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The Austrian novelist and composer Gert Jonke died earlier this month, while I was reading this book, weirdly enough. Hearing the news, I felt like I was mourning a brilliant new friend I'd just met -- mourning an anticipated future rather than a shared past. The Jonke who comes out of these pages is someone I would have liked to know. Companionable, witty, urbane, taking a tactile delight in the oddities of life, Jonke's prose is a continual pleasure to read.
The Czerny of the title is Carl, a 19th-century Austrian composer of piano etudes, and in one sense "Homage" is an attempt to apply musical ideas to fiction. The novel's first section, "The Presence of Memory," is a sort of etude itself: two wealthy siblings, Anton and Johanna Diabelli, are attempting to recreate (in exact detail) their summer garden party from the previous year. This would involve, as Diabelli explains it, "a congruity of chronologically sequential thoughts, relationships, inferences, and insights"--in other words, social music. The reader slides into the ensuing party, at which several bizarre events occur, including a full-blown verbal fugue, a hilariously inept piano recital, and an incident involving a verbose poet and a hollow tree trunk. Brilliantly, as Jonke suspends your disbelief, he also leaves you wondering if this is exactly what happened at last year's party(!)
Part II, "Gradus ad Parnassum" ("Steps to Parnassus," home of the muses and the title of a Czerny piano exercise book) follows two brothers, both musical prodigies, to visit their former teacher at a conservatory, where they get trapped in the attic along with hundreds of damaged pianos. In the section's opening line, Jonke compares the attic of a building to the brain in a body. A few pages later, he elaborates the metaphor, beautifully: "In the brain of the building, I thought, in every brain there's an accumulation of junk, because everything that you yourself have destroyed or that someone else has destroyed for you is stored in the brain where it takes up an amazing amount of space and distorts the space until your head is so full of it that it bursts like a balloon you bought at the fair."
The sentence showcases a lot of what makes Jonke so great, and so approachable. He shares the themes and dark awareness of his compatriots Jelinek and Bernhard -- indeed the first part sounds like a Bernhard sentence -- yet Jonke has that whimsical touch as well, an almost childish delight in sheer possibility. This is a great place to start reading him, in a very attractive edition, superbly translated by Jean Snook. Thanks once again, Dalkey Archive.