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Conversations with Beethoven
By Sanford Friedman
New York Review of Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
You might think a book called Conversations with Beethoven is pretty niche. That title's got "reserved for Beethoven fans" stamped all over it, right? Even if it doesn't, the fact that it's built around hypothetical exchanges with the famous composer must put it square in that camp. After all, this novel is built on two biographical tidbits: that Beethoven's friends and family had to communicate with him through writing as his deafness grew worse, and that Beethoven worried about his nephew Karl, whom he perceived as wayward. So what we have here is a book for Beethoven fans and only Beethoven fans, right?
Not so fast. I have to point out the impressive stylistic device that drives this novel forward. I'm not talking about the conversations themselves, although those are pulled off quite well: while no conversation is attributed, each character has their own distinct mannerisms, so it's easy to work out who's who once you have everything together. No, it's the magnificent use of inference this novel makes. See, Beethoven's replies aren't included in the text, although they're easily guessed by the reader. Who, in that sense, becomes Friedman's vision of Beethoven. Yes, Friedman rather leads you through your role, but that's an inevitable consequence of the form; the story still has to move, but the story moves via the reader's guided interactions with the text.
Which has, as such things often go, an effect beyond simple showing off. It brings out the earthier and more unpleasant side of the venerated composer. We barely see Beethoven as the compositional genius at all here; we see him as controlling, fickle, crass, easily upset and suspect to piles of flattery. Not only does this take the composer out of the (cold, borderline-dehumanized) canon and bring him into our world, it also invites the reader to wonder how these unpleasant characteristics might've contributed to the man's music. The relationship between artist's temperament and art is mostly implicit, but it's here, and that's what makes it more than a weekend read for Beethoven fans.
Out of 10: 8.8