Anna Enquist


Art as a vehicle of despair

A woman practises Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It is clear from the start that she is doing so out of a need for a sedation; she wants nothing more than to be ‘a slave of the playing body’. She also loves to recall the last time she rehearsed this piece of music, thirty years before. More specifically she wants to feel her daughter’s presence again, who as a child exclaimed during a piano performance in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, ‘Mama, that’s our song!’

Slowly but surely, variation by variation, innocent, everyday memories unfold, of her family life with her husband, her son and, especially, her daughter. As she plays, the music amplifies feelings that alternate between rage, despair and longing. The sense of grief is a constant presence; ‘she was playing something that had gone for ever, something she could never truly recall.’ While practising the piece she wonders what inspired the composer to write this music, what frame of mind he was in, and to what extent she feels it speaks to her because of the parallels with her own situation. The closer she comes to the final chords, the more heavily the composition weighs upon her. The appalling end must be faced at some point: the end of Bach, of her rehearsing his music, and of her daughter.

Counterpoint is Anna Enquist’s memorial to her own daughter, who died in a traffic accident, just as Bach composed the Goldberg Variations out of grief for his dead son. In both cases art is a vehicle of despair. The reader does not need to know that the author’s grief is real in order to be moved by Enquist’s novel, but knowledge of the reality to which it relates certainly adds an extra dimension. She has tried before to capture the incomprehensible loss of her daughter in both prose and poetry, but never has she done that so succinctly. The detached vocabulary – she consistently writes of ‘the woman’ and ‘the daughter’ – and the precise, almost physically tangible way in which she describes the difficulties of playing the piano are in heartrending contrast to the sweet memories of a playful, spirited daughter. The knowledge of an inescapable fate makes it impossible to read these passages without goose bumps. Counterpoint is a solid literary structure, an exercise in control and at the same time a painful cry from the heart.

Mit bestürzender Intensität fasst die niederländische Autorin Anna Enquist Bachs Musik in Worte und verwebt sie ohne jegliche Sentimentalität mit der Geschichte einer Mutter und ihrer Tochter. Eine große Erzählung vom Leben und der Musik, deren beider Auftakt immer auch schon das Ende birgt.

Der Spiegel

The woman with the pencil leaned over the table to read a pocket score of the Goldberg Variations. The pencil was made of special black wood. It had a heavy, silver cap that concealed a pencil sharpener. The pencil was poised above an empty notebook. Next to the score lay cigarettes and a lighter. A small metal ashtray, a shiny and compact present from a friend, stood on the table.

The woman was simply called “woman,” perhaps “mother.” There were naming problems. There were many problems. In the woman’s consciousness, memory problems lay at the surface. The aria that she was looking at, the theme on which Bach composed his Goldberg Variations, reminded her of the periods when she studied this music. When the children were small. Before. After. She was not searching for those memories. A child on each thigh and then, with her arms around the children’s bodies, try and manage to play that theme; enter the Small Hall of the Concertgebouw; watch the pianist walk onto the stage, wait breathlessly for the unadorned opening octave – feel the daughter’s elbow: “Mummy, that’s our song!” There was no need for that now. She wanted to think only of the daughter. The daughter as a baby, as a girl, as a young woman.


Anna Enquist

Anna Enquist (b. 1945) is one of the most popular writers in the Netherlands. She trained in piano at the academy of music in The Hague and at the same time studied psychology in Leiden. When she made her debut as a poet in 1991 with the collection Soldatenliederen (Soldiers’ Songs), for which…

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Contrapunt (2008). Fiction, 204 pages.

Sample translation

English (PDF document)


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