Sex, Death and Manuscripts: Anna Magdalena Bach Rises from the Dead

A book cover with a statue and pink flowers Description automatically generated

The last time the name Anna Magdalena appeared in fiction it was attached not to a human character but to an assassin’s rifle. The perpetrators of this crime were themselves a pair of highly paid hitmen: the world’s most-sold author (i.e., its biggest sell-out), James Patterson, and his frontman, ex-President Bill Clinton.

Slogging through the pages of their flabby, self-loving, boy-fantasy book, The President is Missing in 2018, all those years before the AI tsunami crashed onto the rapidly receding shores of the Readers’ Island, one yearned for ChatGPT, practically willed it into existence, so viciously awful was the assembly-line prose churned out by Jim and Bill. Even a drunken chimp poking away at a broken typewriter under a nearby palm on Readers’ Island would have produced a massive upgrade in quality.

Ever the professional, the Musical Patriot soldiered through the quagmire of the President is Missing — all in the service of Bach scholarship. It was the Musical Patriot alone who reported on that unpunished abuse of the famous female name, one that belonged to Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife. This neglected and misunderstood figure is investigated at necessary length in the Musical Patriot’s much-praised monograph, Sex, Death and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks.

In the Patterson-Clinton “novel” Anna Magdalena, not a person but a gleaming death tool, is wielded by a sexy Slavic killer called Catherina Dorothea, the name of Johann Sebastian Bach’s eldest daughter. The assassin was referred to by those who hired her as “Bach.”

The paid killer wears a form-fitting hit-girl rig and listens to Bach cantatas on her earbuds while she takes out her top targets, ultimately, she hopes, the AWOL Command-in-Chief himself. The hardest part of reading a book this terrifically, tastelessly appalling is to have to watch the septuagenarian auto-erotica authors ogle their assassin as she assembles, then wields her Anna Magdalena gun like a lethal sex toy. The two pen pervs then lay back and let her pierce their bloated libidos. In these literary—and I use the term more promiscuously than LBJ did presidential power after the Bay of Tonkin Resolution—efforts the ex-President-cum-Man-of-Letters gave new meaning to the term Mission Creep.

Now Anna Magdalena is back, not reheated by the super PAC hacks, Jim and Bill, but pulled from the literary estate of one of the world’s most revered authors, Gabriel García Márquez. In contrast to the chubby, man-boobed 500-page behemoth that is the President is Missing, García Marquez’s Until August is a diminutive hardback that fits in the back pocket and whose text barely stretches past one hundred, small-format, large-font pages. Translated into English by Anne McLean, the Penguin hardback sells for $24.

The book gets as much ella out of novella as can be gotten, indeed too much—any slimmer and there’d be nothing there at all. Speaking of Ella, there is no music of Bach in these pages, but jazz music and musicians flash by. Yet even these attenuated sketches of characters and sound blow the Bill-and-Jim jetsam out of the literary water.

García Márquez finished a version of the novella in 2004, ten years before his death and at a time when he was realizing that he was losing his memory. He told his literary executors, his two sons, that “the book doesn’t work,” adding bluntly that “it must be destroyed.” There was nothing ambiguous or conditional about that demand.

Yet the execution of his command to destroy the manuscript seems also have slipped through the widening cracks in his fragmenting mind. Now, ten years after his death, the Nobel laureate’s sons offer a hardly convincing self-rationalization for publication in their preface: “Judging the book to be much better than we remembered it, another possibility occurred to us, that the fading faculties that kept him from finishing the book also kept him from realizing how good it was. In an act of betrayal, we decided to put his readers’ pleasure ahead of all other considerations. If they are delighted, it’s possible Gabo might forgive us. In that we trust.”

The damning critical reception of the book since it appeared and the stern judgments directed at the executor sons by the literary world show that that trust was misplaced. As a literary work Until August is a failure and not even a noble one. They have enacted what amounts to many a writer’s worst nightmare.

García Márquez is a musical writer and even this fragmentary, failed work can be read as a fascinating riff on Anna Magdalena Bach and her marriage. The novelist could hardly have named his lead character Ana Magdalena Bach without purposefully courting the resonances, amplified in carefully constructed traits, with the most famous musical wife in history—a symbol, not just in Germany but in global culture, of spousal and motherly devotion, hers a life devoted to nurturing a husband’s genius and to caring for the next generation of leading musicians in her own family.

García Márquez sliced off one N of the German original to fit the spelling to the Spanish language. The setting of Until August seems to be the Caribbean region of Colombia. The indeterminate time of the action is around the present. Ana Magdalena is in her late forties, about age that J. S. Bach’s spouse would become a widow. She visits a hardly fashionable tourist island each August to lay gladioli at the graveside of her mother. There are parallels with the original Bach family, updated to the third millennium and to Latin America. Ana Magdalena is worried about a daughter, currently having an affair with that jazz musician, but threatening to join a convent. The son is a talented cellist with an international career, but seems to be a cad, a type not unknown among the Bach’s of yore.

Ana Magdalena’s husband is a glamorous director of the conservatory. He’s a fantastically gifted conductor and keyboard player who can improvise stylistic mash-ups—humorous quodlibets like that of the Goldberg Variations that enthrall galas. He can conjure up a clever, seductive pastiche at the keyboard as effortlessly as catching the eye of a lady not his wife.

His name is Doménico—a nod, one is sure, to Scarlatti, an exact contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, and virtuoso who vied with him for top honors in Baroque keyboard heroics. What if the good Lutheran girl and brilliant singer, Anna Magdalena Wilcke had traveled to Italy and married a Scarlatti? Or maybe the progeny of the two illustrious clans had at least been joined in the New World?

Ana Magdalena’s husband Doménico is high-minded (he reads the scores of Mozart operas in bed) but also a wizard of wit and seduction. Ana Magdalena has lived, if not utterly happily, then contented in, and unquestioning of, her domestic life for these three decades. Yet the flashing ego that lights this music man’s world seems to have blinded her, number her. This can’t help but be read as García Marquéz throwing light back on the Bach marriage of yore: how happy can such arrangements be, especially since happiness is hardly a goal of earthly life in a world dominated by God and men?

Like Anna Magdalena Bach, Ana Magdalena Bach is an excellent dancer and very musical. The two share a deep understanding and command of music, movement, a love of flowers, gardens, birdsong, and reading (though Ana devours novels rather than the literature of religious uplift favored by Anna). To these are added both women’s shared worries about the fate of their musical children, and the suffocating reality of relentlessly being outshone and looked past by egoistical husbands.

For the first time at the age of forty-seven on the island, which she always visits on her own, Ana Magdalena seduces a man in the hotel bar and has passionate sex with him back in her room. It is the first time she has been unfaithful to her unfaithful husband. As the stranger slips out of the room in the morning, he leaves a twenty dollar bill in the novel she is reading, thinking she’s a prostitute.

Barely able to recover from that grave insult, Ana Magdalena nonetheless makes the one-night stand with a different man part of her annual pilgrimage to the island. The historical Anna Magdalena is known to have taken very few trips, always accompanied by her husband. The bourgeois refinements also cultivated by Anna Magdalena in the 18th century, have become bitter for Ana Magdalena. Did they become the same for Anna Magdalena? The myth of the doting mother and wife is made to sweat and seethe and desire and hate in the far-off Caribbean. Now one can feel, if so inclined, the heat and humidity three centuries earlier in frigid Leipzig.

In García Márquez’s fictions, coffins are opened and amazing posthumous occurrences are exposed to the light of day. It might seem only fair that the pages of Until August have been exhumed, the bones of the stories and the shreds of raiment to be admired or abhorred by these gathered around the grave. J. S. Bach own body was exhumed in 1894. 150 years earlier his own sons had been responsible for his musical estate, and at least one of them inflected great damage on those effects.

Remains of a body are dug up in Until August too. That process tries to impart an ending to a story that doesn’t have one. The literary remains are bagged up and deposited just before the final, unwritten epigraph: “The End.”

The Patterson-Clinton Bach nonsense is the silliest sort of ephemera—rightly forgotten or ridiculed.

Set free from the grave by the sons of García Marquéz, Ana Magdalena is now a Bach who can be neither forgotten nor ignored. From out of failed a novella, an angry woman now haunts the family and its music, our music.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com