A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Keys to Genius

The following review appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

A ROMANCE ON THREE LEGS:
Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano

By Katie Hafner

Bloomsbury
, 272 pp., $24.99

Concert pianists are notoriously temperamental, but with good reason: so are their pianos. Why else would J.S. Bach specify a “well-tempered clavier”? The modern piano is a jury-rigged contraption consisting of a multitude of tiny moving parts and a lot of steel and wood that has to be twisted, warped and tortured into just the right shape and structure. And it needs constant tuning, twiddling and tweaking to maintain the sound the pianist wants. No wonder that Glenn Gould, who twisted, warped and tortured himself into a great pianist, had such a love-hate relationship with the instrument that he referred to as an “intriguing mixture of pedals, pins, and paradox.”

It’s ironic that the pianoforte, as the instrument had been named because it could play both soft and loud, is now known as a piano: Virtuosi from Liszt to Lang Lang have mostly exploited the forte. But Gould wanted a piano that would sound, as he put it, “a little like an emasculated harpsichord.” He detested the Romantics, and once said his favorite composer was the 16th-century Englishman Orlando Gibbons. After a long search he found the cleanness of tone and quickness of action he wanted in a Steinway concert grand with the designation CD 318.

Katie Hafner is eloquent about why Gould loved CD 318 so much – so eloquent that one wishes her book included a discography of the recordings he made on that instrument. (His two most famous recordings – the versions of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” he recorded in 1955 and 1981 – were made on other pianos.) “A Romance on Three Legs” is partly a biography of Gould, partly a history of Steinway & Sons, and partly a story about how technique, tastes and technology propelled the evolution of the piano. It’s also a tribute to piano tuner Verne Edquist, whose exquisite sensitivity and technical inventiveness manipulated CD 318 into an instrument almost as eccentric as Gould.

Gould insisted on using a battered old chair that had been sawed down so it was six inches shorter than a standard piano bench. He was a hypochondriac who insisted on keeping the room temperature at 80 degrees year-round, and once sued Steinway because an employee gave him an admiring pat on the back that he claimed had dislocated his shoulder, but his nose-to-the-keyboard posture must have caused many of the aches and pains of which he complained. He was a terrifying driver, who once quipped, “It’s true that I’ve driven through a number of red lights on occasion, but on the other hand I’ve stopped at a lot of green ones but never gotten credit for it.”

Hafner’s signal achievement in the book is to turn CD 318 itself into just as much a personality as Gould. Never mind that she has also demonstrated that CD 318 is just wood, steel, ivory and felt. We come to feel about CD 318 almost the way Gould did: “‘He talked about his piano as if it were human,’ fellow pianist David Bar-Illan commented.” So when CD 318 is injured in a fall … uh, damaged by being dropped, we’re shocked, and we especially empathize with Edquist, who has to break the news to Gould.

Hafner lives in the Bay Area, writes for the New York Times, and has published books about computer hackers and Internet pioneers, among other things. Some readers will complain that she touches too lightly on Gould’s faults: his undeniable gifts that were vitiated by self-indulgence; his interpretations that occasionally departed wildly from the composers’ intent; his decision to stop performing before audiences for the last 18 years of his life, and to concentrate on recording, in which mistakes can be edited out, making him appear to be technically flawless.

But the book is less a critique of Gould than an examination of an essential relationship, the one between artist and medium, as magnified by one artist’s obsession. Hafner’s book belongs to that gee-whiz genre perfected by writers like John McPhee, Susan Orlean and Mary Roach: books that tell you everything about subjects – oranges, orchids, corpses, pianos – that you didn’t know you wanted to know anything about. And for readers familiar with Gould’s recordings, or those with a curiosity about how things like pianos get to be the way they are, “A Romance on Three Legs” is a source of delight and illumination.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Portraits of the Artist as Young Men

The following review appeared today in the Houston Chronicle:

ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN
By Keith Gessen
Viking, 242 pp., $24.95

The Germans have a word for it: Bildungsroman. Roman means “novel,” and Bildung is, well, “education” and “development” and “formation” and a lot of other stuff all packed into one word. A Bildungsroman is a more-or-less-veiled autobiographical novel about a young person’s coming of age. Charles Dickens wrote two of them, Great Expectations and David Copperfield. George Eliot’s was The Mill on the Floss, D.H. Lawrence’s was Sons and Lovers, Thomas Wolfe’s was Look Homeward, Angel, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s was This Side of Paradise.

And All the Sad Young Literary Men is Keith Gessen’s. Its publication has caused a mild stir among the book world’s chatterati, because Gessen is, to go German again, a Wunderkind of the literary scene. Just 33, he is the founder and editor of a much-talked-about literary journal, n+1, and a critic who has been harsh on writers whom he finds wanting, such as Ian McEwan and Jonathan Safran Foer. He’s also involved in a long-running feud with his West Coast rival, Dave Eggers, the founder of McSweeney’s.

But you don’t need to be a devotee of lit chat to read his novel. The sad young literary men of the title are named Mark, Keith and Sam, and their stories, which connect only tangentially, are told in separate chapters, rotating through the book. All three are aspects of the author. Keith is the most obvious one, because he not only shares the author’s name and his Russian origins – Gessen was born in Moscow and came to the States when he was 6 years old – but he also narrates his sections of the book in first person. But Sam, like the author, lives in Brooklyn and went to Harvard, and Mark is a graduate student in history at Syracuse University, where Gessen got an M.F.A. in the writing program.

We meet Mark first, living with Sasha, whom he met in Moscow while doing research. It’s 1998 and they live in arty poverty in Queens: “To be poor in New York was humiliating, a little, but to be young – to be young was divine.” But time passes and Sasha leaves, and Mark sinks into the ennui of writing a dissertation on one of the lesser Mensheviks. He has dalliances with various women toward whom he takes a characteristically intellectual approach. He “had spent his twenties, even that portion of his twenties that he spent married, preoccupied with the problem of sex. He considered it in the positivist tradition of how to find it, of course, but also, and more significant, in the interpretivist or postmodernist tradition of how to think about it, how to ponder it historically, how to discourse about and critique it.” Sex in the head, D.H. Lawrence called it.

Sam comes out of Harvard planning to write “the great Zionist epic,” undeterred by the fact that he’s never been to Israel and doesn’t read Hebrew: When he tried to learn the language, “the letters looked like Tetris pieces.” When he gets a book contract, he develops writer’s block – he even stops “writing the occasional online opinion piece about the Second Intifada.” And to his dismay, that causes his presence on Google, evidence of his existence, to decline. He calls up Google to plead with someone to “up my count a little until I get back on my feet.” Eventually, Sam will get it together and go to Israel, where reality will set his life on a different course.

Keith’s story begins in a no less disillusioning manner: an encounter on the street with Lauren, his Harvard roommate’s former girlfriend, and her father, “the former Vice President” who “wore his beard, his infamous beard” – i.e., the one Al Gore grew after losing the election of 2000, though none of Gore’s daughters is called Lauren. Keith, who is “hurt” by Lauren’s failure to introduce him to her father, has a burgeoning career as a lefty literary intellectual at the beginning of a post-literary era dominated by a right-wing administration with a discernible bias against any intellectuals other than the ones who contribute to the Weekly Standard. The times -- for Keith and Sam and Mark -- are out of joint.

It’s possible to dismiss this novel as another fine whine from another elitist writer. And by invoking with his title Fitzgerald’s story collection All the Sad Young Men and by inviting the parallel of Gessen’s Harvard to the Princeton that was the backdrop for Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Gessen is displaying brazen chutzpah. Mark and Sam and Keith are not in themselves as interesting as he seems to think they are, and he hasn’t put enough imagination into creating secondary characters who might serve as foils to them. As characters, the women in the book are evanescent, even though they are a central concern … no, obsession of the three protagonists.

But there is wit at work in the novel, and as a document of the times, as a reflection of the alienation of young American intellectuals in the first decade of the 21st century, All the Sad Young Literary Men may be the kind of book that people will pick up years from now – just as we pick up Fitzgerald’s chronicles of the Jazz Age, or books by Britain’s Angry Young Men of the 1950s -- and say, “Oh, that’s what it must have been like.”