The Piano Student

Lea Singer, Elis­a­beth Lauf­fer (trans.)

  • Review
By – November 4, 2020

On the eve of World War II, Vladimir Horowitz, the renowned Russ­ian-born Jew­ish pianist, was liv­ing in Europe and prepar­ing to re-emerge as a con­cert per­former. After mar­ry­ing the daugh­ter of mas­ter con­duc­tor Arturo Toscani­ni in 1933, Horowitz had been absent from the stage for a num­ber of years. What lay behind his absence?

Lea Singer’s nov­el The Piano Stu­dent (in Ger­man Der Klavier­schüler) spec­u­lates on Horowitz’s cri­sis as a per­former based on let­ters Singer (the pen name of Ger­man cul­tur­al his­to­ri­an Eva Gesine Baur) dis­cov­ered in a Swiss library. Dur­ing part of this peri­od, the let­ters reveal, Horowitz was engaged in a rela­tion­ship with a young Swiss musi­cian named Nico Kauf­mann. The poten­tial scan­dal and the inten­si­ty of the rela­tion­ship had many reper­cus­sions for Horowitz and for Nico, all of which played out against a back­ground of a world head­ing toward world war. The nov­el looks back ret­ro­spec­tive­ly on the events of the late 1930s from Nico’s per­spec­tive in the late 1980s as he trav­els for sev­er­al days through Switzer­land vis­it­ing the scenes of his long-ago affair, accom­pa­nied by a stranger, a Swiss lawyer named Donati, whom he meets in a down-at-heels bar.

The nov­el draws out many themes that res­onate in today’s world on the nature of sex­u­al iden­ti­ty and art, espe­cial­ly the rela­tion­ship between pas­sion and art and suf­fer­ing and cre­ativ­i­ty. Nico pro­vides a mov­ing analy­sis of Horowitz’s strug­gle with his sex­u­al­i­ty and his desire for what his wife and father-in-law and the gen­er­al pub­lic con­sid­ered nor­mal, which par­al­lels Nico’s own strug­gle with his mid­dle-class par­ents and the con­flict expe­ri­enced by Nico’s com­pan­ion. He con­cludes that Horowitz’s desire to be con­sid­ered nor­mal” con­tra­dict­ed every­thing in his art.

While the nov­el presents its themes with sen­si­tiv­i­ty and restraint, the blend­ing of doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion doesn’t always work effec­tive­ly. The let­ters Nico reads to his com­pan­ion are pre­sum­ably the let­ters Singer/​Baur found and thus a gen­uine expres­sion of Horowitz, but Horowitz remains some­what opaque as a char­ac­ter. The novel’s con­struc­tion seems con­trived in its trav­el­ogue struc­ture and the under­de­vel­oped thread about Donati. At its best, how­ev­er, The Piano Stu­dent illu­mi­nates the sac­ri­fices artists make for their art. It also, as Nico tells his com­pan­ion at the end, shows us the pos­si­bil­i­ties” of life.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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