On the [in]credibility of novelists

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

How liberating to live in a spacious, comfortable, well equipped, quiet apartment with a generous view of the sea towards the east. One can retreat to it for weeks and not see a man — and listen to music, as I have, all day long, for weeks.

Yesterday, for instance, a chance hearing of William Kapell’s unusually beautiful rendering of Prokofiev’s otherwise deranged No. 7 (from his rediscovered Australian broadcasts) launched me into a full-blown listening of the 7th:  6 different versions by Richter (repeatedly) and one each by Gilels, Sokolov and Bronfman.

My memory may not serve me right:  is it possible that Kapell’s version was as beautiful as I remember it?  I seem fixated on the way the ending of the first movement trailed off into silence:  it sometimes happens that a small detail in a performance of a familiar work throws the whole thing into new light, makes it all glow in our mind with its novel strangeness. (In a way, everything is like this: a whole love affair may be colored by a chance spotting of morning dew). But there may have been other such details in the performance: I seem to remember, in the third movement, an unusual overemphasis of the rhythmic figure in the left hand.

Obviously, I have to find it and hear it again.

Now, of all the pianists I heard last night, Bronfman was the only one to achieve the great feat of making the 7th…  sound dull.

So, what to make of Roth’s description of a Bronfman performance:

I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew. When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air.

Nothing, apparently.

Roth is a novelist, and a novelist isn’t obliged to know anything about what he writes about. Which leaves a question: why ever read any novel? (Certainly, why ever read Roth?)

There is a deeper doubt here, too: a baffling thought, this: if a man is not in the position to judge Prokofiev’s 7th, is he in position to judge anything?

Perhaps, yes:  maybe Roth knows something about distressed debt analysis. Yet, a man who is not familiar with Prokofiev’s 7th (or Prokofiev in general); or one who is familiar with the music of Chopin but likes Pollinis interpretations (or those of Avdeeva), must have a mind somehow fundamentally different from mine — I mean, different in sensibility, the sole thing that matters for such a broad range of really important things in life as: the meaning of life, the management of relationships, the choice of upholstery for the sofa.

And if so, then his views of these things must also be irrelevant.  And if so, then, well, his novels can’t possibly matter.  Can they?

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