Sonata for Three Hands

The Kreutzer Sonata

by Margriet de Moor, translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty
Arcade, 156 pp., $19.95

Beethoven was the first to employ the title Kreutzer Sonata (Kreutzer was the name of a violinist he admired: he hoped he would play the sonata, but that didn’t happen); after that, Tolstoy used it for his novella, and Leos Janácek as a nickname for his first quartet. It was brave of the Dutch novelist Margriet de Moor to join such a starry lineup with her new novel. Like Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, it is about jealousy. Its 156 pages could have been even fewer with a less generous layout. It has printed sixteenth notes instead of blobs or asterisks between the sections of each chapter, to underline the fact that the story is all about music and musicians. It covers more than twenty years in the lives of the three main characters, all of whom are in the music business in one way or another.

This is de Moor’s eighth novel, but before she began to write fiction in 1988, she was trained as a musician and had a professional career as a singer. In this story the unnamed first-person narrator is a young Dutch musicologist. The heroine, Suzanna Flier, plays first violin in a successful Dutch string quartet. She is young, beautiful, lighthearted, talented, and the daughter of a bus driver. The most interesting of the three is a blind man, the “patrician-born” middle-aged music critic Marius van Vlooten. The narrator always refers to him by his surname. It distances him, and helps to make him a figure of respect, even awe—and later fear. Van Vlooten is blind because as a young student he tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the head, when the girl he loved—and who, he believed, loved him—went off to Venezuela with another man. But he didn’t get the angle of the gun quite right. He is still furious about that, and furious about almost everything else as well.

The narrator meets him for the first time on the plane from Schiphol Airport to Brussels, where they are to change planes for Bordeaux. There is a long wait, because the plane they were to catch has crashed at Heathrow. They are going to Bordeaux to attend a week of master classes for string quartets, in which a distinguished old Hungarian viola player called Eugene Lehner is to coach the participants—Suzanna and her three colleagues among them. When Lehner hears her perform, he tells her, “Don’t play the notes…just humanize them”: an injunction which sticks in her mind and she repeats it to herself later. She and her colleagues play Janácek’s first quartet, which he himself “humanized” in his own way. In a letter to his beloved Kamila Stösslova he wrote:

I had in mind a poor woman, tormented, beaten, battered to death, as the Russian writer Tolstoy wrote in his work The Kreutzer Sonata.

Much of the novel consists of conversations between the narrator and van Vlooten that recall the events of …

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