A portrait of the artist as an old man
Vienna is an uncanny, magical, and sometimes brutally alienating city. The past lives on in the cafés where lost souls come to kill time and hash over the bygone glories of the twentieth century—or maybe just a recent love affair. In one of these cafés, our anonymous narrator meets a strange character, “like someone out of a novel”: a decrepit old Russian named Suvorin. A Soviet pianist of international renown, he committed career suicide when he developed a violent distaste for the sound of applause. This eccentric gentleman—sometimes charming, sometimes sulky, sometimes disconcertingly frank—knows the end of his life is approaching, and allows himself to be convinced to tell his life’s story. Over a series of coffee dates, punctuated by confessions, anecdotes, and rages—and by the narrator’s schemes to keep his quarry talking—a strained friendship develops between the two men, and it soon becomes difficult to tell who is the more dependent on the other.
Rhapsodic and melancholic, with shades of Vladimir Nabokov, W. G. Sebald, Hans Keilson, and Thomas Bernhard, Wolf Wondratschek’s Self-Portrait with Russian Piano is a literary sonata circling the eternal question of whether beauty, music, and passion are worth the sacrifices some people are compelled to make to them.