Monday, July 24, 2006

Like a Henry James story

I read this in the print version a few days ago, and am delighted it's now online so that I can commend it to your attention.

Michael Kimmelman at the New York Review of Books on the relationship between Stravinsky and his factotum Robert Craft (no subscription required):

Their association brings to mind the stories of Henry James. A bright but inconsequential young man insinuates himself into the life of a great artist. The artist is no longer young and his creative life, in a new country, despite the glamour and celebrity he enjoys, has come to seem to him a bit stale. His career as a revolutionary is presumed to be over. But he is restless and he is a person of exceptional energy and cunning. He now lives with his second wife, a vivacious, doting woman, a fellow exile, who was for years and quite openly his mistress. As for the young man, who was drawn to the older man's music as a boy, he is also steeped in the music that has displaced the older man's work. He is native in the older man's new country, a tireless cicerone, an unusually gifted writer, and eager to stir things up in the older man's life. Not incidentally, the young man works for nothing, or next to it, which is ideal because the old man is in love with money.

He widens the great man's knowledge as he also benefits from being in the great man's circle. Inherently unequal, their relationship, however, gradually becomes not one of a sycophant or a servant and his master but something far more complex. The younger man is ambitious, egocentric, prickly, and he knows how to push. He draws out of the great man a vast, rich, if often embellished and altered account of the past, and he helps set the composer on course for an unexpected renaissance, which entails a kind of artistic volte-face, and which revives the great man's fortunes. An acquaintance tells the young man, "Your labours for, with, about the immortal figure whom you now know better than anyone, assure you a place not merely in heaven (on which I am a poor authority) but on earth, too."

Not incidentally, the great man's wife is enamored of this intense, nervous, boyish-looking young man, who has spiced up her life and reinvigorated her husband's work. They are "all in love with each other," observes a friend about the household, whose dynamic shifts as the older man grows even older and the younger man's role expands—writing for the older man, taking over for him in the recording studio, on the podium. The wife certainly has enjoyed her husband's success, his genius, impishness, and wit, but she also endures his drunkenness and temper and grows increasingly terrified that the young man might leave one day. The young man sometimes treats the older man impatiently, even impertinently, as if the older man were a balky child or had wronged him—and this raises many eyebrows among people who admire the older man and who also wish to have access to him, or once had access but no longer do except through the young man.

Concert managers and producers have been told they had to accept the young man as a conductor when they wanted the great man for their concerts and recordings. Sometimes they don't accept, because the fees asked are too high or because orchestras have their own conductors, whom they prefer to the young man. The young man resents all this, and wishes to be recognized for his own talents, which are not inconsiderable but which would never have landed him where he is without the older man. He lives under constant and growing censure, most obviously from the great man's children, whose position he has increasingly usurped, if only by circumstance; from people who believe that in their joint writings, he is putting words into the mouth of the great man, which he is, more and more so; and from those who dislike the serialism toward which the young man has pushed the great man's music. "That's what happens when you invite the Devil...into your home," a fellow composer says. For the young man, the sacrifices are considerable. But the line between sacrifice and self-interest can sometimes be difficult to draw. It is hard to say whether the older man, who adores the young man but who knows a thing or two about the ways of theater, thinks he benefits from the curiosity and jealousy that the young man provokes, a curiosity that creates for the older man a degree of sympathy, and perhaps even gives him, by providing a distraction, some free room to operate. In any case, the relationship is fraught, not unlike that between father and son.

Except that there are also real sons and a daughter, from the great man's first marriage, and when he dies, the sordid battle over his fortune—particularly over how much the widow and young man get versus the children—drags on in the courts for years.


Go and read the whole thing, it's great!

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