Book Review: The Piano Student

“Criminality and remorselessness are not prerequisites for making art, but sometimes art is created by the criminal and remorseless”

The Piano Student, by Lea Singer (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer), centres on an affair between one of the 20th century’s most celebrated pianists, Vladimir Horowitz, and his young male student, Nico Kaufmann, in the late 1930s. Based on unpublished letters by Horowitz to Kaufmann, the novel portrays the acclaimed musician’s duplicity and frustration due to his never publicly acknowledged homosexuality, and the resultant price paid by those close to him.

The story is structured as a conversation between two gentlemen in 1986. Reto Donati is frontrunner for the highest position on Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court. He is engaged to be married. The book opens with two men arriving at Donati’s house to administer a poison that will end his life, with consent. Donati has, however, changed his mind and fled. He seeks out a bar with a resident pianist in Zurich’s fourth district (Kreis 4). He needs someone to play Träumerei (Dreaming) by Schumann for him. After several fruitless searches he comes across Kaufmann, a one time local prodigy who never fulfilled his expected potential. The music is played and the two men leave the bar together. Recognising that Donati is in crisis, Kaufmann offers use of his guest room.

Träumerei is significant to both men. Over drinks they begin to share their histories. Both are homosexuals and grew up in a time when admitting to this would have resulted in ostracisation. When they hear on the radio that Horowitz is to perform in his home city, Moscow, for the first time in sixty-one years, Kaufmann is inspired to take a road trip with Donati during which he will tell of the affair he had with the renowned pianist. He can empathise with Donati’s misery and wishes to offer a distraction.

There is much dialogue in the ensuing tale. At times rereads of sections were required to work out who was speaking. The gentlemen travel in Kaufmann’s car with Donati driving. Over the coming days they visit places that were significant during the Kaufmann and Horowitz affair.

Horowitz was not long married when he was first introduced to the young piano student. His wife, Wanda, was the daughter of a famous conductor, Arturo Toscanini. The marriage was not a happy one and Horowitz was treated with disdain by Wanda’s family. Toscanini could not bear any man who displayed what he regarded as effeminate characteristics. When Wanda recognised what was going on between her husband and the handsome young Kaufmann she did what she could to keep them apart. This included alerting Kaufmann’s parents who he still lived with in Kreis 4. They demanded he seek psychiatric treatment in pursuit of a cure.

Such attitudes towards homosexuals are distressing to consider. Men married to allay suspicion, thereby condemning wives to unfulfilling existences. What comes to the fore though is the wider cruelties inflicted by the successful artists pressurised by society to live this way. Their actions may be born of frustration but are exacerbated by temperament. Sublime art can be created by those with dark hearts.

In his early years, Horowitz had experienced life under communist Russia. His affluent family had lost their standing and possessions, forced to move to a cramped apartment and carry out assigned work. Their son escaped the Soviet Union and met with rapturous success. Horowitz’s father was allowed one visit to hear him play, and on return sent to a Gulag. Horowitz was suspicious of any who tried to het close to him – including Kaufmann – questioning motive. He was volatile and demanding, voyeuristic in his attention to the details of Kaufmann’s other assignations.

The buildup to the Second World War is in the background of this story and offers timely threads. German Jews were escaping over the border but many in Switzerland resented their growing presence. The wealthy continued to attend concerts and travel around European cultural centres, the prospect of war regarded as an inconvenience.

Through his connection to Horowitz, Kaufmann met many of the revered classical musicians of the day. Whatever they suspected of the relationship, it was never acknowledged.

Donati shares with Kaufmann his own love story, also kept secret for the sake of his career.

“Was he crying at the thought of everything he’s done?
I’d say more likely at the thought of everything he hasn’t done.”

The writing offers a slow build, taking some time before the reader is in tune with the cadence. There is then a fascinating and always engaging middle section offering emotional resonance. By the time the final silence falls my very soul and heart were vibrating. The power of the story is unexpected with an intensely satisfying denouement. A haunting and at times heartbreaking read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Turnaround who distribute for the publisher, New Vessel Press, within the UK.