Toward the end of his life, Stravinsky decided to bring his whole oeuvre together in a great recorded edition of his own performances, as pianist or conductor, so as to establish an authorized sonic version of all his music. This wish to take on the role of performer himself often provoked an irritated response. How fiercely Ernest Ansermet mocked him in his 1961 book: when Stravinsky conducts an orchestra, he is seized “by such panic that, for fear of falling, he pushes his music stand up against the podium rail, cannot take his eyes off a score he knows by heart, and counts time!” He interprets his own music “literally and slavishly.” “When he performs all joy deserts him.”
Why such sarcasm?
I open the Stravinsky letters: the correspondence with Ansermet starts in 1914; 146 letters by Stravinsky: My dear Ansermet, My dear fellow, My dear friend, Very dear, My dear Ernest; not a hint of tension; then, like a thunderclap:
Paris, October 14, 1937:
In great haste, my dear fellow.
There is absolutely no reason to make cuts in Jeu de cartes in concert performances…. Compositions of this type are dance suites whose form is rigorously symphonic and require no audience explanation, because there are no descriptive elements illustrating theatrical action, which would interfere with the symphonic evolution of the pieces as they are played in sequence.
If this strange idea occurred to you, of asking me to make cuts, it must be that you personally find the sequence of movements in Jeu de cartes a little boring. I cannot do anything about that. But what amazes me most is that you try to convince me to make cuts in it—me, who just conducted it in Venice and who reported to you the enthusiastic response of the audience. Either you forgot what I told you, or else you do not attach much importance to my observations or to my critical sense. Furthermore, I really do not believe that your audience would be less intelligent than the one in Venice.
And to think that it is you who proposed to cut my composition, with every likelihood of distorting it, in order that it might be better understood by the public—you, who were not afraid to play a work as risky from the standpoint of success and listener comprehension as the Symphonies of Wind Instruments!
So I cannot let you make cuts in Jeu de cartes; I think it is better not to play it at all than to do so with reservations.
I have nothing to add, period.
On October 15, Ansermet’s reply:
I ask only if you would forgive me the small cut in the March from the second measure after 45 to the second measure after 58.
Stravinsky reacted on October 19:
…I am sorry, but I cannot allow you any cuts in Jeu de cartes.
The absurd one that you propose cripples my little March, which has its form and its structural meaning in the totality of the composition (a structural meaning that you claim to be protecting). You cut my March only because you like the middle section and the development less than the rest. In my view, this is not sufficient reason, and I would like to say: “But you’re not in your own house, my dear fellow”; I never told you: “Here, take my score and do whatever you please with it.”
I repeat: either you play Jeu de cartes as it is or you do not play it at all.
You do not seem to have understood that my letter of October 14 was quite categorical on this point.
Thereafter they exchanged only a few letters, chilly, laconic. In 1961, Ansermet published in Switzerland a voluminous book of musicology including a lengthy chapter that is an attack on the insensitivity of Stravinsky’s music (and his incompetence as a conductor). Only in 1966 (twenty-nine years after their dispute) was there this brief response from Stravinsky to a conciliatory letter from Ansermet:
My dear Ansermet,
Your letter touched me. We are both too old not to think about the end of our days; and I would not want to end these days with the painful burden of an enmity.
An archetypal phrase for an archetypal situation: often toward the end of their lives, friends who have failed each other will call off their hostility this way, coldly, without quite becoming friends again.
It’s clear what was at stake in the dispute that wrecked the friendship: Stravinsky’s author’s rights, his moral rights; the anger of an author who will not stand for anyone tampering with his work; and, on the other side, the annoyance of a performer who cannot tolerate the author’s proud behavior and tries to limit his power.
As I listen to Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Le Sacre du printemps, something seems odd about the famous lyrical passage for E-flat clarinet in the “Rondes printanières“; I turn to the score:
In Bernstein’s performance, this becomes:
The novel charm of the passage above lies in the tension between the melodic lyricism and the rhythm, which is both mechanical and weirdly irregular; if this rhythm is not executed exactly, with clockwork precision, if it is rubatoed, if the last note of each phrase is stretched out (which Bernstein does), the tension disappears and the passage becomes commonplace.
I think of Ansermet’s sarcasms. I prefer Stravinsky’s performance, a hundred times over, even if he does “push his music stand up against the podium rail and counts time.”
In his book on Janacek, Jaroslav Vogel, himself a conductor, discusses Kovarovic’s alterations to the score of Jenufa. He approves them and defends them. An astonishing attitude, for even if Kovarovic’s alterations were useful, good, or sensible, they are unacceptable in principle, and the very idea of arbitrating between a creator’s version and one by his corrector (censor, adapter) is perverse. Without a doubt this or that sentence of A la recherche du temps perdu could be better written. But where could you find the lunatic who would want to read an improved Proust?
Besides, Kovarovic’s alterations are anything but good or sensible. As proof of their soundness, Vogel cites the last scene of the opera, where, after the discovery of her murdered child and the arrest of her stepmother, Jenufa is alone with Laca. Jealous of her love for Steva, his half brother Laca had earlier slashed Jenufa’s face; now Jenufa forgives him: it was out of love that he had injured her, just as she herself had sinned out of love:
The allusion to her love for Steva, “as I once did,” is delivered very rapidly, like a short cry, in high notes that rise and break off; as if Jenufa is evoking something she wants to forget immediately. Kovarovic broadens the melody of this passage (he “makes it bloom,” as Vogel says) by transforming it like this:
Doesn’t Jenufa’s song, asks Vogel, become more beautiful under Kovarovic’s pen? And isn’t it still completely Janacekian? Yes, if you wanted to fake Janacek, you couldn’t do better. Nonetheless, the added melody is absurd. Whereas in Janacek, Jenufa recalls her “sin” rapidly, with suppressed horror, in Kovarovic she grows tender at the recollection, she lingers over it, she is moved by it (her song stretches out the words “love,” “I,” and “once did”). So there to Laca’s face she sings of her yearning for Steva, Laca’s rival—she sings of her love for Steva, the cause of all her misery! How could Vogel, a passionate supporter of Janacek’s, defend such psychological nonsense? How could he sanction it, when he knew that Janacek’s aesthetic rebellion is rooted precisely in his rejection of the psychological unrealism current in opera practice? How is it possible to love someone and at the same time misunderstand him so completely?
Still—and here Vogel is right—by making the opera a little more conventional, Kovarovic’s alterations did contribute to its success. “Let us distort you a bit, Maestro, and they’ll love you.” But there comes a time when the maestro refuses to be loved at such cost, and would rather be detested and understood.
What means does an author have at his disposal to make himself understood for what he is? Hermann Broch hadn’t many in the 1930s and in an Austria cut off from Germany turned fascist, nor later on in the loneliness of emigration: a few lectures explaining his aesthetic of the novel; then, letters to friends, to his readers, to his publishers, to his translators; he left nothing undone, taking great care, for instance, over the copy on his book jackets. In a letter to his publisher, he protests a proposal for a promotional line on the back cover of his novel The Sleepwalkers which would compare him to Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Italo Svevo. His counterproposal: that he be compared to Joyce and Gide.
Let’s look at this proposal: What is actually the difference between the Broch-Svevo-Hofmannsthal context and the Broch-Joyce-Gide context? The first context is literary in the broad, diffuse sense of the word; the second is specifically novelistic (the Gide of The Counterfeiters is the one Broch is claiming connection to). The first context is a small context—that is, local, Central European. The second is a large context—that is, international, global. By setting himself alongside Joyce and Gide, Broch is demanding that his novel be seen in the context of the European novel; he is aware that The Sleepwalkers, like Ulysses or The Counterfeiters, is a work that revolutionizes the novel form, that creates a new aesthetic of the novel, and that can only be understood against the backdrop of the history of the novel as such.
This demand of Broch’s is valid for every important work. I can’t repeat it too often: the value and the meaning of a work can be appreciated only in the greater international context. That truth becomes particularly pressing for any artist who is relatively isolated. A French surrealist, a “nouveau roman” author, a naturalistic nineteenth-century writer—each was borne along by a generation, by a movement known throughout the world; their aesthetic program preceded their work, so to speak. But what about Gombrowicz—where does he fit in? How are people to understand his aesthetic?
He left his country in 1939, at the age of thirty-five. For his credential as an artist, he brought with him only one book, his novel Ferdydurke, an ingenious work barely known in Poland, totally unknown elsewhere. He landed far from Europe, in Argentina. He was unimaginably alone. The great Argentine writers never came near him. Later the Polish anti-Communist émigrés had little curiosity about his art. For fourteen years, nothing happened to him, and then in 1953 he began to write and publish his Diary. It doesn’t tell us much about his life. It is primarily a statement of his position, a continuing aesthetic and philosophic self-interpretation, a handbook on his “strategy”—or better yet, it is his testament; not that he was thinking, at the time, of his death: but as a last, definitive wish he wanted to establish his own understanding of himself and his work.
He demarcated his position by three key refusals: a refusal to submit to engagement in Polish émigré politics (not that he had pro-Communist sympathies but because the principle of politically engaged art was repugnant to him); a refusal of Polish tradition (one can make something worthwhile for Poland, he said, only by opposing “Polishness,” by shaking off its heavy romantic legacy); lastly, a refusal of the Western modernism of the 1950s and 1960s—a modernism he saw as sterile, “unfaithful to reality,” ineffectual in the art of the novel, academic, snobbish, absorbed in its self-theorizing (not that Gombrowicz was less modern, but his modernism was different in nature). That third “clause of the testament” is most important and decisive—and is also doggedly misunderstood.
Ferdydurke was published in 1937, a year before Nausea, but as Gombrowicz was unknown and Sartre famous, Nausea, so to speak, usurped Gombrowicz’s rightful place in the history of the novel. Whereas Nausea is existential philosophy in a novel’s clothing (as if a professor had decided to entertain his drowsy students by teaching the lesson in the form of a novel), Gombrowicz wrote a real novel that ties into the old comic-novel tradition (as in Rabelais, Cervantes, Fielding), and so existential issues, about which he was no less passionate than Sartre, come across in his book as unserious and funny.
Ferdydurke is one of those major works (along with The Sleepwalkers and The Man Without Qualities) that I see as inaugurating the “third (or overtime) period” of the novel’s history, by reviving the forgotten experience of the pre-Balzac novel and by taking over domains previously reserved for philosophy. That Nausea, not Ferdydurke, became the exemplar of that new orientation has had unfortunate consequences: the wedding night of philosophy and the novel was spent in mutual boredom. Discovered some twenty or thirty years after their creation, Gombrowicz’s works, and Broch’s and Musil’s (and certainly Kafka’s), no longer had the potency required to seduce a generation and create a movement; interpreted by a different aesthetic school, which in many regards stood opposed to them, they were respected—even admired—but ill-understood, such that the greatest shift in the history of the twentieth-century novel went unnoticed.
As I’ve said before, this was also the case with Janacek. Max Brod put himself at Janacek’s service as he had at Kafka’s: with selfless ardor. He deserves praise: he gave himself over to the two greatest artists ever to live in my native land. Kafka and Janacek: both underrated; both with an aesthetic difficult to apprehend; both victims of the pettiness of their milieu. Prague represented an enormous handicap for Kafka. He was isolated there from the German literary and publishing world, and that was fatal for him. His publishers concerned themselves very little with this author whom they barely knew personally. In a book on this problem, Joachim Unseld, the son of a leading German publisher, shows that the most likely reason (I consider the idea very realistic) why Kafka left his novels unfinished is that no one was asking him for them. Because if an author has no definite prospect of publishing his manuscript, nothing forces him to put the finishing touches on it, nothing keeps him from moving it off his desk for the time being and going on to something else.
To the Germans, Prague was just a provincial town, like Brno to the Czechs. Both Kafka and Janacek were therefore provincials. Kafka was nearly unknown in this country whose population was alien to him, while Janacek, in the same country, was trivialized by his own people.
Anyone who wants to understand the aesthetic incompetence of the founder of Kafkology should read Brod’s monograph on Janacek. An enthusiastic work, it was certainly a great help to the underrated master. But how weak it is, how naive! With its lofty words—“cosmos,” “love,” “compassion,” “humiliated and insulted,” “divine music,” “hypersensitive soul,” “tender soul,” “soul of a dreamer”—and without the slightest structural analysis, the slightest attempt to get at the particular aesthetic of Janacek’s music. Knowing musical Prague’s hatred for the composer from the provinces, Brod wanted to prove that Janacek belonged to the national tradition and that he was every bit as good as the great Smetana, idol of the Czech national ideology. He became so obsessed by this provincial, narrow-minded, Czech-focused polemic that the rest of world music slipped out of his book, and of all composers of all periods, the only one mentioned is Smetana.
Ah, Max, Max! It’s no good rushing into the other team’s territory! All you’ll find there are a hostile mob and bribed referees! Brod failed to make use of his position as a non-Czech to place Janacek in the large context, the cosmopolitan context of European music, the only one where he could be defended and understood; he locked him back within his national horizon, cut him off from modern music, and sealed his isolation. Such first interpretations stick to a work, it never shakes them off. Just as Brod’s ideas would forever color all the literature on Kafka, so Janacek would forever suffer from the provincialization inflicted on him by his compatriots and confirmed by Brod.
Brod the enigma. He loved Janacek; he was guided by no ulterior motive, only by the spirit of justice; he loved him for the essential, for his art. But he did not understand that art.
I will never get to the bottom of the Brod mystery. And Kafka?—what did he think? In his 1911 diary, he tells this story: one day the two of them went to see a Cubist painter, Willi Nowak, who had just finished a series of lithograph portraits of Brod; in the Picasso pattern as we know it, the first drawing was realistic whereas the others, says Kafka, moved further and further off from their subject and wound up extremely abstract. Brod was uncomfortable; he didn’t like any of the drawings except for the realistic first one, which, by contrast, pleased him greatly because, Kafka notes with tender irony, “beyond its looking like him, it had noble and serene lines around the mouth and eyes….”
Brod understood Cubism as little as he understood Kafka and Janacek. Doing his best to free them from their social isolation, he confirmed their aesthetic aloneness. The real meaning of his devotion to them was: even a person who loved them, and thus was most disposed to understanding them, was alien to their art.
I am always surprised by people’s amazement over Kafka’s (alleged) decision to destroy all of his work. As if such a decision were a priori absurd. As if an author could not have reasons enough to take his work along with him on his last voyage.
It could in fact happen that on final assessment the author realizes that he dislikes his books. And that he does not want to leave behind him this dismal monument of his failure. I know, I know, you’ll object he is mistaken, that he is giving in to an unhealthy depression, but your exhortations are meaningless. He’s in his own house with that work, not you, my dear fellow!
Another plausible reason: the author still loves his work but not the world. He can’t bear the idea of leaving the work here to the mercy of a future he considers hateful.
And yet another possibility: the author still loves his work and doesn’t even think about the future of the world, but having had his own experiences with the public, he understands the vanitas vanitatum of art, the inevitable incomprehension that is his lot, the incomprehension (not underestimation, I’m not talking about personal vanity) he has suffered during his lifetime and which he doesn’t want to go on suffering post mortem. (It may incidentally be only the brevity of life that keeps artists from understanding fully the futility of their labor and making arrangements in time for the obliteration of both their work and themselves.)
Aren’t these all valid reasons? Of course. Yet they weren’t Kafka’s reasons: he was aware of the value of what he was writing, he had no declared repugnace for the world, and—too young and nearly unknown—he had had no bad experiences with the public, having had almost none at all.
Kafka’s testament: not a testament in the precise legal sense; actually two private letters; and not even true letters, in that they were never posted. Brod, who was Kafka’s legal executor, found them after his friend’s death, in 1924, in a drawer among a mass of other papers: one in ink, folded and addressed to Brod, the other more detailed and written in pencil. In his “Postscript to the First Edition” of The Trial, Brod explains: “In 1921…I told my friend that I had made a will in which I asked him to destroy certain things [dieses und jenes vernichten], to look through some others, and so forth. Kafka thereupon showed me the outside of the note written in ink which was later found in his desk, and said: ‘My last testament will be very simple: a request that you burn everything.’ I can still remember the exact wording of the answer I gave him:’…I’m telling you right now that I won’t carry out your wishes.”‘ Brod evokes this recollection to justify disobeying his friend’s testamentary wish. Kafka, he continues, “knew what fanatical veneration I had for his every word”; so he was well aware that he would not be obeyed and he “should have chosen another executor if his own instructions were unconditionally and finally in earnest.”
But is that so certain? In his own testament, Brod was asking Kafka “to destroy certain things”; why then wouldn’t Kafka have considered it normal to request the same service of Brod? And if Kafka really knew that he would not be obeyed, why, after their conversation in 1921, did he write that second, penciled, letter, in which he elaborates his instructions and makes them specific? But let’s drop it: we’ll never know what these two young friends said to each other on a subject that was, by the way, not their most urgent concern, since neither one of them, and Kafka especially, could at the time consider himself in serious danger of immortality.
It’s often said: if Kafka really wished to destroy what he had written, he would have destroyed it himself. But how? His letters were in the hands of the recipients. (He himself kept none of the letters he received.) It’s true that he could have burned his diaries. But they were working diaries (more notebooks than diaries), they were useful to him for as long as he was writing, and he wrote until his very last days. The same can be said of his unfinished works. Only in the event of death would they be irremediably unfinished; while he was still alive he could always get back to them. Not even a story he considers a failure is useless to a writer, as it can become material for another story. As long as he is not dying, a writer has no reason to destroy something he has written. But when Kafka was dying he was no longer at home, he was in a sanitarium and unable to destroy anything, he could only count on a friend’s help. And not having many friends, having finally but one, he counted on him.
People also say that wanting to destroy one’s own work is a pathological act. In that case, disobeying Kafka’s destructive wish becomes loyalty to the other Kafka, the creator. This touches on the greatest lie of the legend surrounding his testament: Kafka did not want to destroy his work. He expressed himself with utter precision in the second of those letters: “Of all my writings, only the books are worthwhile [gelten]: Judgment, Stoker, Metamorphosis, Penal Colony, Country Doctor, and a story: ‘Hunger Artist.’ (The few copies of Meditations can stay, I don’t want to put anyone to the trouble of pulping them, but nothing from that book is to be reprinted.)” Thus, not only did Kafka not repudiate his work, but he actually assessed it and tried to separate what should survive (what could be reprinted) from what fell short of his standards; there is sadness, severity, but no insanity, no blindness of despair in his judgment: he finds all his published books worthwhile except the first, Meditations, probably considering it immature (that would be hard to contradict). His rejection does not automatically concern everything unpublished, for he includes among the “worthwhile” works the story “A Hunger Artist,” which at the time he wrote the letter existed only in manuscript. Later on, he added to that piece three more stories (“First Sorrow,” “A Little Woman,” and “Josefine the Singer”) to make a book; he was correcting the proofs of this book in the sanitarium on his deathbed—nearly poignant evidence that Kafka had nothing to do with the legend of the author wanting to destroy his work.
His wish to destroy thus concerns only two clearly defined categories of writing:
—in the first place, most emphatically: the personal writings: letters, diaries;
—in the second place: the stories and the novels he had not, in his judgment, succeeded in bringing off.
I am looking at a window across the way. Toward evening the light goes on. A man enters the room. Head lowered, he paces back and forth; from time to time he runs his hand through his hair. Then, suddenly, he realizes that the lights are on and he can be seen. Abruptly, he pulls the curtain. Yet he wasn’t counterfeiting money in there; he had nothing to hide but himself, the way he walked around the room, the sloppy way he was dressed, the way he stroked his hair. His wellbeing depended on his freedom from being seen.
Shame is one of the key notions of the Modern Era, the individualistic period that is imperceptibly receding from us these days; shame: an epidermal instinct to defend one’s personal life; to require a curtain over the window; to insist that a letter addressed to A not be read by B. One of the elementary situations in the passage to adulthood, one of the prime conflicts with parents, is the claim to a drawer for letters and notebooks, the claim to a drawer with a key; we enter adulthood through the rebellion of shame.
An old revolutionary utopia, whether fascist or communist: life without secrets, where public life and private life are one and the same. The surrealist dream André Breton loved: the glass house, a house without curtains where man lives in full view of the world. Ah, the beauty of transparency! The only successful realization of this dream: a society totally monitored by the police.
I wrote about this in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Jan Prochazka, an important figure of the Prague Spring, came under heavy surveillance after the Russian invasion of 1968. At the time he saw a good deal of another great opposition figure, Professor Vaclav Cerny, with whom he liked to drink and talk. All their conversations were secretly recorded, and I suspect the two friends knew it and didn’t give a damn. But one day in 1970 or 1971, with the intent to discredit Prochazka, the police began to broadcast these conversations as a radio serial. For the police it was an audacious, unprecedented act. And, surprisingly, it nearly succeeded; instantly Prochazka was discredited: because in private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he’d never admit in public, and so forth.
Of course, we all act like Prochazka, in private we bad-mouth our friends and use coarse language; that we act differently in private from the way we do in public is everyone’s most conspicuous experience, it is the very ground of the life of the individual. Curiously, this obvious fact remains unconscious, unacknowledged, forever obscured by lyrical dreams of the transparent glass house, it is rarely understood to be the value one must defend beyond all others. Thus only gradually did people realize (though their rage was all the greater) that the real scandal was not Prochazka’s daring talk but the rape of his life; they realized (as if by electric shock) that private and public are two essentially different worlds and that respect for that difference is the indispensable condition, the sine qua non, for a man to live free; that the curtain separating these two worlds is not to be tampered with, and that curtain-rippers are criminals. And because the curtain-rippers were serving a hated regime, they were unanimously held to be particularly contemptible criminals.
When I arrived in France from that Czechoslovakia bristling with microphones, I saw on a magazine cover a large photo of Jacques Brel hiding his face from the photographers who had tracked him down in front of the hospital where he was being treated for his already advanced cancer. And suddenly I felt I was encountering the very same evil that had made me flee my country; broadcasting Prochazka’s conversations and photographing a dying singer hiding his face seemed to belong to the same world; I said to myself that when it becomes the custom and the rule to divulge another person’s private life, we are entering a time when the highest stake is the survival or the disappearance of the individual.
—Translated from the French by Linda Asher
September 21, 1995