The Magazine

Words and Music

What can happen when Art serves Power.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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The Savior

A Novel

by Eugene Drucker

Simon & Schuster, 224 pp., $14

Goldberg: Variations

by Gabriel Josipovici

Harper Perennial, 208 pp., $13.95

The outside world's impression of a given artistic endeavor will nearly always pale in comparison with the epic potency its creator's mind attributes to it. And who can blame creators for believing so? After all, no less than Vincent Van Gogh, the two Franzes (Schubert and Kafka), and John Kennedy Toole, to name a few, have shuffled off this mortal coil with little fanfare, only to find posthumous praise and immortality.

All the more reason why these two recent novels--The Savior, by the renowned violinist Eugene Drucker, and Goldberg: Variations, by the acclaimed British novelist Gabriel Josipovici--are so fascinating: Both tales center on artists who somehow fail, with profound implications, to fully recognize their own brilliance until under duress.
The story told by Drucker in his debut novel could not be darker: During the waning hours of World War II, young German violinist Gottfried Keller is compelled to perform at a concentration camp as part of a Nazi experiment to rejuvenate a select group of shell-shocked Jewish prisoners.

Keller is a sad-sack, go-along-to-get-along type. He spends his days serving the Wehrmacht, performing for ungrateful wounded soldiers. At night he carefully places SS-praising red herring entries into his diary to appease any snooping authorities. He lives perhaps a bit too easily with the guilt of having failed to defend his best friend and the love of his life, both Jews, from prewar prejudice. The closest he comes to rebellion is practicing Bartok and Berg compositions: "There was .  .  . a kind of titillation, a furtive thrill as he closed all the windows and doors in his apartment, put on a heavy practice mute and tackled 'degenerate' music that had been banned from the concert stage."

The violinist's biggest gripe against the Nazis seems to be the party's penchant for coarseness as enculturation and, thus, he is susceptible to the relative highbrow charms of the commandant running the camp. Here is a Nazi authority figure who not only gives Keller permission to perform "degenerate" music, but conspiratorially derides Keller's Wehrmacht audiences as men who "couldn't possibly understand Bach."

When the commandant demands that the violinist "be an Orpheus" to the prisoners and "thaw their frozen souls," he is flattering him as an artist, and Keller chooses to believe the experiment must have some inexplicably positive end.

It works. Soon enough, the co-opted violinist is passionately thundering through Paganini caprices before prisoners to "grab their attention, banish their listlessness with dazzling effects." The challenge opens up reservoirs of virtuosity in Keller, enabling him to slowly draw his captive audience, weeping, back from the land of the living dead. Drucker dazzles, too, following the rote, ubiquitous write-what-you-know advice while never alienating with his expertise.

Unpacking Bach's Partita in D Minor, for example, the neophyte novelist paints a portrait of note flurries shifting "from urgency to repose and back again, never straying from its key, reworking the same harmonies in ever-shifting guises" slowly building into a piece "full of the joys and sorrows of this life, and a yearning for something beyond."

Drucker enables Keller's music to shade the mood and atmosphere of the narrative. When a prisoner surreptitiously tells Keller he's rekindled "the language of the heart" in prisoners' souls, the violinist briefly attains a transcendental sense of purpose and destiny, only to watch in horror as the commandant shortly thereafter orders a mass execution.

"You get satiated, bored--especially when they don't resist, when they no longer seem to feel what you're doing to them," the commandant muses when Keller begs for the collective life of his audience, adding, "If you can find a way to raise their hopes, they'll be at your mercy again."

Some prisoners jeer the violinist en route to their death, and he's left with the commandant's parting shot ("You really present no threat to the Third Reich. In your heart .  .  . you're an accomplice") and the knowledge that his ultimate artistic achievement--his finally uncovered genius, really--provided essential accompaniment to a symphony of torture and murder.

The stakes are not nearly as high in Gabriel Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations, yet the core theme of unrecognized artistic power and the novel's title and structure--in homage to Bach's 30 harpsichord pieces of the same title--make it almost a sister tome to The Savior.

Goldberg: Variations opens with a poverty-stricken novelist's first encounter with Tobias Westfield, a belligerent, wealthy insomniac who has paid the author to read him to sleep nightly. The catch is that Westfield, implausibly insisting he has read every worthwhile published story, demands the reading be a story composed that day, and he is not interested in any gripes about creativity on demand: "You are a writer, not a thinker," Westfield tells Samuel Goldberg, the earnest author. "I, alas, am a thinker. That is why you can sleep but I cannot."

On the fly and under pressure, Goldberg composes a series of interrelated stories--each, to borrow a snippet of Eugene Drucker's beautiful prose, "reworking the same harmonies in ever-shifting guises." Goldberg alternately casts himself impressing a Victorian royal court with his interpretation of John Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day," and then failing to hold the interest of a wife who adores the great artist she is sure resides within him, but is disenchanted by the self-absorbed brooding accompanying it.

Elsewhere in this series of difficult-to-follow stories, Goldberg's poet-friend descends into a creatively impotent insanity when his muse departs: "You see, your Lordship, a comma, a tiny little comma," the poet exclaims when he reads another's verse. "But without it the whole world would fall over. It would simply keel right over."

By placing the words in the mouth of a madman, Goldberg maintains plausible deniability concerning the sentiment expressed. But as the novel progresses, and Goldberg's stories become more assured and philosophical, it becomes clear he is beginning to accept the power of imagination. And it is not long before Goldberg turns on his employer.

During the carriage ride to Westfield's house--which may be a recounting or simply another tale composed on the fly--Goldberg and the driver discuss a recently discovered "wild boy"--which is to say, a boy of the traditional trees-and-wolves wild, not a child star with a cocaine-dusted nose outside a Hollywood club:

It does not take much, Goldberg says, to reduce us to his level.

Then you do not hold with the theories of M. Rousseau, Hammond says, that it is to his exalted level that we should all aspire? M. Rousseau and his opponents all speak the same language, Goldberg says. For the one our present civilization shows us the depths to which man can fall, for the other the heights to which he can rise. What is there to choose between them?

Both The Savior and Goldberg: Variations seem to suggest unheralded artistic heights may lead to the plummeting depths of civilization. "He paid me well, but what I did for him was beyond all payment," Goldberg writes to his wife in a farewell note as the once-dedicated husband and father prepares to unencumber himself of family and civilization, a wild boy with inkwell embarking on the path of the true artist. "Not one world but a multitude of worlds have come into being and then passed away since I kissed you goodbye and got into Hammond's carriage," he adds, heralding his emergence as a great artist, above common concerns and responsibilities. What can a wife, child, and gainful employment mean to a creator of worlds?

Drucker and Josipovici both offer well-crafted worlds, full of affecting situations and characters. As with Drucker's Keller, Goldberg has realized his power--and, if not in such a dramatic, visceral fashion, it has likewise ruined his life. Yet it's hard to shake the conclusion that only an extraordinarily accomplished musician and novelist, respectively, would be so bold as to portray their proven skills as powerful forces akin to a shotgun with the safety off.

Shawn Macomber is currently at work on a book about global class warfare.