TRIO

In the afterward of TRIO, his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It’s a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn’t hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It’s got plot, music, politics, warfare. It’s got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there’s enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

In the afterward of TRIO, generic his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, pills author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It's a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn't hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It's got plot, music, politics, warfare. It's got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there's enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

Starting with Clara Wieck as a 9 year-old traveling piano prodigy, Volume One takes us into the life of music at the dawn of the Romantic Period. It's 1828. Robert Schumann is young and passionate but undisciplined. Still unsure of his future (will he be a lawyer or a writer?) he finds himself falling for a maturing Clara and struggling with the notion that his child-bride might earn more money than he. Desai also shows exactly how ferocious Clara's father Friedrich was in opposing his daughter's marriage to Schumann. The couple's ultimate victory is sweet indeed.
As the plot progresses, Desai offers glimpses of the prevailing musical attitudes of the day. Here is a telling passage, taking place at a soiree:

An Italian sang next with the clearest tone accompanied by Kalkbrenner on the piano, but cluttered her songs with the trills and scales and cadenzas and ritardandos Italians found so salubrious and Germans so painful.

Another line that I have to repeat comes from Robert speaking his mind to Friedrich Wieck:

“If we do not make distinctions between the virtuous in music and mere virtuosity, we do not make strides, except backward. Might as well play the pianoforte with your feet. It is not easy, but neither will it make you an artist.”

This is very good. But did Schumann actually say it when he did in TIO? Probably not. But maybe he said something similar. Desai often feeds lines from letters and diaries into his character's mouths during dialog in order to convey the feeling of the character, the time, and the action. One cannot recreate history as it happened, of course, but Desai's technique is the next best thing. These were the thoughts that were running through Schumann's head during this time in his life, and Desai paraphrased them nicely in dialog.

Other composers appear either as part of the central plot or in interpolative chapters. Mendelssohn, brilliant and graceful, makes his benign presence felt, perhaps most poignantly when he meets a young Queen Victoria. Liszt, resplendent in his Mephistophelean glory, comes across equally as cunning schemer and genuine nice guy. Wagner, on the other hand, is well-nigh evil, the villain one loves to hate.

My favorite passage featuring Mendelssohn occurs when he is forced to listen to Clara play one of Robert's sonatas on the piano during a party. Despite both being in their early-to-mid-20s, Mendelssohn was already an established musician (having been a famous child prodigy). Robert on the other hand was still known mostly as a critic, and an impoverished one at that. He was still developing as a composer, and his most well known works were considered pretty and lightweight. Mendelssohn settled down for what he expected to be “a pleasant few minutes”. What he got however was this:

The sonata started as he might have expected, a motif of two notes, now rising, now falling, now maintaining the level of its pitch, played successively over a rumbling harmonic bass, but in a few moments it became evident that the motif in its various guises was only a prelude, and the first movement proper began with a muscular theme, a masculine theme, a gallop in concert, cavalry in triplets, far more satisfactory than anything he had heard yet by Robert, which developed generously and unpredictably. Found himself sitting up, listening intently.

Mendelssohn asked to hear a movement from that piece a second time. I doubt Robert came down from the clouds in over a week.

Robert and Clara's story, of course, does not end well. Robert's mental health was never very stable, and after trying to end his life in the Rhine, he spent the last two years of his life in an insane asylum. But Desai does not focus simply on Robert's harrowing descent into madness, but also on Clara's difficulties raising a houseful of children without a husband. Despite this, Desai shows just how steadfast her love for Robert had always been, even in the worst of times. She was his wife and champion and a very strong lady in her own right. Included is the magnificent scene in which she marched alone through a war zone to return her children to safety.

Volume Two chronicles Clara's relationship with Johannes Brahms within the broader politics of music in the late 19th-Century. It was the New German School of Wagner and Liszt against the Conservative hold-outs Clara and Brahms. Things begin passionately for Clara and Brahms (Known affectionately as “Hannes”), but they soon realize they aren't right for each other. Their 40-year friendship is as bumpy as it is smooth, and Desai makes us feel every bit of it.

Bittersweet, too, is Brahms' bachelorhood. Why did he never marry? Why was he not right for Clara, the woman he could so easily enthrall and frustrate? Among the intellectual and political elite of Central Europe Brahms always remained one step from the shipyards and cheap apartments of his lower-middle class upbringing. Desai gives us some of that too, as well as Brahms' first experience with a prostitute. Apparently, this was an experience he never could overcome.

But he was Brahms. He didn't need to. He didn't kowtow to anyone, not the aristocracy, not academia, and not royalty, especially musical royalty. This reactionary attitude made him stand out among Europe's elite like a ragamuffin at a gala ball, only one expertly wielding a baton. His ratty clothes, his cruel japes, his straight-as-an-arrow honesty, he refusal to put on airs. Brahms once claimed that he had no friends, but if you were something like a friend to him, he could be loyal and generous. Violinist Joseph Joachim once complained that when he and Brahms toured together, Brahms' slow pace made it harder for him to make money (which he desperately needed with a family to support). So Brahms insisted that they keep the slow pace, but that Joseph take in two-thirds of the purses rather than half.

Brahms is a complex character, and Desai gives it to us with a side of boiled cabbage. Once when a friend wanted to learn more about Brahms and his life, Brahms took him to a seedy bar where he, Brahms, the toast of Vienna and the greatest composer of his day, played bawdy songs on a upright piano into the wee hours of the morning. Nobody there knew who he was.

Then there is the question of whether Brahms and Clara were ever indeed lovers. People love to speculate about their relationship, but no one knows for sure, largely because they burned so many of their letters. There is no direct evidence that they were lovers. On the other hand, if they were never lovers, then why burn so many letters?

(Unforgettable is the scene in which Brahms and Clara as old fogies return their letters to each other as part of some earlier agreement. The air is thick with mixed emotions as the pair haggles and stalls before the final barter. You see, they say they don't want to give up the other's letters because they know the other will destroy them. Yet really they just don't want to give them up…and they really really want to burn theirs.).

So what does Desai do to solve the mystery of Clara and Hannes? Were they lovers or were they not lovers? Desai's answer is yes. You'll have to read the book to learn more about that.

Desai also does a wonderful job of describing the music. Of course, any descriptions come up short when compared to the real thing, but the language of TRIO is so vivid it makes one want to explore a composer's repertoire. Schumann's Carnaval and Sonata in F sharp Minor and Brahms' German Requiem and Symphony #1 get some evocative descriptions. So do the performers themselves. Clara's meticulousness, Liszt's power and bravura, Brahms' perfection at the piano as a cocky young virtuoso, his sloppiness as a old man. Mendelssohn's spot on imitations of Liszt and Chopin are breathtaking as well.

In his Afterward, Desai makes it clear that despite thorough research, there are some apocryphal scenes. In these cases he draws reasonable conclusions according to the scant evidence we have. He makes his case, but really doesn't have to. TRIO is a novel about some of the greatest figures of classical music. Like the music, it is meant first and foremost to be enjoyed. And on this account, it certainly does not fail.

Bobby Fischer: Endgame

A couple months ago, I pretty much swallowed Endgame, the latest Bobby Fischer biography by Frank Brady. Brady’s first biography of Fischer, called Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, was written in 1965 and later revised in 1973 at the height of Bobby’s power as a chess player. It was a fairly positive portrayal of the chess champion and a pretty good read besides. When it was first published Fischer was the only possible American answer to Soviet chess dominance. Before him, the Soviets easily outdistanced the Americans, embarrassing them in match after match. But Bobby emphatically changed that. By the mid-1960s, there was much excitement surrounding the mercurial American genius who threatened to singlehandedly topple the mighty Soviet chess machine. This was better than any story, and back then the ending hadn’t even happened yet. So of course much of Fischer’s ugliness and cruelty was either omitted or minimized by Brady. Who would want to malign the hero of such a great story?

The subtitle to Brady’s second biography, “Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (published in 2011 – almost 3 years after Fischer’s death) promises to deliver the tragic ending to the story as it actually happened. Since the publication of Profile of a Prodigy, Bobby Fischer quit chess, went into seclusion, grew into a virulent anti-Semite, and more or less went mad.

Despite delivering on Fischer’s madness and the ugliness, however, Brady still seems to pull his punches. He still seems to withhold a certain amount of charity for the man who praised the 9-11 attacks and called for the destruction of America and Israel. And you know what? I do too.

A couple months ago, I pretty much swallowed Endgame, the latest Bobby Fischer biography by Frank Brady. Brady’s first biography of Fischer, called Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, was written in 1965 and later revised in 1973 at the height of Bobby’s power as a chess player. It was a fairly positive portrayal of the chess champion and a pretty good read besides. When it was first published Fischer was the only possible American answer to Soviet chess dominance. Before him, the Soviets easily outdistanced the Americans, embarrassing them in match after match. But Bobby emphatically changed that. By the mid-1960s, there was much excitement surrounding the mercurial American genius who threatened to singlehandedly topple the mighty Soviet chess machine. This was better than any story, and back then the ending hadn’t even happened yet. So of course much of Fischer’s ugliness and cruelty was either omitted or minimized by Brady. Who would want to malign the hero of such a great story?

The subtitle to Brady’s second biography, “Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (published in 2011 – almost 3 years after Fischer’s death) promises to deliver the tragic ending to the story as it actually happened. Since the publication of Profile of a Prodigy, Bobby Fischer quit chess, went into seclusion, grew into a virulent anti-Semite, and more or less went mad.

Despite delivering on Fischer’s madness and the ugliness, however, Brady still seems to pull his punches. He still seems to withhold a certain amount of charity for the man who praised the 9-11 attacks and called for the destruction of America and Israel. And you know what? I do too. The book at times reads like an apologia for Fischer written by someone who knew and loved him. Now that Fischer is dead I cannot imagine a Fischer biography being written any other way. Despite being such a loathsome person (at least in public), Fischer had inspired so many people and given so many so much to to cheer for that all is forgiven.

All is forgiven…Like Beethoven.

A nice example of how Brady seemingly inadvertently glosses over some of Fischer’s nastier moments is how he describes the ride home Fischer shared as a boy with other chess players after Fischer won the US Junior Championships in 1957.

The car kept breaking down, and everyone chipped in to have it repaired so that they could keep going. Riding through the hot desert with no air conditioning led to petty arguments, and a fist fight broke out between Bobby and Gilbert Ramirez (who’d taken second place in the United States Junior). Bobby bit Ramirez on the arm, leaving scars that remain fifty years later. (Ramirez proudly displays them, as if to say, “This is the arm that was bitten by Bobby Fischer.”) Eventually, the car broke down entirely and had to be abandoned.

See what Brady is doing here? It was the heat and the car that did it. Not Bobby. Under normal conditions, Bobby would never have bitten Ramirez. Notice also how Brady conveniently distances the reader from the action (“a fist fight broke out” – as if the fight caused itself). And anyway, it was Ramirez who came out smelling like a rose. I mean, who wouldn’t want a Bobby Fischer souvenir left on his body for the rest of his life? Granted, we don’t know if Bobby started the fight or not (and he reportedly did get a black eye courtesy of Ramirez). However a bite that long and powerful indicates something more than just belligerence or self-defense. If Bobby were my kid (he was 13 at the time) I would have spanked his backside raw, thrown away all of his chess sets, and grounded him for a month for such disgraceful behavior. Genius or no, you don’t act like that.

Only you do, and you can. If Brady’s biography tells us anything it’s that genius has its privileges. And if anything, Bobby took cruel advantage of that privilege almost his entire life.

One of Brady’s best passages describes how in 1960 Brady himself had asked Bobby how he would prepare for some top Soviet players in an upcoming tournament. They were at a pub in Greenwich Village seated in the same room as Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, and John Cage. Fischer got up and sat alongside Brady in his booth and delivered a tour de force of chess memory, insight, and strategy. He spoke at length about his opponents, their games, and dozens and dozens of other games dating from the 19th century to the present. All off the top of his head. Fischer forgot numerous times that Brady was even there as he expertly moved his pieces across his well-worn pocket set.

Brady was a chess player himself, but when Bobby had asked him if he had read a certain Soviet master’s book, Brady responded, “No. Isn’t it in Russian?” Fischer seemed annoyed and urged Brady to learn Russian just so he could read this book.

As Bobby then continued playing and replaying his opponents on his little set and describing every avenue of attack and defense in games both real and imaginary, Brady began to silently weep, because he knew he was in the presence of genius.

Bite me. Bobby, bite me in the arm. Please. And do it hard. Would you please do it hard, Bobby? And leave a mark. Don’t forget to leave a mark. I want something of you to stay with me for the rest of my life.

Of course, Brady does not omit any of Bobby’s post-retirement ugliness: His asinine rejections of million-dollar purses, his religious kookery, his obsessive anti-Semitism, his pig-headed slander of Karpov and Kasparov (the chess champions who followed him), his ingratitude towards his friends and hosts, his little-known philandering. Fischer was a jerk, plain and simple.

Brady relays a story about how Fischer visited the home of a friend during his seclusion in the late-70s. Fischer was moving around a lot at the time and was relying more than he should have on the charity of others. Shortly after arriving Fisher makes a long distance phone call and stays on the line for four hours. And when his host told him that he couldn’t afford such a call, Fischer was offended and stormed out, never to talk to him again.

So how to make such a person likeable? Well, Brady makes an admirable effort. He delves into Bobby’s religious doubts and various regrets. He mentions how Bobby might have been depressed at some point. He goes to great lengths to show that Bobby and his mother had a positive and loving relationship up until her death in the late 1990s. (Regina Fischer had often been described as overbearing and a negative influence on Bobby.) He faithfully describes Bobby’s haunts in places like California, Hungary, Japan, the Philippines, and Iceland, where he died in 2008. He tells of how Bobby doted on his Japanese wife Miyoko Watai. He gives us a harrowing account of Bobby’s arrest in Japan in 2004. He even describes the books Bobby was reading in Iceland leading up to his death, as if to prove that Bobby was more well-read than people gave him credit for.

This is all fine and good. If anything, Brady proves that Bobby Fischer could sometimes be a perfectly nice guy, as long as you weren’t Jewish and you left him alone. But there are two other things that make Brady’s job a lot easier. One is Bobby’s genius and nigh-invincibility on the chessboard. No more needs to be mentioned of that. And two is Bobby’s death.

Remember that scene in Disney’s Jungle Book in which Baloo the bear supposedly dies after helping vanquish Shere Kahn the tiger? Bagheera the panther delivers a touching eulogy to Baloo’s memory to the boy Mowgli, only to heap scorn back on Baloo once he realizes that the bear isn’t really dead after all.

Bobby’s death makes Brady’s job as a biographer that much easier. Fischer is no longer a threat to anyone and there can be no redemption, no heroic return. His story is finally over. There is only what was, and we take of it what we find useful. Fischer’s greatness is useful to many of us. It reminds us that we can stand alone…against the odds, against the societal bureaucracy that is mankind, against whatever it is that oppresses us or tells us that we cannot be what we want to be. Everything else can be forgotten or left to fade away like teeth marks on an arm.

So if Frank Brady tries a little too hard in his wonderful biography to make Bobby Fischer a sympathetic character, we should forgive him. Just like we do for Bobby.

The Indiana Bounce

Most kinds of humor depends upon the old switcheroo: You expect one thing and get another. Puns work this way by deliberately confusing two very different words that sound the same. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest might be one of the most sublime expression of puns in literature, with “earnest” alternating between name and adjective to serve the needs of the story’s hilariously Byzantine plot. Slapstick goes a long way with switching things as well. People are supposed to stand, not fall down. They’re supposed to eat pies in pieces coming at them two miles an hour, not all at once and at twenty. Subtext also works wonders in this regard. Remember the SNL Colonel Angus skit? Those aristocratic Southerners waiting for the good Colonel to come home from the war kept talking about one thing. But by the way they pronounce Colonel Angus’s name in that highfalutin Southern drawl, you realize quickly that they’re talking about something completely different. And the clever way in which this pretext is maintained snowballs the humor for a good five minutes.

The list goes on, of course. My purpose here however is to discuss another kind of comedy, a kind that rarely gets discussed but should. I call it the Indiana Bounce. It’s inspired by Indiana Jones’ reaction to a joke in an often overlooked scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Most kinds of humor depends upon the old switcheroo: You expect one thing and get another. Puns work this way by deliberately confusing two very different words that sound the same. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest might be one of the most sublime expression of puns in literature, order with “earnest” alternating between name and adjective to serve the needs of the story's hilariously Byzantine plot. Slapstick goes a long way with switching things as well. People are supposed to stand, viagra not fall down. They're supposed to eat pies in pieces coming at them two miles an hour, nurse not all at once and at twenty. Subtext also works wonders in this regard. Remember the SNL Colonel Angus skit? Those aristocratic Southerners waiting for the good Colonel to come home from the war kept talking about one thing. But by the way they pronounce Colonel Angus's name in that highfalutin Southern drawl, you realize quickly that they're talking about something completely different. And the clever way in which this pretext is maintained snowballs the humor for a good five minutes. The list goes on, of course. My purpose here however is to discuss another kind of comedy, a kind that rarely gets discussed but should. I call it the Indiana Bounce. It's inspired by Indiana Jones' reaction to a joke in an often overlooked scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. French Archaeologist Rene Belloq is about to bury Indiana Jones in a crypt filled with snakes and shouts down before sealing it: “Who knows, Doctor Jones? Some day even you might be worth something.” Jones' only response is a laugh which quickly dissolves into a curse: “Ha ha ha…son of a…” The switcheroo here is going from the Funny to the Not-Funny and back to the Funny again. Hence the term “bounce”. Belloq, that annoying French archaeologist who wants seal Indiana Jones to his doom, cracks wise about is his soon-to-be erstwhile colleague. And it's a funny crack. You see, the two were students together in archaeology school. They knew each other. And, as men are wont to do, they vie for the alpha position by seeing who can deliver the most devastatingly clever putdown of the other. Belloq does three things here. A) Asserts that Indiana Jones is a poor archaeologist (the point of the barb, so to speak). B) Suggests Jones' only hope of accomplishing anything in the field is to be buried in a crypt for a thousand years, and then get discovered like any other artifact. (Funny! Ha ha!) C) Wraps the entire delivery in the guise of a compliment. (Boy, those French are a sophisticated bunch, aren't they?) But if you think about it, Belloq actually delivers his putdown in reverse order, from C to B to A. And this is important for reasons we will discuss in a moment. But first, let's step back a bit. Typically, such insults are not meant to hurt. They are delivered so flippantly and pleasantly they can't possibly be genuine, and the recipient should realize this. For example, I once witnessed a conversation between an aspiring filmmaker and his poet roommate. The poet entered the apartment while the filmmaker was screening one of his early efforts to some friends, a low-budget, ultra-violent farce with lots of gore and unmotivated hysteria. Clearly, a piece of questionable quality, even as schlock. After watching for a few moments, the poet asked the filmmaker how it felt to have accomplished his greatest work at such a young age. The filmmaker laughed. Despite being told in front of his friends that he was a bad filmmaker, he still laughed. Why? Because the poet's jibe, like Belloq's, was a putdown artfully disguised as a compliment. This is why Indiana Jones laughs as well. Only he soon realizes that the joke is on him in the most permanent possible way and is therefore Not Funny. Plus, he's an ophidiophobe about to die in a snake pit. Hence the reduction to profanity. Remember when I mentioned the importance of delivering the putdown in reverse order? It's important because Jones has to wait until Belloq finishes his graceful insult before realizing that he is indeed the butt of two jokes: He is a bad archaeologist and soon to be a dead one. This is why Jones laughs and swears at the same time. Supposing Belloq had instead said the following before sealing the crypt: JONES: Belloq! BELLOQ: You know, Dr. Jones, you always were a bad archaeologist. In fact, the only way I can imagine your having an impact in our field is if you are buried here and then your remains are discovered in a thousand years with other artifacts of our age! You can thank me later! Ha! Ha! JONES: That's not even funny! Exactly. There's nothing for Jones to laugh at here and no descent into the Not-Funny because the scene never rises to the Funny to begin with. Belloq's revised parting shot says the same thing as what's onscreen, only it's inelegant and obvious. It's not funny, and so under these circumstances there is no switcheroo to make it funnier. Therein lies the humor of the Indiana Bounce. Taking something funny and making it funnier by making it not funny. Or, put more intuitively: a condition that plummets from the Funny to the Not-Funny, and then bounces back to the Funny as soon as the audience hears the splat. One instance I can remember of the Indiana Bounce being used to great effect in a sitcom was in an episode of Hogan's Heroes. The bette-noir of all the Nazi officers, the one thing they never liked to talk about, of course, was the dreaded Eastern Front. So when a visiting general threatens to send Colonel Klink there, someone informs him that “you don't go to Eastern Front. Eastern Front come to you!” The look of horror on the officers' faces as they contemplate the unfunny ramifications of this little witticism is preciously funny. Another that I remember is from the Johnny Carson Tonight Show when Carson was interviewing a very young Drew Barrymore, probably right after the release of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Carson asked her if her parents ever watched the Tonight Show and Drew responded naively that, yes, in fact, they did watch the Tonight Show. She knew this for a fact because they had it on one evening while she was up after bedtime throwing up. Carson's look of dread as he pretended to contemplate people throwing up while watching his show was perfect. He looked up above his guest and raised his eyes even higher, as if appealing to a greater power while knowing that no such appeal is even possible. This, I call the Carson Glare, and I use it in conjunction with the Indiana Bounce whenever I can. And if you can humor me for one more paragraph I shall provide an example. Once I was a soccer coach for a team of four- and five-year-olds. In one particular game, they were getting outplayed, but just barely. So it was a frustrating, painful loss with the score ending up

to be something like 4-2. Then, with seconds left, our three best players allowed a completely unnecessary goal. Basically, one of the other kids kicked lame little grounder that wasn't even on its way to the goal. But in a series of Keystone Cop moments of utter incompetence, my kids guided the ball into their own net. They did this by tripping on the grass, falling on the ball, and crashing into each other all at the right moments. The ball stopped short the moment it eked its way into the goal. I couldn't believe it. It's funny thinking about it now. But then, well… The kids all looked to me to see how I would react to such a pathetic display. And so I looked up above them and raised my eyes even higher, as if appealing to a greater power while knowing that no such appeal is even possible. And the kids laughed. They laughed because of the Carson Glare and the Indiana Bounce.