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Hong Kong Baptist University
Gass - Tolstoy - Marx - Beethoven: A Retroactive Decryption of "Cartesian Sonata”

“Cartesian Sonata” (1998), a novella by William H. Gass (b. 1924), is assembled of three sections, which were previously published as separate stories between 1964 and 1975. By recycling and re-titling his old material, Gass suggests a structural analogy between the resulting piece and a three-movement sonata cycle in music. However, seeking traces of “sonata forms” in a work of experimental metafiction is as pointless as imposing classical compositional rigors on twentieth-century musical avant-garde. To decrypt the second half of Gass’s title, I undertake three degrees of retroactive reading to argue that the novella’s relation to music is mediated by a notorious 1889 literary narrative, a gendered concept of sonata-allegro plot in musicology circa 1850, and a troubled “extra burden” of tonal layout in one of the most celebrated pieces of classical music from 1803. In this paper, I supplement traditional methods of comparative literature, once seminal for intermediality and word and music studies, with glimpses of cognitive approaches to metaphor in a poststructuralist seasoning.


Ivan Delazari is a HKPFS awardee and PhD Candidate at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of English, working on musico-literary dimensions in contemporary novels. In 2004–2014, he taught Literary History and American Studies at St. Petersburg State University. In 2009-2010, he was Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the University of Mississippi. His recent publications include chapters in Faulkner and Film (UP of Mississippi, 2014) and Audionarratology: Interfaces of Sound and Narrative (DeGruyter, 2016). He is a member of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the International Association for Word and Music Studies (WMA), and the International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN), whose 2017 Alan Nadel Prize for the Best Graduate Student Paper he has just collected in Lexington, KY.