to the cruelly accurate description of a certain slice of Austrian society -- artists and those more or less claiming to be cultured (bureaucrats and doctors here) -- from the 1960s and 70s. (There's also the musical angle, which Jonke shares with Bernhard as well.)
       The writing is sharp and often amusing, even as some of the events spin slightly out of control, and it's an intriguing entertainment -- but especially in 'The Presence of Memory' doesn't do all one might have hoped for.

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Links:

Homage to Czerny: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Gert Jonke was born in 1946.

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© 2008 the complete review

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