Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2009

The Bath Fugues (2009), by Brian Castro

Bath fuguesI’m a bit nervous about blogging The Bath Fugues: Brian Castro’s publisher has ticked me off about my effort with House of Exile.  The Bath Fugues, however, does not come with a warning sticker:  “Intellectuals Only’ or ‘Don’t Comment Unless You Have a PhD in the Subject Matter of this Book’ so I think I’ll risk it.  After all, Mr Castro was very generous with his time when ANZ LitLovers read The Garden Book in 2007, patiently answering our questions about it even though he must be a very busy man.  If anything I write here encourages someone to try The Bath Fugues then that’s good for Mr Castro’s royalties, and the benefit to his publisher is a cross that must be borne.

For even though Castro is unashamedly erudite, I think his writing can be read and enjoyed by non-academics.  Obviously, the more widely-read the reader, the more Castro’s intellectualism can be enjoyed, but (as he says himself) it is not necessary to understand everything.  Like the novels of Patrick White, Brian Castro’s books offer hidden treasures gradually revealed, with the enticing possibility that each re-reading will reveal yet more.  I liked The Bath Fugues very much…

The title is a pun on the word ‘fugue‘.  A fugue is both a psychiatric state, and a musical term.  Fugueurs were wanderers of the 19th century who used the newly invented bicycle to see the world and avoid home and responsibility.  Castro plays with all of these in three interwoven novellas that combine to create an intriguing story of  relationships, identity and authenticity; and the way people drift in and out of each other’s lives (p39) like musical motifs.   (He might also be mocking the modern preoccupation with family history, but I’m not sure about that! )

The fugue state , explains the psychiatrist Judith Sarraute in the novel, is a ‘flight from one’s identity.’  Associated with epilepsy, it occurs in reaction to some shock and can involve travel to an ‘unconsciously desired locality.’ (p71)  The person may appear normal but has no awareness of personal identity and represses memory of being in the fugue state when recovered.  The fugueur Jason Redvers, who suffers from fugue states, has blind spots in his memory as well as blind spots in his vision.  Tragic things can happen during fugue states…

For  people with little exposure to music education, the concept of a fugue may be elusive.  I never had any talent at the piano, but I had a jolly good technique thanks to hours spent with Schmitt’s 5 finger exercises, and I was pretty good at Bach’s Inventions.  (Listen here to No 1 in c major, on which I spent many an hour at the keyboard before I could triumph at my HSC exam). Contrapuntal music is the default in my brain, and my favourite Sunday morning music is Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.   (Visit the link on the site to hear the first movement while you’re reading this, or play the video below.) This training in music is why I understand what the blurb on the back of the book means when it says that the story is contrapuntal.  It’s a clue to the way you need to read the book, to be ignored at your peril.

Contrapuntal is a musical term meaning that the work has two or more independent melodic lines.   To put it simply, on the piano, while the left hand is beavering away at one tune, the right hand is executing another.  Click here to hear a good example, it’s Bach’s Invention No 3 in D major.   The fugue is a contrapuntal form with a fixed number of parts, and it often follows this form (there are  of course endless variations):

A fugue begins with what is known as the exposition and is characteristically written according to certain predefined rules; in later portions the composer has somewhat more freedom, though a logical key structure is usually followed, and further “entries” of the subject will occur throughout the fugue, repeating the accompanying material at the same time. The various entries may or may not be separated by episodes. (Wikipedia)

The blurb explains the relationship of this musical form to the title and the structure of the story, which Castro has cleverly constructed to mirror Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

The Bath Fugues is composed of three interwoven novellas, the first centred on an ageing art forger; the second on a Portuguese poet, opium addict and collector; and the third told by a well-connected doctor, with a cabinet of venom, and an art gallery on the north Queensland coast. Around these characters circle others, in the contrapuntal manner suggested by the book’s title. Some are related, some fugitive, some like the essayist Montaigne, the poet Baudelaire or the philosopher Benjamin, enter the story from the past. (Back cover blurb).

And just as in a lovely piece of music which teases with recurring motifs, so too The Bath Fugues, with its recurring motifs of baths; bicycles; suicide;  forgery, fake identities, counterfeit parentage, and betrayals.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the way that something that was not clear at the time of first reading was suddenly illuminated  later on in the text, and I found myself reading it by going forwards and then backwards to make connections as they were revealed.  This is how Castro reads himself, and he says that it’s his intention to conceal things, not to ‘hold the hand of the reader’ and I think that’s why I like his writing even though I do not pretend to understand all of it.  It’s like a conversation with someone very clever who doesn’t make himself clear at first – one nods politely trying to conceal puzzlement as the conversation flows on – and then something is said which clarifies the confusion.  Some readers might find this trying, but I liked it.  I’m not always in the mood for this kind of writing, and I think a steady diet of challenging books like this would demoralise me, but when I have time to savour it, and to chase up the hints of allusions online, I find it captivating.

holbein-ambassadorsIt’s funny too.  On page 6, when Redvers is talking about his university lecturer Walter Gottlieb, he says, ‘ When Walter said Mann, we thought him hip‘ and on page 11 there’s a witty sequence where Castro pokes fun at ‘The Word’ being separated from ‘The Thing’ in academic circles. Later, when Walter finds Redvers down-and-out in Paris and suggests a job as a museum guard, Redvers is indignant – he’s an artist (albeit a forger of famous paintings).  To pacify him, Gottlieb lists the advantages of the position, concluding that Redvers would enjoy being near his favourite paintings, between Velasquez and Vermeer‘Walter, [Redvers responds] a museum’s not alphabetical’ (p69).  (Imagine Dave Hughes delivering this line!)  The joke that made me laugh out loud was when Redvers, thinking of the grocer McCredie’s  resemblance to the well-fed men in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, mentions Holbein, and Mr McCredie says ‘Isn’t there an army base there? (p82)  (He means Holsworthy, of course).   The one that made me wince was the description of university life: ‘All those awful meetings; busy work; stabbings in the corridor; septic language and management microbes’. (p102)

There are also cunning allusions, as when Redvers’ friend Florian, waiting on an inheritance, seduces his French teacher who ‘would sigh at him while he would come and go, talking of Fra Angelico‘ (p76), an allusion to The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, and its narcissistic narrator.  Redvers, working as a bicycle courier in Paris, lingers ‘with the concierge’s daughters, girls in flower’ (p98), a reference to In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, which is Volume 2 of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, (variously translated as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time). Names are significant: the twins Blixen and Blimunda are oblique allusions to mercury poisoning and to the child separated from its mother in Jose Saramago’s novel Baltasar and Blimunda. Redvers may be reversed, and he’s also versed in many skills, which comes in handy not only at Fabiana’s rural hideaway.  The Procurador is a procurer; and Nickel Hawk’s name signifies her corruption because nickel is an alloy purporting to be silver.   What’s more, Camilo Conceicao’s Chinese women are all birds of prey: Peregrine; Silver Hawk and Nickel Hawk – very droll, Mr Castro!

What’s the book about?  Online reviews I’ve looked at (see below) fluctuate between frustration at the opacity of the writing, or bravely having-a-go even though they know that it’s not Castro’s intention that all should be revealed at a first or even second reading.  I think it would have spoiled part of the pleasure of the reading had I known ‘what it’s about’ beforehand, because that would have rendered the sly construction of the novel void.  If readers of this blog could see the chaos of notes I made as I read this book, cross-hatched with relationships as I worked them out, they could trace the fun I had in decoding it.  So, while you can visit Gillian Dooley’s Flinders Academic Commons radio transcript for a succinct summary if that’s what you want, (see links below) I think it’s missing the point to do that.  You’re meant to read this book like a fugue, back and forth round and round in circles.  The process of discovery is more important than the product, so to say.

Ramona Koval interviewed Brian Castro on the ABC Radio National Book Show . Other reviews & interviews can be found at the SMHFlinders Academic Commons (click on the pdf button in the box at the bottom of the screen); The Australian and there’s a bio about Brian Castro at his university (which – on the day I viewed it – seemed to need a bit of updating.  It also doesn’t list the awards he’s won).

Author: Brian Castro
Title: The Bath Fugues
Publisher: Giramondo, 2009
ISBN: 9781920882556
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library (though I intend to buy my own, for re-reading at my leisure).

PS That brilliant cover image is Le Violon d’Ingres (1924) by Man Ray.


  1. Seems a bit rough to tick you off for a review which, I think, told me quite a lot about the book in question. Not sure that it received many other reviews around the traps. Anyway, I like your reviewing style and I think you need to just keep on doing what you’re doing.

    Castro does take a lot of work. His previous novel was a tad too obscure for this little black duck.


    • Thank you, Perry, that’s very encouraging, and I value your opinion:)


  2. Oh dear Lisa. How did they do that and why? That’s really unreasonable. I agree with Perry…ignore them, as I know you will! I really must read some Brian Castro one day…which would you recommend starting with?


    • *chuckle* Oh, I don’t think my opinion would have mattered at all if there had been more reviews online of the book in question. It’s because there’s so little else that mine comes up in a Google search, but now that the book’s won a prize I’m sure there will be others and any pique over mine will fade away. Re Castro: I have Shanghai Dancing on my TBR but haven’t got round to reading it yet, so I can’t advise there. (I bought it after ANZLL read The Garden Book, and then out came The Bath Fugues before I’d had time to get to it! Never mind, that’s a pleasure in store.) Anyway, I think that with your interest in music, you’d enjoy The Bath Fugues, to start with. It’s hard to explain, but you know how when you’re playing or listening to a contrapuntal piece, somehow the brain manages to both separate and combine the motifs? Reading it is a bit like that: you read a bit, it makes sense, then a bit more, and it doesn’t; you keep going and then something connects from your memory of a few a pages back and ah ha! Back you go and now it makes sense and on you go again. Lisa


  3. I agree- I think that it’s appalling behaviour on the part of the publisher. One would think he’d be pleased that people were talking about the book from the position of actually having read it!
    I think I’ve read both Shanghai Dancing (LOVED it!) and The Garden Book (which I felt was perhaps reprising Shanghai Dancing a bit).
    But do I want to read this and give the publisher the satisfaction of another sale? Nah.


  4. Oh no, Janine, you would be doing yourself and Brian Castro a disservice to do that. It’s too good to miss!


  5. […] I can’t resist adding a link here to my post about Brain Castro’s The Bath Fugues which plays with the same musical structure for his entire novel.  If you like James Joyce you […]


  6. […] The Bath Fugues (2009) by Brian Castro (Australia) […]


  7. Lisa: Given your Bach fugue references here, I can’t help but provide a link to The Cello Suites — . Published by House of Anansi in Canada, it is a non-fiction literary detective story — a rock critic hears Bach’s cello suites (which were virtually unknown until Pablo Casals “discovered” them) and tracks down their history. The book comes complete with an appendix on music to listen to (besides the suites themselves, of course) while reading it. Anansi sent it to me and I have it on hand for later this winter — I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but a quick glance suggests it has as much plot as most of the fiction that I read.


    • Hello Kevin – I have it, already *wide smile*. It’s a Canadian book that *has* made it to Australia, and it had publicity in the independent bookshops that are my regular haunts. It was a must-have, and it’s close to the top of my NF TBR. Lisa


  8. Yoicks — that means I may have to get to it more quickly than I had intended. Cheers, Kevin


  9. […] The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro (Giramondo Publishing) see my review […]


  10. […] Alex Miller – Lovesong, see my review. • Brian Castro – The Bath Fugues, see my review. • Craig Silvey – Jasper Jones, on the TBR. • Deborah Forster – The Book of Emmett, see my […]


  11. I am always a latecomer. But to think someone can read me so closely. Who is this Lisa Hill? It is scary to say the least. But to be soothed by Gouldberg is worth all.


    • Hello Brian! How lovely to have you drop by:)
      Do you have another lovely book in the pipeline?


      • Hi Lisa,
        Yes. “Street To Street” is coming out in October (Giramondo).
        Thanks for your wonderful past reviews, judging by the photo, written by a child genius.


        • That’s excellent, Brian, I’ll look forward to that *warm smile*
          Lisa a.k.a. The Child Genius!


  12. […] the triple meaning of fugue (a psychiatric state, a musical term and C19th wanderers.) (See my review).  I thought Imago would be fascinating, and it […]


  13. […] The Bath Fugues (2009) […]


  14. Just came across Brian Castro while perusing GR. Never heard of him! A compelling review Lisa. Added to my wish list.


    • His stuff is wonderful… I hope you like it:)


  15. […] structure of the Sirens chapter, leads me to Brian Castro’s The Bath Fugues.  As I wrote in my review, the title is a pun on the word ‘fugue‘.  A fugue is both a psychiatric state, and a musical […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: