Talk of the Town - Forget Me Not May 18 2005

Did the avant-garde abandon the world, or did the world abandon the avant-garde? Ask this of Vienna at the end of World War II, when it appeared that the European intelligentsia had idled in caf&233;s, debating artistic abstractions and arcane discourse, while the Nazis turned over the Earth. Why didn't they speak up?

Or maybe they did - and we just didn't pay attention.

Michael Mejia, who hails from Rome, Ga., addresses this question in Forgetfulness, a daunting but ultimately rewarding work of pan-intellectual experimental fiction. The book centers on the early 20th-century birth of serialist music: an abstract form, guided by set theory, in which no note in the set can be repeated until all the others have been played.

Serialist musicology gives the novel both substance and form. It was first articulated in Vienna as a 12-tone technique by Arnold Schonberg and further developed by Anton Webern, who is the closest thing the book has to a central character.

In the book's first part, Mejia arranges a set of stories, critiques, manifests, physics treatises, opera synopses, and brief bits of suggestive 12-line gibberish in repeating variations. Trotsky and Klyachko discuss revolution over chess. Franz Josef falls asleep on his scatalogic throne. Webern studies botany, finding in the forms of plants Goethe's "variations of the same idea," the life in his musical theories.

The novel's second part is a "triologue," written for three voices, with the pages divided in thirds like a simplified musical score. It's now May 1, 1986, a remarkable moment for Austria: Fallout from the Chernobyl meltdown is drifting toward Vienna. Austrian classical-music-prodigy-turned-pop-star Falco scores an international hit with "Rock Me Amadeus." And Kurt Waldheim - suspected of Nazi war crimes - is about to be elected president of Austria.

Variations on a set of stories we've heard before.

So did the Viennese modernists turn away from the world? Or did they see it with a clarity that so upset Western delusions of comfortable monophony that we cut them off like a mutant limb?

Dissonance, Webern proclaims, is "the world now, as it is." But "complexity and incompre-hensibility are not the same thing if one has the will to understand."

Forgetfulness is frightfully complex, but well worth the will to understand.


Forgetfulness, Michael Mejia. $15.95. FC2. 236 pages.??