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Bookmarked: Be careful in Transylvania

Kingdom Under Glass author Jay Kirk finds himself bedeviled as he sniffs out composer Béla Bartók’s gypsy trail.

His father dying in a Vermont hospital room, writer Jay Kirk (author of Kingdom Under Glass) was sent to Romania by Harper's Magazine to find the descendants of the Romanian peasants who played for and influenced composer Béla Bartók. It would be, Kirk would soon discover, a journey into darkness that would leave him inside an outhouse soaked in plum brandy moonshine and face to face with the composer's ghost. But the journey into darkness would only comprise one part of his next book, excerpted as "Bartók's Monster" in the October issue of Harper's, due to hit newsstands next week. The other part: days on a ship in the Arctic Sea at the height of summer, when the sun doesn't set.

Writers of narrative non-fiction often place themselves in the story they are reporting. Readers like it and writers, long since disabused of the silent authority of the objective narrator, feel more honest. But Kirk, who teaches creative non-fiction writing at Penn, has pushed the form another several steps away from traditional journalistic objectivity into what some call the "radical first person" and Kirk calls the "hypersubjective." The writer is the protagonist of the story.

In Romania, Kirk is besieged by the feverish landscape. "All around us in the yard," he writes, "the sound of insects and their terrifying erotic infinite serenade." His hope is to come into contact with some of the remaining practitioners of a musical form called hora lungă. Bartók, like his contemporary composers and even Picasso, who sought inspiration from African masks, had begun to think that Western classical music was played out. "They wanted something new, new, new, new," Kirk told me an e-mail last week. "Just as Bartók found it in the peasant music of his native Hungary, Stravinsky found his inspiration in the folk music of Russia, and Debussy was turned on to the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition Universelle."

The tiny, teetotaling Bartók took his recording machine—the monster—across the sheep trails and into village courtyards of Maramureş and Székely Land, where he would "suck the songs" from the peasant fiddlers. He was entranced by the "indeterminate content structure" of the music. "Like Rumpelstiltskin," writes Kirk, "he hurried back to Budapest to spin the bales of itchy straw into chaotic threads of Lydian gold."

On the hunt, assembling his own composition from the black fields of Transylvania, Kirk himself encounters unreliable mirrors: evidence of the relationship between the dying Bartók and his son Péter, women who don traditional dress and attempt to play old beaten guitars as a shadow of their ancestors of a century ago, his own desire to set the traditional discipline of non-fiction writing afire with the pulsing authentic vision. He ends in the outhouse maddened by "the ceaseless rabbit-bang of the old woman's guitar," overwhelmed by "an unwelcome wave of existential nausea."

"Bartók's Monster" indeed has an aura, a feeling, that's unsettling, alchemical. Like Bartok, it is refined and vulgar. But the hypersubjective form, it's important to point out, is hardly "indeterminate." In composing the piece, Kirk has chosen certain things and clipped others. Every writer does this on every piece, even in the most "objective" journalism. Kirk says it's a matter of not always trying to make sense of a disparity between what the writer collects in the moment and his later, perhaps more rational reflections. "New interpretations begin to overwrite the original imprint and impressions," he explained to me, "which, of course, are just as valid, and so, what I think I may be doing, at least in part, is, instead of editing out one version, or one set of impressions, is to keep them both."

It makes for a haunting journey. "Your typical nonfiction reader expects (reasonably) the author to resolve any such interpretive disparities," Kirk said, "and to bring his thoughts and imagery into harmony, but who says writing nonfiction means the rational side of your brain gets to call all the shots all the time?"