gall and gumption

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Biographical Blowup

The second volume of the Stephen Walsh bio of Stravinsky is out. It sounds like interesting reading, according to Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books. Stravinsky lived long enough into our celebrity-mad age to become a very valuable quantity, one entitled to the full treatment: the monumental biography and the emergence from musty corners of the woodwork of various people who attest that he was really a jerk and not that much of a genius at all.

I loved those Stravinsky conversations with Robert Craft, but from this review it sounds like Craft has become the center of one of those posthumous shitstorms.

Kimmelman's review is definitely not promising. Announcing that the book is both "exhaustive and eloquent" (Watch out!) he sets the background up as follows:

The biggest hurdle remained the image that Stravinsky assiduously cultivated of himself in later years, through his remarkable factotum and collaborator, Robert Craft, who has published a biography, a diary, three volumes of letters, two scrapbooks of photographs and documents, various conversation books, and many articles, and who was involved, in one way or another, in all of Stravinsky's musical activities after the mid-1940s. Craft, with his encyclopedic knowledge, acute musical sensibility, and remarkable prose, came in a sense to own Stravinsky, or seemed to wish to, and while he opened up the study of Stravinsky in many ways, his presence also could intimidate those who might imagine challenging him. For decades in these pages and elsewhere, he refined a view of Stravinsky's life, and of his own role in it, that increasingly was questioned not least because he could be so adamant in defending it. Walsh, in the new book, calls Craft's work "riddled with bias, error, supposition, and falsehood." His volume ends up being nearly as much about Craft and his relations with Stravinsky, and with Stravinsky's family, as it is about the composer, who became inseparable from his amanuensis.

Well, what a couple of villainous old wizards Stravinsky/Craft must have been , eh? The "assiduously cultivated image of himself" cultivated by himself or by the Svengali Craft (later on in this piece Kimmelman suggests that Stravinsky in the interviews was "channeling" Craft.

Stravinsky belonged to all scholars, you see, and Craft tried to hold a monopoly on him: think about this statement for a while -- "...he refined a view of Stravinsky's life, and of his own role in it, that increasingly was questioned not least because he could be so adamant in defending it."

Craft! You, you-- bastard.

Yes, a man's determined defense of his own account of a relationship that lasted nearly 30 years, a relationship that was at the center of his emotional, creative and intellectual life, must be suspect, must it not? As Mr. Pecksniff might say, "It has a deep appearance." How dare he! And he's just a scribbler, an amanuensis, a dogsbody, a Figaro, a gofer, a boy Friday! Not like the intellectual aristocrats of the academe! They aren't amanuenses, they are more like the Princess and the Pea.

See, when you get among the sort of swirling vortex of issues like there undoubtedly must have been with Stravinsky and Craft (Craft vs. Stravinsky's family, Stravinsky vs. Stravinsky's family, Craft vs. everybody who wants a piece of the last great composer in the European classical tradition. As a property Stravinsky can still deliver value. If you venture into this vortex of interests, grievances, claims and counterclaims with such assets at the center, decency and your own respectability demand a certain decorum of language.

All trace of the weasel must be scrupulously purged from your language. This is not the place where the weasel needs to be showing his face. The weasel has a particularly disreputable appearance here among the dead and the settling of wills and all that not quite extinguished glamor and other assets, to say nothing of those ancient fossilized academic scores to settle.


Whatever cannot be said without such locutions as "not least because" should not be said.
Whatever cannot be said without suggesting a close affinity between "owning" and "seeming to wish to own," simply should not be said.

It's dangerous. Picture me and Kimmelman out at a bar. it's not a date, he's not really my type, you know, but we meet as acquaintances and we're chatting. And he tells me that the man two seats over from me owns his very own private Caribbean island. "Back in a moment," I say. Weeks later, after the wedding, in fact, my new husband tells me that no he does not own his very own private Caribbean island. But he went there once on a cruise and had a really good time. I go back to Kimmelman, as you can imagine, and demand an explanation. "Well, he seemed to want to own one," Kimmelman explains blandly.

Or maybe he did indeed have an island and I invaded it and killed a bunch of people because Kimmelman told me that the guy had weapons of mass destruction hidden there. I find no weapons, and Kimmelman says, "Well, he seemed to want to own some weapons of mass destruction."

Catastrophe all around.

Note how early on in this piece the attack on Craft begins. The first cannon-shot fired straight into the edifice of Craft's work, which Walsh describes as "riddled with bias, error, supposition and falsehood." Craft is still alive, by the way.

And by God, they're going to get that bastard factotum even if they have to take Stravinsky down with him. This review, in the grand old academic tradition, presents Stravinsky as, well, quite loathsome. I mean, spectacularly so. For most of his later life, a sort of musical fraud propped up by the dogsbody Craft. Who didn't have his own opinions, who was mean and didn't play well with others. I suppose it's possible the book will persuade me that all these things are true, though I don't need to believe Stravinsky was a person I'd want to have a beer with -- that doesn't happen to be my own personal gold standard of intellectual and creative ability. Whatever the case to be made for or against Stravinsky, I'm not confident that I'll be convinced by the book, on Kimmelman's showing.


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