Last week I obtained a copy of the last book by Sanford Friedman (1928–2010), Conversations with Beethoven.
The first realization was to discover that indeed all the conversation notebooks that the composer used to contact the family and friends supporting his life. As he was able to speak, he would in turn read his conversation partner’s response and so complete the process of sharing ideas. It is at this point difficult to realize which parts of the novel were read by Beethoven and which ones are Friedman’s creations. But in any case, how well Conversations with Beethoven works as fiction will depend on the engagement and imaginative powers of the reader. I for one have never read or heard of a book all at once so compelling and puzzling.
Apart from a few letters from Beethoven and a short sequence of his words printed in italic, the text consists primarily of speech derived from the notebooks. It is not claimed, so far as I can see, that any of the speeches in the novel are transcripts of the historical notes; they appear to be freely adapted or invented by the author. Each sequence of “dialogue” – if one can call it that — begins with one of the titles of address. Since the book has no narrator, they are the equivalent of speaker-names in a dramatic script, letting us know who has in front of the composer.
Because the interlocutors are writing and the composer is speaking, we of course must guess at his side of the conversations, based upon the others’ sometimes angry, frustrated, or surprised responses. Most of the dialogue in the book consists of longer blocks of speech, but the puzzle for the reader is unrelenting, and not fully solvable; that is, you can never be sure of what exactly the great man has said. precisely the charm and eloquence of the writing relies on how much you have heard about his miseries, delights, dreams, and nightmares. It seems that many of the conversation sequences will grow and evolve as long as the readers understanding of Beethoven as an artist and person develops. In a very real and tangible way, the conversations with the composer start when you finish reading Friedman’s novel.
About the author:
Sanford Friedman (1928–2010) was born in New York City. After graduating from the Horace Mann School and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, he was stationed as a military police officer in Korea, earning a Bronze Star. He began his career as a playwright and theater producer, and was later a writing instructor at Juilliard and SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders). “Ocean,” a chapter from Totempole, was serialized in Partisan Review in 1964 and won second prize in the 1965 O. Henry Awards. Totempole (1965) was followed by the novels A Haunted Woman (1968), Still Life(1975), and Rip Van Winkle (1980).
At the time of his death, Friedman left behind an unpublished manuscript for the novel; NYRB Classics has done a service in bringing it to light, since intelligent novels on the subject of composers—or musicians of any kind—rarely come along.
Thank you Aurelie for this most welcome present.