Artist as a Vile Man (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. In this tale of classical music in wartime, career trumps conscience The Emperor Nero, legend has it, fiddled while Rome burned. Now here comes Hermann Kapp-Dortmunder, the protagonist of Henry Grinberg's novel "Variations on the Beast," out to emulate him. As Nazi-occupied Europe is burning to cinders during World War II, the high-flying conductor merrily swings the baton in Berlin, having the time of his life. He philanders, he parties, and he rides high on his fame. Life is "near heaven itself," as he puts it. "Variations on the Beast" is a portrait of the artist as a vile man. The presumptuously named Kapp-Dortmunder (his original name of Ferenc Kapp was Germanized by the Hungarian-born musician to better fit his new identity as an authentic ?bermensch) narrates his life in a sprawling symphony of anecdotes - now sinuous and legato, now abrupt and staccato - as if reminiscing to a table companion over steins brimming with frothing cold ale in a backstreet bierhaus, a decade and a half after the end of the war. Yet his memoirs are a cautionary tale. Grinberg, a retired professor of literature at the City College of New York and a practicing psychoanalyst, allows us to follow the arc of Kapp-Dortmunder's career. Starting as a headstrong musical prodigy in a provincial Hungarian town, he becomes a dissembling and ruthlessly ambitious conservatory student in Vienna during the Nazis' rise, before rising to feted Herr Generalmusikdirektor in wartime Berlin and a star conductor afterwards. During the early part of the book, Grinberg fashions sharply focused sepia snapshots, as seen through Kapp-Dortmunder's eyes, of Central-Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Borders of emerging nation states were being redrawn haphazardly in post-Great War settlements, calling into question people's national identities and sowing the seeds of another war. Grinberg's research into the conflicted, frequently bigoted mindsets of contemporary Magyars, Austrians and Germans is scrupulous. He even seasons his characters' dialogues with idiosyncratic vernacular expressions (though his English translations of typical Hungarian phrases are sometimes slightly off). Yet his novel points beyond a sad chapter in European history and confronts us with a timeless question. "How [is] it possible," the 17-year-old Kapp ponders, while being tormented at the Vienna conservatory where he is studying by a small-minded sadistic teacher who is also a gifted pianist, "that a man who could play as beautifully as Herr Schneidermann could also be such a brute?" In other words, can artistic expression, however inspired, be dissociated from the moral character of the artist? Should it be? In Grinberg's telling, the answer is no. His characterization of the novel's despicably self-centered protagonist defies Hannah Arendt's dictum that evil is banal. Kapp-Dortmunder's evil comes from blind arrogance and raging narcissism. Pathetically conceited, he's blissfully oblivious of his shortcomings and the devastating effect his callousness has on people around him, including Krisztina, a young Hungarian violinist, the only person for whom he professes what he thinks of as love. Kapp-Dortmunder is a poster boy for celebrated artists whose stunning virtuosity masks a stunted, loathsome spirit. He's all technique but no soul: his rampant ego towers flamboyantly even over those of his fellow musicians, no shy breed. The impervious Fuehrer of a symphonic orchestra with "the power to engage and dismiss players at will," Kapp-Dortmunder boasts of being "the depository of a world-class cultural heritage." The novel's real appeal lies in its premise: When artistic expression is divorced from basic principles of morality and turns into a narcissistically self-aggrandizing pursuit, art becomes twisted and perverted in the service of the artist's own ego. Rather than reveal, or even sublimate, the human condition and universal human values, it distorts and corrupts them. "Variations on the Beast" testifies to that. Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.