10 points on Enigma Variations

1. This book, written by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is actually a play and it is a beautiful love story – but not the traditional kind.

2. The story starts out quite ordinary: A journalist interviews an eccentric writer about his latest book – an epistolary novel that consists in love letters between the writer and his paramour.

3. Already in the beginning of the play, the reader gets the feeling that there is much more going on between the two protagonists than one might think at the first glance. Schmitt manages to create an arc of suspense that lies between the lines; through an irritated look, a pregnant pause or a strong emotional reaction between the two, that we are not yet able to understand.

4. One of the beauties of Enigma Variations is that it deals with philosophical questions about the nature of love in a very simple way. Schmitt doesn’t need big multi-clause sentences; he lets his protagonists tell each other the essence of their reflections upon love.

5. The two men in the play are representing two very different and somehow opposing kinds of love: romantic love vs everyday love. During their argument about how to love, they name all pros and cons of both kinds of love, and end up reassuring each other that the other’s way of love is valuable.

6. The philosophical touch of Enigma Variations doesn’t really come as a surprise, since Schmitt studied philosophy, and most of his works raise deeply philosophical questions.

7. The title Enigma Variations underlines the theme of the book. The story doesn’t consist of one riddle the reader has to solve, but of many riddles that build on each other. Each one of the main protagonists is clearly hiding something and every little mystery they reveal to each other leads to a bigger mystery we have to wonder about. This way Enigma Variations is not only a collective term for all the little riddles in the play, but describes also the structure of the story: small nonverbal mysteries in the beginning leading up to bigger mysteries, that lead to the last big mystery that unravels in the end.

8. “Enigma Variations” is also the title of an actual musical composition the book refers to as a metaphor for love (at least that’s how I like to interpret it). The original “Enigma Variations” is an orchestral work by Edward Elgar, comprising fourteen variations on a theme. Each variation is a musical sketch of one of his circle of close friends. The composition is widely believed to involve a hidden melody. Listen for yourself.

9. There has been much speculation about why Elgar named his piece “Enigma”. The puzzle he was hinting at remains unknown until today. But in his biography Elgar reveals that “Enigma” refers to a “well-known melody which is never heard”. Like every other clue Elgar gave, this remark only caused further speculation (just like the clues we receive in Schmitt’s play). One interpretation suggests that the “larger theme” in Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” is an abstract idea rather than a musical theme. If you want to join the ongoing discussion and solve the Enigma for yourself, get up to speed here.

10. The center of Schmitt’s play is the correspondence between the writer and his paramour, which he at some point published as a novel, claiming he had written it all as a work of fiction. The writer in the play dedicated his epistolary novel to “H.M”. This dedication is another allusion to Elgar’s musical composition, since Elgar, when naming his fourteen variations, used the initials of his friends.
H.M is in fact, as it turns out, the name of the writers paramour, Helene. This, again, is an allusion to Elgar’s Enigma since Elgar did never reveal the initials of the 13th variation, the one right before his own variation (variation 14). The 13th variation is subtitled “Romanza” (romance). There has been speculation that this variation is a tribute to another woman, Helen Weaver, who had broken off her engagement to Elgar in 1884.

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This book contains insights about the different shapes of love. And it reflects upon an important truth about the nature of love that couldn’t be any more simple and any more obvious: shared love requires courage.

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Erik Larsen: Quick, quick, do something, will you! Just now, someone just shot at me. There’s a bloody madman on the island… coming up the path, two bullets went right past my head… they hit the gatepost.
Abel Znorko: Yes, I know.
Erik Larsen: We’ve got to take cover.
Abel Znorko: You’re safe here.
Erik Larsen: But what’s going on?
Abel Znorko: Nothing that dramatic. I just missed, that’s all.

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What makes a mystery beautiful is not the truth it conceals, but the secret it enshrines.

You have that look: the open, candid look of the sentimentalist. You expect too much of others; you’d even sacrifice yourself for them. Which makes you brave. A brave man. And therefore dangerous … to yourself. So beware.

It isn’t always easy to avoid the beaten path. People fall into the norm, in spite of themselves, and believe me, you have to run long and hard to escape the clutches of mediocrity.

There’s something delicious about liars. It’s that sooner or later they can’t resist telling the truth.

But what is shared love? Two dreams that coincide by chance, a happy misunderstanding, a misunderstanding perfectly understood by both parties…

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