Wolf Wondratschek: Selbstbild mit russischem Klavier (Self-Portrait with Russian Piano)
This novel is narrated by an unnamed Austrian, about whom we learn relatively little, except that he lives in Vienna. One day he meets Suvorin a retired Russian classical pianist, in a café. They become friends, meeting regularly at the La Gondola Italian restaurant, where Suvorin is treated with considerable indulgence by the waiters.
Suvorin was born and bred in a rural Russian village and he looks back on his time there with some nostalgia. His life was not always easy. He was in Leningrad during the war, where the people used to say We would be better off in Siberia, and were being serious. However, he became a successful concert pianist and, eventually, was allowed to travel abroad to perform.
As far as the Soviet authorities were concerned, he had two problems. He did not particularly like Russian composers. Beethoven was by far his favourite and we will see his tributes to Beethoven throughout the book. He also liked Brahms and Mozart. He is not too keen on Bach but accepts he is an integral part of the repertoire.
His second problem, as far as the Soviet authorities were concerned, was that he did not like applause. In fact he hated it. He was told that the audience had paid their money and were entitled to some expression for that money. One friend suggested that, after a performance, he should immediately fake a heart attack and fall off his chair. That would shut them up. He did not follow her suggestion.
One day he received a visit from a Soviet official who wanted him to lead him back to the Soviet way. Art, Comrade Suvorin, belongs to the people. Did he not love his people? Suvorin mercilessly mocked the official. As a result, his piano was taken away but he managed to get one – not as good – from a friend. However, he and his wife eventually left the Soviet Union and ended up in Vienna. She always wanted to go back. He did not.
Suvorin and his wife had a happy marriage but, one day, as she was crossing the street to go the the baker’s and buy her favourite buns, she was knocked down by a bus and killed. They had two children but the two have moved away. His daughter bought him a computer so that they could exchange emails but though he did use the computer, he did not answer emails. She bought him a mobile phone but he refused to accept it.
However, this book is, above all, about growing old. For Suvorin, this means two things. Firstly, there are the normal problems of getting old. Today I’m a smelly old person in a dark apartment, which now that my wife is dead is far too big. I live on a diet of medication, very expensive medication. I don’t have a choice. I am old. I am trapped in a body, without hope.
Secondly, he is no longer a famous pianist but just an old man. He no longer plays the piano. Indeed, as far as he is concerned, the piano is a piece of furniture you put photos on top of. Nor does he go to concerts.
He does read. Indeed, he says, he likes Russian writers far more than Russian composers. Real books should be the offspring not of daylight and casual talk but of darkness and silence, he says, quoting Proust. He particularly likes dictionaries and encyclopedias, both to help him improve his German and just to learn.
Suvorin may have become a solitary old man but he does talk and talk when with the narrator, telling him his feelings on everything, from comments on other performers to a discussion of the Russian soul, from a discussion on what perfection is to his early dreams of being a bar pianist in San Remo, from his performance (On good days I was a pianist, on bad days a piano player) to the problems of old age. What can a man count on once his life has collapsed, what talent, what aspect of his character? What is it that not even his own death could take from him? How about resolve?
He never asks the narrator about his life so the narrator decides to write him a letter, telling him about his life. We learn that as, a child and young man he loved opera. He and his mother used to go, though his father despised opera. He decides he wants to be an opera singer. We assume his father forbade it, though the details are not given.
Suvorin does have other musical friends, in particular a retired cellist called Heinrich Schiff, of whom he is slightly envious, not least because Schiff owns a Rolls Royce. Schiff, too, is ageing and will die during the course of the book. He is portrayed by Suvorin as surly and too sensitive.
As a book about an artist who has lost his raison d’être, this is very well done. There are lot of novels about ageing – here is a Guardian list – but this one is certainly an excellent one, not least because we see Suvorin through the eyes of the narrator and learn only a little about the narrator, but enough to show he has an interest in music. Suvorin may have some of the stereotypes of an old man – grumpy, solitary, opinionated – but his casual abandonment of his music makes him that more interesting, even while he talks about music, performers and composers. This is Wondratschek’s first novel translated into English.
First published 2018 by Ullstein
First English translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2020
Translated by Marshall Yarbrough