In 1965, Sanford Friedman published his first, and what must be his most famous, work, Totempole, which some have claimed is the first work in American fiction to feature a protagonist who is both Jewish and homosexual. He followed that up with a few works in the late 1960s and 1970s, publishing what would be his final book in his lifetime, Rip Van Winkle, in 1980, thirty years before his death in 1980. During those thirty years, Friedman struggled to write and finally publish an incredibly ambitious work: his Beethoven book, but he never saw it in print. This fall, along with Totempole, NYRB Classics published that book, Conversations with Beethoven (2014). And how exciting I found it, how saddened I am that Friedman didn’t get it published in his lifetime. This is a masterpiece.
While I knew — doesn’t everyone? — that Beethoven had gone deaf toward the end of his life, I did not know about his method of communicating with those around him. As he worked away the day, Beethoven kept a notebook beside him. He could talk to people, but if they wanted to tell him something they had to write it down. Apparently today many of these notebooks, featuring just one side of multiple conversations, are extant. That’s the jumping off point, the concept, of this novel: what we have here is a story about Beethoven’s tumultuous final year composed almost entirely of these half conversations.
What an interesting concept for a fictional biography: do not let the subject speak. In some minor ways, this reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant bio-pic that also strays from its subject, Andrei Rublev, where Tarkovsky more often than not tells the story of Rublev’s life by ignoring Rublev himself and focusing on the world around him. However, in Conversations with Beethoven it is very difficult to ignore the subject; Beethoven’s temper blasts at us from the white space between the entries, we sense his glare in words of whoever happens to be writing at the time. And, to be clear, every once in a while Friedman gives Beethoven the whole page, slipping in a letter every now and then.
When the book begins, Beethoven’s adopted son (really his nephew), Karl, whom Beethoven wrenched from the arms of his despised sister Johanna, is causing some anguish. Karl gets the opening section, a short letter to his Uncle Ludwig. In it, he explains that he’s finally decided it’s time to commit suicide. He seems rather okay with the idea of death:
There! the first birdcall. Except for Venus, there is scarcely a star to be seen. Now it is Sunday. In order not to disgrace you, I have put on my best coat and trousers, the ones cut from the English flannel that you bought for me last year. I wish to be buried next to my father, if indeed suicides are permitted burial there. Although I first threatened to take my life in May, I did not in fact buy the pistols until three weeks ago.
But we see that, though Karl can filled with equanimity when telling his ornery uncle about the pistols, he is distressed and probably half driven mad by Beethoven’s over-arching influence on his life. This drama, based on fact, takes us into the terrible relationship Beethoven had with his sister and his attempts to shape Karl into another Beethoven. In snippets, these half-conversations, we see Beethoven continue to exert his control over everything he can:
All the same there is still one matter unsettled. Since your nephew does not reach his majority until he is 24, a new guardian will have to be appointed.
Whom do you have in mind?
I am honored, naturally. However, in my view Dr. Bach would be a better choice.
Because, as you know, I am not an admirer of your nephew.
Ah! so it’s you who resorts to the cunning of Ulysses. When you put it that way, how can I refuse?
I laughed at myself, not at you. Ten years ago I frowned on your being his guardian, now I have agreed to be appointed.
However, control can only go so far. Beethoven has managed to keep it while going deaf. However, he recognizes that he is weakening, and he is increasingly paranoid of those around him, every day more distressed at his own mortality.
I’m a bit worried that to some the novel’s underlying construct might appear more like a gimmick than a strength. This is not the case. What surely started out as a kind of experiment or challenge for Friedman has allowed him to find a new way to express silent rage, horror, and loneliness. What a remarkable effect it has when the main character, the one we feel we see and hear so often, the one whose physical body is breaking down explicitly in front of us as we read the doctor’s reports, is rendered as silent as a ghost?
It’s a brilliant book about control and about the loss of control, and how each can be devastating for all involved.