Hors-série / Special issue 7

Juin / June 2020

James Elkins

Joachim’s Mind


These are the opening pages of Joachim’s Mind, an experimental novel. It’s a nearly continuous monologue by a Swiss biologist named Joachim. He talks to his friend Samuel about his illnesses, his family, his cat, his toothpaste, and anything else that comes into his head, but especially about his theories, which he has been recording in notebooks for nearly twenty years. As Samuel listens, he realizes Joachim is not talking at random, but systematically introducing him to the notebooks. Soon, Joachim says, he will be finished, and then Samuel can quit his job and devote all his time to reading the notebooks, in order to see if they make sense, if Joachim is sane. In the spring Samuel calls and hears Joachim has died. His notebooks have been packed in wooden crates and will soon be on their way to Samuel. In the final chapter, Samuel unpacks the crates and spends a day looking through the notebooks. We read excerpts along with him. When he is done reading, Samuel walks away, leaving his car in the lot, intending never to return.


This is an experimental novel in several ways. It has footnotes, written by Samuel forty years later. He barely remembers anything about his life at the time, or about Joachim. Instead Joachim’s way of talking sounds to him like music. He writes about compositions that remind him of Joachim, and in that way he retells the stories in the book as music. There is sheet music in the notes, which can be played on piano or just seen on the page.


I am interested in the possibility that a person might live so long that his earlier life appears to be someone else’s. Samuel, writing in the footnotes, no longer cares about any of the people he had known forty years before. But the music he plays has the rhythms, the obsessions, the force of the people described in the main text.


After this opening, the novel gets more complex. The Stockhausen piece is discussed in detail, over several hundred pages. Later there are photographs in the text. There are entire scientific papers. There are pages broken into parallel columns written by different narrators. There are chapters of dreams, illustrated by things the narrator imagines. There are thirty characters, ten or twelve countries, and dozens of animals, from lions to amoebas. The book ends with a portfolio of photographs of dead animals. But none of that is here. This is just the beginning.

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