I teased this little volume last month based on a slim review by Ethan Hawke in the New York Times Book Review. I was hoping to find another first-rate foreign writer, whose back catalogue is ready to appear in English two or three books a year once he or she has been translated. Patrick Modiano a few years back came to mind.
I doubt that’s going to happen. In part, it’s the eccentricities of the writing. Here, Wondratschek eschews quotation marks to denote dialogue, while writing in first person from the point of view of the narrator sometimes and the separate protagonist other times. That’s a wicked combination, which while it lends mystery and intrigue sometimes, yields frustration and consternation often.
The story is a good one. Set in Vienna, it concerns an old Russian concert pianist, Suvorin, who tells an anonymous café acquaintance his story. The mystery this setup (one might say conceit) yields feels intriguing at times, and just plain false and unnecessary at others. The book shines when it has Suvorin telling his story in large stretches over drinks in his favorite café late into the night. And it’s a good story, of how he was a leading Russian pianist who gave up his position out of an irrational but very real dislike—a violent dislike, bordering on rage—of . . . wait for it . . . applause at the end of a concert piece.
"The final note, it hasn’t even completely faded yet—and immediately you get screaming, noise, people shouting bravo. Not a moment of quiet, not even half a second. What ignorant people! What barbarians! No last reverberation, no lingering in that last echo, no trepidation, wonder, not a hint of abandon in those who had been listening. . . . What kind of people are they who, after a sonata by Schubert, the late one in B minor for example, completed two months before his death, break out into cheers?"
It’s a good point, but can you build a novel around it? Actually, this author could. But he didn’t, in my view, largely because that wasn’t enough of a challenge. Rather than write clearly enough that we can all follow, he muddies the rest of the tale with ambiguities of every sort. Eventually we do see that Suvorin happily served the rest of his days—after the authorities in Moscow relieved him of his career—playing at night in bars in places like Vienna. But even that part of the story is denied us: It’s in the past when our unnamed narrator meets Suvorin living out his days alone, missing his deceased wife, but enjoying his talks with he-who-shall-go-unnamed. And when our correspondent returns from six months away from Vienna, Suvorin is nowhere to be found.
I don’t think Wondratschek’s back catalogue is in danger of extensive further translation. But the failure of this foray into works-in-translation convinced me to write about the singular phenomenon of Patrick Modiano.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .