An NYRB Classics Original
Deaf as he was, Beethoven had to be addressed in writing, and he was always accompanied by a notebook in which people could scribble questions and comments. Conversations with Beethoven, in a tour de force of fictional invention, tells the story of the last year of Beethoven’s life almost entirely through such notebook entries: Friends, family, students, doctors, and others attend to the volatile Maestro, whose sometimes unpredictable and often very loud replies we infer. A fully fleshed and often very funny portrait of Beethoven emerges. He struggles with his music and with his health; he argues with and insults just about everyone. Most of all, he worries about his wayward—and beloved—nephew Karl. A large cast of Dickensian characters surrounds the great composer at the center of this wonderfully engaging novel, which deepens in the end to make a memorable music of its own.
Conversations with Beethoven is a perfect portrait of an irascible genius. I always wanted to write a book about the tragic relationship between Beethoven and his nephew Karl, but it seems Sanford Friedman got there first. By relying on the format of the conversation books, Friedman cleverly cuts through all the tedious loquaciousness of the period; what we’re left with are the revelatory fossils of the last year of Beethoven’s anguished life.
Conversations with Beethoven is unclassifiable—a novel comprised exclusively of ‘oral’ speech, that reads rapidly on the page like a kind of music-poetry; a prose poem of numerous voices, in which passion (both declared and undeclared) is the driving force; an intimately detailed double portrait of Beethoven and his nephew Karl that will linger long in the memory, like the most beautiful and enigmatic music.
—Joyce Carol Oates
…a perfect grasp of ebbing mortality, in all its tedium and elusive clarity, informs the depiction of Beethoven’s final year…The novel’s brilliance lies in the discovery of the flawed human behind immortal genius: Friedman’s Beethoven is just like us.
—Publishers Weekly starred review
Readers see up close how a heroic romantic struggles to wrest from his powerful imagination one last work…while battling debilitating illness, painful yet ineffectual medical treatments, financial strains, and arduous travel…A compelling narrative of a titan’s final struggles.
—Booklist, starred review
The manuscript of Conversations with Beethoven was left unpublished at [Friedman’s] death; NYRB Classics has done a service in bringing it to light, since intelligent novels on the subject of composers—or musicians of any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.
—Alex Ross, The New Yorker