Inspired by the famous composer’s notebooks, this biographical novel offers “a perfect portrait of an irascible genius” and “revelatory fossils of the last year of Beethoven’s anguished life” (Edmund White)
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. In a tour de force fiction invention, Conversations with Beethoven 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.
This novel was the last completed by Friedman (Totempole) before his death in 2010, and a perfect grasp of ebbing mortality, in all its tedium and elusive clarity, informs the depiction of Beethoven's final year. When the book opens, the composer is already so deaf that friends and family communicate with him largely through pencil and paper; the narrative consists solely of snippets of dialogue. The speakers include Beethoven's prot g Holz, his despised sister Johanna, and his patronizing brother Johann, while Beethoven remains largely silent, save for a handful of letters. The man that emerges, as though in relief, is a declining and paranoid crank. Initially he is seen trying to protect his troubled nephew Karl from the aftermath of a botched suicide attempt. He goes on to live in near-captivity on his brother's estate and, increasingly paranoid, enlists a servant's help in spying on his supposed enemies. Finally, the reader sees the collapse of Beethoven's health and his agonized attempts to parcel out his estate. The novel's brilliance lies in the discovery of the flawed human behind immortal genius: Friedman's Beethoven is just like us.