Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Review: The Piano Student

The Piano Student The Piano Student by Lea Singer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author of this book took a few letters between esteemed pianist Vladimir Horowitz and his student, Nico Kaufmann, and turned them into a novel about their relationship in the 1930s. According to other sources like Horowitz, Horowitz adamantly denied he was gay, and this book suggests several reasons for that claim. He was living in Germany in the 1930s but saw the writing on the wall and relocated to Switzerland, and according to Singer many known homosexual musicians got married in a hurry to deny such accusations. Horowitz, referred to in the novel as Volodya, marries Wanda, who is the daughter of Toscanini. This is during one of the periods in time where Volodya stopped performing in public.

I love Horowitz and when I was studying the piano music of Chopin, Scriabin, Beethoven and Brahms in college, I listened to him frequently for tone and interpretation. He's really quite amazing and also unpredictable. The publisher of this book has actually put together two playlists of the pieces mentioned, and really how could you ever read this book without listening to the music, it's so essential to the story. (It's available in Spotify and YouTube.) From a musical interactivity standpoint, I give this book all the stars.

But I found some of the authorial decisions confusing and it made for a difficult reading experience. The entire story is told by Kaufmann as an older man to a random guy he meets in a bar, who up until that moment was going to commit suicide. I never understood why he was in the story at all. But it removes the story itself and turns it into an info dump, a narrated road trip, a slide show. The moments where Kaufmann and Horowitz are described in the room together have great energy, and the mention of confrontations with WANDA are exhilarating, but the majority of the novel is a summary of those moments. The dialogue is unmarked which gets very confusing, and I couldn't always tell if the words were coming from the two talking about the previous events or the people within those events.

It's clear the author is a historian and did a lot of research; I would have like to know more about that research, including which parts of the story are factual and which are manufactured to make it a good story. Am I encountering historical characters or a novelization of a romance that someone wished for? We can't know everything for sure but what DO we really know? Are the letters mentioned transcriptions of the actual letters or imagined versions? I just don't think that calling something a novel gives the author an excuse not to more clearly delineate fact vs. fiction when it's about someone who lived until 1989. You can read a shortened version of his amazing life in his obituary in the New York Times.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss; it comes out October 6, 2020. I recommend it for anyone but especially those of you who like novels with music themes, you know who you are.

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