Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical
Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved
1, 1994, two Arizona men with the wonderfully improbable names
of Ira Brilliant and Che Guevara bought a locket of hair that
had been cut from Ludwig van Beethoven's corpse in 1827. Initially,
the two men--both Beethoven fanatics--had merely wanted to add
a unique (and dividable) item to their Beethoven collections.
(Brilliant, a retired real estate developer, had already established
the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose
State University in California with his extensive Beethoven collection,
while Guevara, a urologist in Nogales, invested in the locket
early in his collecting.) But once the locket was in their possession,
Russell Martin writes in his delightfully entertaining Beethoven's
Hair, some enthralling questions arose:
Might it make sense, Dr. Guevara wondered, to test a bit of
the hair, to have it examined by forensic scientists? Was it
possible that testing of the hair that lay on the table between
them might be able to announce something conclusive about the
last days of Beethoven's life? Could it demonstrate what medications
he had consumed? Could it conceivably explain the reasons for
his chronic intestinal distress, or even decipher his deafness?
It took several years for all the tests to be conducted on
a portion of the hair, but the wait--and the tested hair's destruction--were
worth it, because the shocking results showed that Beethoven
But you didn't really think I'd steal Martin's thunder, did
Martin does a splendid job blending biography, musical history
and popular science writing, and he shows that the locket's real
unsolved mystery is its journey from nineteenth-century Europe
to twentieth-century America. The hair had been clipped by fifteen-year-old
Ferdinand Hiller (who himself became a composer and well-respected
conductor) and passed to his own son in 1883. The son had the
locket cleaned and resealed in 1911, lending the relic its first
documentation in the process. Some years passed, and then the
locket surfaced in a small Danish fishing port, where it was
given in mysterious circumstances to a Danish doctor who helped
Jews flee the Gestapo during World War Two. Who precisely gave
the locket to the doctor--and why--remains uncertain, although
Martin offers a compelling theory. Science, it seems, gives better
closure than murky history.
Beethoven's Hair is highly recommended for history buffs
and scientific mystery fans alike.
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The Atlantic Sound
Alfred A. Knopf
has written six superb novels, and now, with The Atlantic
Sound, he shows once again that he can write equally compelling,
thematically complicated nonfiction (his other nonfiction title
is The European Tribe). His subject this time out is (in
large part) the transatlantic slave trade, and in the course
of the book, he travels to Liverpool; Accra, Ghana; and Charleston,
South Carolina. Together, these three locations formed the points
of a trading 'triangle':
Goods, be they guns, glassware, iron bars or liquor, would
be exported from England to the West coast of Africa, where they
would be sold in exchange for human captives. The second leg
of the 'triangle,' or the 'middle passage', involved the transportation
of the captives to the Americas, where they would be sold to
plantation owners either for cash or for a combination of cash
and crops such as tobacco, sugar, cotton, coffee or any of the
'new world' produce that was becoming fashionable all over Europe.
The final leg of the 'triangle' involved a return to England,
where the produce was sold to agents and merchants.
While all three legs of the triangle were profitable, it was
the slave-bearing leg that generated the most gains, and as Phillips
writes, "By the end of the eighteenth century, nearly half
the African trade in Europe was being carried on in ships clearing
the port of Liverpool.
As a travelling 'reporter' interviewing and observing a variety
of subjects, Phillips is wonderful. His quiet observations are
keen and largely unobstructed by his own editorializing, although
he sometimes lets his skepticism color a scene subtly, often
to hilarious effect. For all its subtlety, though, the text--flat-toned
and delivered in the present tense--has a generally pessimistic
quality. It's the sort of voice that tells you immediately that
nothing good will come of these travels, and you and the author
both know it. Still, the story is so beautifully presented and
(let's admit it) the pessimism about the historical as well as
the present state of affairs is so well-grounded that the book
is powerfully moving, rather than merely depressing.
One of the more impressive reporter's skills on display here
is Phillips's talent with portraiture. Like the travel genre's
master, Jonathan Raban, Phillips has a seemingly magical ability
to make himself the invisible observer who witnesses his subjects'
most awkward, telling moments and then places them inside beautifully
sketched, tightly written scenes that capture the essential dynamics
of the personalities and issues without slowing the text down.
One wonders how, precisely, the participants didn't realize they
were being watched so closely--or how Phillips managed to hide
his notebook. (His chameleon quality as a reporter is probably
related, I suppose, to the talent he has for placing his own
positions so subtly into the text's overall color.) Here, for
example, is a scene set on the boat that carries Phillips to
Wallace leaves us in Limon, which means there is a spare place
at the table with Charles and Mavis and Kevin. However, I decide
to remain at my own table, which amuses the German officers and
Burmese crew, annoys Charles and Mavis, and leaves Kevin defenceless
in the face of Mavis's increasingly unlikely stories about socializing
with the Royals. Eventually, Kevin cracks, and having described
the Queen Mother as a 'gin-swilling horse owner' he retires to
the bar where he attempts to drink a barrel of Holsten lager
single-handedly. The two German couples have now developed a
strategy for turning up for meals either early or late in order
that they might minimize the time spent with each other. Occasionally
they get the timing wrong, and they have to suffer the indignity
of actually eating with each other.
Phillips's biting portraiture (as deliciously funny as it
is) is put to good use, though, particularly in the Ghana sections
of the book, where Phillips interviews leaders of the Pan-African
movement intended to draw 'exiled' blacks back to their African
'home.' Indeed, it's not until he gets to Charleston that Phillips
finds a pair of heroes for his book--a Southern Civil Rights-supporting
judge and his Northern wife who gave up their sense of 'home'
for a greater good. And it is this notion--of home, of exile
and the possibility of return--that lies at the heart of The
Atlantic Sound. An exiled people's desire for 'home' is legitimate,
Phillips suggests, but the options offered by the Pan-African
movement are illusory. And as he shows with Judge Waring, 'home'
may not be the ultimate goal. In making pro-Civil Rights judgements
and public statements that ostracized him from his fellow Charlestonians
(he was an eighth-generation Charlestonian), Waring became a
heroic figure, if a tragically 'homeless' one.
The Atlantic Sound is a complicated, layered text that
often bears unexpected fruit, and it should place Phillips in
the inner circle of such superbly aware 'travel' writers as Raban
and V.S. Naipaul.
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Three Early Novels: The Old Boys, The Boarding
House, The Love Department
of a great writer's early work is often largely academic in its
appeal: by sifting through the writer's youthful, presumably
minor efforts, we hope to understand better how he produced his
mature masterworks. The great Irish writer William Trevor turns
out to be another case altogether, though, as readers of the
new Penguin collection of his first three novels will happily
discover. He was, it seems, a complete, fully developed writer
from the beginning. Indeed, the most startling aspect of Trevor's
first novel, The Old Boys, is its preternatural mastery
of form and theme. The reader must constantly remind herself
that Trevor was a relatively youthful thirty-six when The
Old Boys first appeared (in 1964); his masterly sense of
narrative direction and his skill at evoking his elderly characters'
often bitter pessimism are stunning.
There is one way in which these early novels reveal Trevor's
relative youth, though. For all his character's septuagenarian
pessimism, the youthful fecundity of Trevor's creative impulse
in these three novels is intoxicating. He has a wonderful ability,
for instance, to embellish his secondary characters with tiny
stories that suggest he draws them from a young writer's endless
well of material. Of The Old Boys' Miss Burdock, for instance,
"a brisk middle-aged woman with a massive bosom and a penchant
for long grey clothes," Trevor writes that
Once a year, in June, she put on a flowered dress and went
somewhere in the afternoon. She wore a hat on this occasion,
a large white one with decorations on it, that had been handed
down from her mother. She smeared a pale lipstick on her mouth
and dyed the hairs on her upper lip. Her guests wondered where
she went, but they never asked her. They preferred to conjecture,
and they looked forward quite a lot to this special day. An old
lady, now dead, had claimed to have seen Miss Burdock stagger
as she returned after one of these outings, and had sworn there
was alcohol on Miss Burdock's breath.
Trevor's generous use of these sorts of nicely turned asides
(which to an older writer, might seem downright spendthrift)
along with his willingness to devote whole pages to seemingly
meandering but hilarious dialogue (Trevor's ear for the musicality
of spoken speech is unmatched today) belies the tight narrative
structures that actually drive these novels relentlessly (if
subtly) toward their decidedly grim endings. Trevor is best-known
for his superb short stories, and he brings to these early novels
the same talent for concision and the minimalist's eye for the
perfectly-chosen detail that drives his short fiction. (Trevor's
concision also means that Penguin could publish these three novels
in a single, manageable volume of 663 pages.)
The three novels' decidedly pessimistic themes (loneliness,
isolation, old age, the general hopelessness of being a human
in contemporary society) might discourage impressionable readers
from tackling all three novels at once, but it's a splendid collection
that holds up well to repeated (if small) doses, I think. Besides,
the black comedy Trevor wrings out of frightful situations can
be shockingly good. Consider, for instance, this exchange from
The Boarding House, which appeared a year after The
'I am going to cry,' said Miss Clerricot, and she uttered
the first moan, touching her face with a handkerchief.
'Mr Bird has died,' said Nurse Clock, entering the kitchen.
'He died a half-hour ago.'
'Dead?' said one and then the other.
'I do not know what killed him. No doubt the poor nurse will
get the blame for negligence. He felt himself dying; it was a
most extraordinary thing.'
'He caught a cold,' said Mrs. Slape, 'through the soles of
his feet. He walked with broken shoes out across the common.
He should have known, him a cripple.'
Gallelty was staring, the twitch in her right eye working
'Hardly a cripple,' corrected Nurse Clock. 'He dragged his
foot a bit; it's not at all the same.'
'Oh,' cried Gallelty, shaking on her chair and sobbing.
Trevor is a brilliant, darkly funny novelist, and the popular
notion that he'll ultimately be remembered primarily for his
short stories will hopefully prove wrong.
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Jazz: A History of America's Music
Geoffrey C. Ward
Alfred A. Knopf
century-long history of American jazz in a single book is not
an easy task. Stylistic shifts--from New Orleans to Swing and
Big Band, from Bebop to West Coast to Fusion--are complicated
both musically and culturally, and doing justice to the dynamics
that drive the shifts while also examining the personal styles
of individual masters who transcend generic definitions and anticipate
larger innovations is daunting. Even coming up with a definition
of 'jazz' that is both broad enough to encompass a century's
worth of differing styles and penetrating enough to find the
common quality that makes it all one sort of music and not many
is a tall order.
Happily, Geoffrey C. Ward's Jazz: A History of America's
Music achieves most of its goals, deftly blending history
and biography into a highly readable text that rewards both idle
reading and sustained study. It's a companion volume to Ken Burns's
ten-part PBS documentary (to air in January 2001; Ward wrote
the documentary's script), and while its large, hefty format
(think of a coffee table book on steroids) may discourage reading
it in bed, the beautifully reproduced photographs (obligatory
to any Burns project) are worth the extra weight.
In a book with such comprehensive ambition, some readers'
favorite musicians will inevitably be slighted. I, for instance,
found the sidebar on the great Fats Waller to be a little undersized,
compared to the justifiably extended space Ward gives to Louis
Armstrong and Duke Ellington. I did appreciate his sustained
attention to early jazz, though, along with his effort to document
how early jazz masters anticipated much that would be credited
to the pioneers of later styles. Be forewarned, though: readers
who prefer jazz produced since 1960 will find Ward's coverage
weak. Overall, he devotes far more space to the first half of
the century--nearly a third of the book has passed before he
even reaches Swing. And if you like Fusion and think it's a legitimate
form of jazz (I'm referring to all two of you), you may find
Ward's distaste for much of it to be nothing short of fighting
Note: A companion five-CD collection is also available.
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