Is there a particular fondness among German-language writers for the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould? Is it rooted in Gould’s reverence for Bach, Beethoven and Schoenberg? Granted, two writers is hardly a movement, but as a newspaper editor I worked for once said, “Two is a trend.”
My first and better known example is Thomas Bernard, the Austrian whose novel Der Untergeher, about a fictionalized version of Gould, was published in 1983, the year after the nonfictional Gould’s death. The title translates literally as The Under-goer, but it was published in English in 1991 as The Loser. Two friends of Gould, one based on Ludwig Wittgenstein, give up the piano after hearing the Canadian virtuoso. The Wittgenstein figure commits suicide. The other, the narrator, attempts to write a conventional monograph about the pianist but instead produces the novel we are reading, which ranks among Bernhard’s best.
The second Gould-related work I found while reading The Faber Book of 20th-Century German Poems, published last year and edited by poet-translator Michael Hofmann. Included is a poem by Hauke Huckstadt, born in 1969, five years after Gould retired from public performance -- “Theme on a Variation,” with the subtitle “(Goldberg variation 25, recorded NYC, April/May 1981).” Gould’s first studio recording, in 1955, was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was also one of his last recordings, made in the months cited by Huckstadt. The translation is by Hofmann:
“Gould sits on his stump of a stool,
in front of his Yamaha piano, and hums…
The position of head and hands
reminiscent of a toy-maker,
re-arranging the furniture in a doll’s house,
shutting the windows after him.
April, the icebergs drifting past,
The room perceptibly brightened by them.
Over the silver dado rail
on the horizon, the picture of him
in the pose of an Eskimo
at the start of an expedition.
The walls so thin, you can hear birdsong,
clink of china, telephone conversations,
a train so very long that the level crossings
are simultaneously down in A and B.”
Huckstadt’s final lines seem to refer to the “contrapuntal” radio shows Gould produced for the Canadian Broadcasting System, in which multiple recorded voices are played simultaneously. Cryptically, in the 1975 CBC film Radio as Music, Gould said:
“If you examine any of the really contrapuntal scenes in my radio pieces, you'll find that every line stacks up against the line opposite, and either contradicts it or supplements it, but uses, in any case, the same basic terminology – a set of numbers, similar or identical terms, or whatever.”
One of his radio shows was titled “The Idea of North,” and the Eskimo reference in Huckstadt’s poem seems to refer to this. Mostly, the poem leaves me confused. It starts with the documented specifics of Gould's eccentric life – the loyalty to Yahama, his sawed-off stool, and his resulting unusual playing posture. But the balance of the poem and the significance of the inverted title remain opaque. No other biographical data about Huckstadt appears in the Hofmann anthology, and I found nothing about him online. I love Gould as a pianist and find him intriguing as a person. I understand that his appeal to me, in part, is romantic, in the 19th-century sense – his intensity, single-mindedness, and indifference to conventional standards of success and failure. Kevin Bazzana’s Wondrous Strange: the Life and Art of Glenn Gould is one of the best biographies of recent years, but it doesn’t help crack the code.
So, Huckstadt’s poem baffles me. Can any readers help me make sense of it?