your story behind in the best way possible1F.
Translated by: Marija Spirkovska
Faced with the poetical challenge posed by the claim that all stories have already been told and what remains now is solely the quest for modes of narrative reconception of the familiar, of the aforesaid, contemporary literature makes a compromise to find its creative space among auto-referential considerations of literature, of its conventions and limits, and its reference to historical reality (historical events and figures). The novel Alma Mahler (2014) by Macedonian author Sasho Dimoski contributes significantly to this literary constellation by offering an authentic blend of thematic universality, modernist narrative techniques, and interdiscursive and intermedial relations.
The novel recounts the story of Alma Maria Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), the wife of Gustav Mahler, the late romanticist Austrian composer of Jewish descent, who was nineteen years her senior. Like him, she was an active musician (she composed seventeen vocal and piano compositions), although she abandoned furthering her career. Through its interest in a historical/real figure, Dimoski’s novel assumes an interdiscursive position towards the other, numerous (literary, cinematic, musical, memoir, epistolary, journal) textualisations of Alma Mahler, using them as a background within which it situates the story of/about Alma, both novelistic and peculiar (to her). Codiscursive relations are also indicated through the separate references in the novel to recognisable (auto)biographical and historical contexts, such as references to family tragedies (the suicide of Gustav’s brother, Otto, the death of Gustav’s daughter, Maria); premieres of symphonies (like the spectacular premiere of the Eighth Symphony in Munich in 1910); wars (“Wars took their toll, too. Or they will in the times ahead. I ran away from all those wars.”) (Dimoski 2014, 57),2F all counteracted by Alma’s intimate confession, as a confession of a single participant in and witness of these events. Indeed, such relations, manifested on various levels in the novel, are suggested through the division of its structure in eleven chapters, of which ten are entitled after Gustav Mahler’s ten symphonies, while chapter transitions are mediated by paraquotations, that is, intermedial musical quotations. Thus, titles and subtitles establish the framework that refers to Gustav’s professional chronology, which, in turn, frames the achronological story told by Alma. In a broader sense, this suggests the parallel that exists between the official and factual, and the unofficial, intimate dimension of existence, between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the spoken and the unspoken, but also between history and memory, art and life.
The model of confessional narration is complemented by other, typically modernist narrative techniques:3F defabularisation (the chronology of the fabula begins with the ailing health of Gustav, who has been taken by train to Vienna, and the foreshadowing of Alma’s lines: “Two more weeks to live. You know that.”); the personal perspective of the character (the fixed internal focalisation) and its technical equivalent – the interior monologue – albeit present in several scenes of dialogue, which the character evokes in reminiscence. The mid-consciousness – reflector and its perceptive-experiential horizon generate the discontinuity of the fabula, which traces the psychographic fluctuations of consciousness, its refined intellectual and emotional associations, which analeptically and selectively drive us toward the past: primarily towards scenes of Alma and Gustav’s life in marriage. However, the retrospective and reminiscent narrations have more complex hermeneutic and mnemonic functions. Namely, they serve to narrativise reality/the past in order to impose upon it the form of a tale, as well as to transpose knowledge into narration, so as to make sense of what is endured and experienced, and to re-evaluate it from an interpretative distance (“Was all this worth it, Alma?, she’d ask herself.”). It is precisely the hermeneutic confrontation of the character with her own past that is expected to provide a mnemonic prevention of ‘the fear of oblivion’. “One way or another, all stories come to an end. None remain open-ended… This life is nothing unless you leave your story behind in the best way possible” (Dimoski 2014 36), concludes novelistic Alma Mahler.
The associative-reminiscent return to the past and its retroactive interpretative conception opens the doors to universalisation of the personal story. Hence the introduction of the reflexive layer in the novel, which explores a complex of perennial themes, like: love, time, loneliness, relations between memory and oblivion, art and life, the meaning and meaninglessness of existence, personal choices, freedom. This layer lends the story an unambiguously transhistorical and transpersonal, aesthetised, and literary dimension, exposing the anthropological constants of the dilemmas and issues confronted by the main protagonist. In fact, the novelistic affirmation of the story about/of Alma Mahler may also be read as an affirmation of the ex-centric viewpoint – that which has been marginalised, positioned away from the centre (the privilege of the man, the husband, the father, the composer, the artist), the viewpoint of the great composer’s wife: “Four years of music and many more of silence. I learned to keep quiet” (Dimoski 2014, 75), reminisces Alma, who, in the name of marriage and family “closed all her talents in a little box and buried them ceremoniously”, giving up her own ideals and potentials, even her own self (“I just forgot about myself”). Therefore, her question: “What voices? Are there really voices other than my own?” (Dimoski 2014, 53) suggests the legitimacy of one’s own voice, one’s own perspective and story as a competitive affirmation of a different view of one’s own life and marriage, that is, the need to verbalise muteness and make sense of silence, which has been a concession accepted in compromise prior to the creation. “You have too much to keep silent about, Alma. You have a lot to say” (Dimoski 2014, 49), although personal choice entails freedom, but also responsibility.