A Concerto, Improvised




Eva Hoffman

Other Press, 2009


Following the European tour of classical pianist Isabel Merton, Eva Hoffman’s Appassionata is a sort of romantic fantasy, sweeping the reader from concert hall to cocktail reception to cobblestone square. Having recently left behind her ex-lover Peter in New York, as well their comfortable Upper West Side existence together, Isabel is in a mid-life crisis of sorts, ruminating on her failed relationship, her childhood, and her mentorship under a brilliant composer whose own ardor for music led to a mental breakdown.


And then she meets Anzor Islikhanov, a Chechen exile, and a passionate, even zealous counterpoint to her own melancholic state of limbo. As she travels from Paris to Sofia to Berlin and on, they meet up again and again, at first by chance and eventually—after they strike up an affair—by design. Isabel finds herself not only suffused with desire, but existentially rattled by Anzor’s worldview—namely his indignant outrage over events in his country, and his vicious contempt for the comfortably post-political, Western European bourgeoisie. Isabel is unsure how to brook his emotional intensity, and moreover begins to question the meaningfulness of what she does, as a musician, in a world beset by such urgent problems.


The affair ends tumultuously, and Isabel’s attempt to grapple with those events becomes an extended meditation on politics, the arts, and human finitude. Is music meaningful and worthwhile of itself, or only for the enjoyment it can create? Is all art merely an escape from political exigencies of the real world? Is all of politics either blind idealism or callous realism? Are the violence and suffering endemic to human existence better attended to by beautiful music, or by dramatic political action?


But while it engages with such profound questions as these, Appassionata is also meant to be a sensorial indulgence for the reader. Hence, the world Hoffman creates is a fantasy of urbane European society, important people rubbing elbows with other important people in elite settings, to a point, in fact, that the motif begins to wear a little thin (such as a dinner party scene between a British newspaper editor, a Japanese stock market maven and a German rock star). Similarly, the florid narration can overshoot the mark (“She takes a measure of her encapsulation, and adjusts her seat for a simulacrum of comfort” —in other words, Isabel reclined her airplane seat back). On the other hand, Hoffman’s sublime use of metaphor beautifully translates music for the page. In several delightful passages she renders the thoughts of members of Isabel’s rapt audience as ecstatic poetry:


ah listen, thinks Ricardo Lopez, chromatic delicate like power / all senses at once / Alicia / yes, I wanted her in that room, the power, the gesture of her hand coming up to her face, the musk of her body and then / how could they do it, her wrist, broken, shattered / how could they / cold metal pain how much pain did she feel / ah, listen, that phrase, the elegance, grandeur, the grand arc / the bend of her neck, the curve of her arm Alicia…


One cannot help but be seduced.