American Fugue is at once a fictionalized biography of one of the most famous musicians of his time, and his contemporaries; a historical novel; a disillusioned meditation on the decadence of the West; a series of philosophical reflections on love, family and intimacy (including some racy sex scenes); a powerful evocation of the ravages of Nazism, Stalinism and Capitalism; a comedy of manners . . . It’s all in there: ambition and power, money and influence, success and failure, lost illusions and existential depression, sex and betrayal.
American Fugue is an engaging, thought-provoking, well written, entertaining read. A powerful, passionate, melancholic and affecting story, the author skilfully weaves historical events through the lives of the characters and period. It is a story of internal angst and pain, but also of love and humanity.
The story centres around the misadventures of two brothers, Franz and Oskar, whose lives are entwined with the life of the great classical pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, born in 1903 in Kiev. Their Jewish family had fled to New York during Hitler’s rise to power. Much of the narrative – which is structured like a fugue in classical music – takes place between Cuba and New York, at different times.
It has received mostly good reviews, although on publication, Le Tout Paris littéraire stoked controversy by asking how its author, president Macron’s French Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, could devote his time to French political life and also manage to write such a panoramic novel with a smattering of salacious scenes.
Le Maire is far from being the first French political heavyweight to have literary ambitions, however. The former prime minister, Édouard Philippe, has co-authored two thrillers; former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s novel The Princess and the President is about a romance between a French politician and a British princess rumoured to be the late Princess Diana; Edgar Faure wrote thrillers under a pseudonym; Malraux’s novels were made into films, etc.
“Perfection itself is imperfection,” Vladimir Horowitz
In 1949, the two brothers, Franz and Oskar, travel to Havana to hear the great Russian-American pianist Vladimir Horowitz perform Barber’s Sonata in E flat minor. Franz Wertheimer is destined for a career as a concert pianist, and his brother Oskar for a career in medicine. Their lives are changed forever when they meet the maestro after the concert.
Oskar, the narrator of this novel, becomes the great man’s psychiatrist. With loving exasperation and guilt, he watches over his big brother, Franz, an excellent pianist crushed by his imagined impossibility of achieving the perfection of his idol, Horowitz. Sinking into depression in the face of his failures as a property tycoon, the demands of Franz’s status-obsessed nouveau riche wife – a remorselessly spendthrift, selfish woman – become more extreme as he sinks deeper into despair; her behaviour contributes to his depression. Franz is blind-sided by his associates and divorced by his wife who hooks a successful big fish happy to support her obsessive desire for fur coats and ambitions for her two sons (who ignore their father) to ascend the social ladder. Oskar berates himself for abandoning his brother to care for Horowitz, and for not being there when Franz leaves New York to withdraw into solitary isolation, writing deranged letters to leading figures that are never posted. In stark contrast, Oskar enjoys success as one of New York’s leading psychiatrists, thanks in part to Horowitz. He marries his mistress, Julia, with whom he has been sexually obsessed since that first trip to Cuba in 1949.
Horowitz loves and courts success, and considers himself to be superior to his rivals Sviatoslav Richter and Arthur Rubinstein who also feature in the novel. His career is punctuated by interruptions because of severe bouts of depression underpinned by chronic stomach pain and colitis, (two years absence from 1936; twelve years from 1953 and three years in 1983 after his catastrophic tour in Japan). His highly-strung fragility is endearing while his vanity is infuriating. His wife Wanda Toscanini helps him through the worst times; she is both tender and tough when dealing with her beloved husband and his neuroses. Le Maire’s characters are complex and convincing; endearing, infuriating and, at times, ridiculous.
Le Maire describes and conjures a convincing personality informed by his knowledge of the musical world. The richness and complexity of the character conjured by him reflect the music of which Horowitz becomes the incarnation: “He will not let himself be pigeonholed in any one category, be it musical or sexual. He was Vladimir Horowitz, the pianist: ‘After all, I am Horowitz’. He was attracted to young men; he yielded to this attraction and fought it with the kind of rational deception comparable only to that of the ambiguity of the music. The double or triple melodic lines, the superposition of chords, its silences, came closest to conveying the essence of Vladimir Horowitz.”
Le Maire is an erudite polyglot. Certain characters pepper their words with either their mother tongue, or English, to mark a point; emphasize a point-of-view. Oskar’s father speaks German. The Cuban cab driver chatters in Spanish. A Hungarian teacher quotes Latin. Horowitz speaks a smattering of English. As was the case in that cosmopolitan era, they all manage to understand each other.
American Fugue is underpinned by valuable insights into key ideologies and events of the 20th century. French literature is known for its intellectual and philosophical depth, and fiction by French authors invariably delves into complex themes, existential questions, and philosophical musings, appealing to readers looking for stimulating writing. American Fugue offers universal perspectives about human experience which would resonate with English-speaking readers across borders, regardless of nationality.
However, given its great length (480pp), and the angst-ridden bottom line mentality of the publishing industry on both sides of the Atlantic, it is unlikely that this engrossing baggy monster of a novel will be translated – be it by myself, or another enthusiastic translator, or two of us working in collaboration. Never be afraid to dare – if only!
“Scriabin slept with Chopin under his pillow, and I slept with Wagner under mine. I could not concentrate on memorizing Bach fugues, but I had all of ‘Götterdämmerung’ in my fingers,” Vladimir Horowitz
Editions Gallimard 480 pages | Published 01-04-2023 ISBN : 9782072914034
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