German writer Wondratschek, best known for his 1969 novel When the Day Still Started With a Bullet Wound, returns with a tender character study of a wry and jaundiced former piano virtuoso. The unnamed narrator, a young Austrian man, has a chance meeting with Suvorin, a once-renowned Russian pianist, in a café in Vienna. They develop a yearslong routine of meeting at a nearby Italian restaurant. Suvorin reminisces about musicians he has known; his wife, who died in a tragic accident; and his favorite composers (especially Beethoven, whom he admires for his fearless individualism as much as for his musical genius). The narrator, whose own childhood dream of becoming an opera singer was thwarted by his engineer father, seems the perfect audience for the idiosyncratic Suvorin, who deplores applause and cherishes silence. When the narrator returns to the café after a year and a half, he’s greeted by a new staff, none of whom have heard of the pianist, leading him to unsettling metaphysical thoughts that Suvorin might have emerged from his imagination, or was a ghost. The author writes about music with intimacy and tenderness, and peppers his narrative with delightful anecdotes of the foibles of high-art celebrities. Wondratschek’s deeply felt meditation on the joys and sorrows of a life in music delivers the goods. (Sept.)
"[Self-Portrait with Russian Piano] is at once egoless, sly, profound, funny, authentic and utterly mysteriouswithout ever seeming to break a sweat . . . An immense humility encompasses the novel. In a world that shouts, this book is a song played softly, and slowly."
Ethan Hawke, The New York Times Book Review
“A tender character study of a wry and jaundiced former piano virtuoso . . . [Wondratschek] writes about music with intimacy and tenderness, and peppers his narrative with delightful anecdotes of the foibles of high-art celebrities. [His] deeply felt meditation on the joys and sorrows of a life in music delivers the goods.”
"Wondratschek’s layered narrative reflects on language, art, politics, and history, and though nothing much happens in it, there is plenty to think about . . . Readers with a bent for Thomas Mann and Elias Canetti will find this book a pleasure." Kirkus
"In Self-Portrait with Russian Piano, Wolf Wondratschek renders the experience of being in the world during the last seventy years as a prose sonata of beguiling intricacies and beatitudes, a strong sense of wreckage paired with the sublime consolations of music, art, sex, and intelligence. An autumnal andin the sense of the long viewdroll story told in scratches and claw marks, that speaks of today as if it were posthumous."
Gary Indiana, author of Horse Crazy and I Can Give You Anything But Love
Praise for Wolf Wondratschek
"Wondratschek is eccentric, monomaniacal, romantichis texts are imbued with a wonderful, reckless nonchalance. A romantic in a madhouse. To let Wondratschek's voice be drowned in the babble of today's literature would be a colossal mistake."
Patrick Süskind, author of Perfume
In this elegiac, deeply meditative work by distinguished German author Wondratschek, the narrator first encounters legendary Russian pianist Suvorin at a Viennese coffee house, and their friendship evolves over many subsequent conversations as Suvorin rambles through his memories. A prodigy who puzzled his native villagers, he eventually played major concert halls to thunderous applause he began to hate as more about the show of cheering than of what is being cheered—the music itself. The authorities are appalled—"Art, Comrade Suvorin, belongs to the people"—but advice from a stranger to "play what no one likes, then you won't get any applause" changes his life; he loses his audience with outrageously atonal work while enjoying Bach on his own. Yet in the end, he is a lonely old man, his wife dead and children remote, though still trying to find scraps of pleasure in life. Happiness is something you don't search for, Wondratschek reminds us, and we all wind toward death, the last "irrevocable folly of fate." VERDICT A thought-provoking study on the meaning of art and life; highly recommended.
Pensive, philosophically charged novel of old age and loss.
Two principal characters occupy the pages of prolific German novelist Wondratschek’s book. The first is a writer who fades into the background to privilege the second, his subject, a Russian pianist named Suvorin living in exile in Austria. “Vienna is full of Russians,” Wondratschek writes, “young and old, living and dead, poor and rich. Seems like every time the phone rings there’s another one, man or woman, arriving or leaving for good.” Suvorin was famed in his youth for his playing, but now he is “a forgotten celebrity” who nurses memories of the horrors of World War II (“Death came, and there was no one left to explain it”) and has to take “a little family” of pills every day. The only piano he now possesses, writes Wondratschek in a subtle turn, is in his mind—and even then, only as “a place to put photos.” (Naturally, Glenn Gould comes under discussion as having been “right to quit early.”) That mind is capacious, though, and inclined to seek meaning for all the things he has seen, heard, and experienced: the meaning of a mysterious cat that sheltered the headstone of a pianist whose gravesite he traveled to Paris to visit, of courage in the face of oppression (“Just think of young Brodsky, who on top of that was a Jew!”), and, memorably, of the idea of perfection, something known to a skilled carpenter, a soccer player, a mathematician, but elusive to the demanding Suvorin. Wondratschek’s layered narrative reflects on language, art, politics, and history, and though nothing much happens in it, there is plenty to think about. Wondratschek even sneaks in a few jokes through his two interlocutors, as when Suvorin writes to a daughter: “If it can be avoided, [the postcard] says, don’t marry an American.”
Readers with a bent for Thomas Mann and Elias Canetti will find this book a pleasure, if a somber one.