For someone who loves epistolary novels, as I do, Sanford Friedman’s posthumously published Conversations with Beethoven* is a treat. The novel is a record of Beethoven’s last year of life, from the time of his beloved nephew Karl’s suicide attempt to his own fatal illness. In his later years, when he was deaf, the great composer’s friends, relatives, admirers, and doctors communicated with him by writing their replies when they conversed.
Since Beethoven spoke aloud, except when he did not wish to be overheard (or when writing letters) Conversations with Beethoven is a book in which much takes place that is not written on the page; readers must, for the most part, imagine Beethoven’s responses to his interlocutors. It is to Friedman’s credit that these unwritten responses are entirely vivid, thanks to the reactions of Beethoven’s conversation partners (who are distinguished by the way they address the composer; there’s a handy guide in the front matter). Context and tone are the backbone of this book and make it utterly fascinating (and nearly impossible to quote here).
Beethoven is irascible above all, particular, ill, vehement, passionate, impetuous, stubborn, thoughtful. If you are expecting to read a great deal about his music and his inspiration, you’d best look to nonfiction about his work. But if you want to become immersed in Beethoven’s life, his everyday anxieties about money and illness, his small triumphs in overcoming his prejudices, his unexpected kindness toward servants and younger musicians—if you are looking for the man behind the music, Conversations with Beethoven will delight.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.