Brendel's Fantasy by Günther Freitag. Translated from the German by Eugene H. Hayworth.
Publication Date: August 15, 2011
The provocative, deeply moving portrait of a musical obsession. Without any explanation to his family, the German manufacturer Höller has decided to sell the family business and use the proceeds to pursue his new found dreams. While his wife is in the middle of defending the most important client of her career, (a shady politician accused of funneling money from the government coffers), Höller slips away to Castelnuovo, a sleepy village in the hills of Tuscany. Here he intends to build the perfect concert hall, a place to stage the ultimate performance of Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy”. While waiting for a letter from Alfred Brendel, Höller wanders through the Italian countryside, making friends with a retired professor, the landlady at his pension, a dwarf employed by the mysterious Sindaico, and an entourage of village misfits who stand in the way of his success. Höller is plagued with fears of his impending death and the hallucinations that accompany his growing illness. Will Brendel agree to perform the ‘Fantasy’? Will the villagers let him build the concert hall? A compelling, illuminating portrait of mortality and desire.
About the Author Günther Freitag was born in 1952 in Feldkirch, Austria. He studied history and German language and literature in Graz, and also enrolled for piano at the conservatory. He wrote plays and prose works. In 1985, he took part in the Bachmann Competition. The author has received several awards including the Forum Stadtpark Literature Prize of the city of Graz (1982); a grant from the Province of Styria (1990); and the Culture Prize of the city of Leoben (1992). He lives in Leoben, Austria.
About the Translator Eugene H. Hayworth is a librarian and Associate Professor for the University Libraries at the University of Colorado Boulder. His first book, Fever Vision: the Life and Works of Coleman Dowell, was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2007. He discovered the works of Günther Freitag in 2010, while living in Berlin, Germany, where he was teaching at Humboldt Universität as the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship.
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Although his favorite sonata on the program is scheduled after the intermission, Höller leaves the Palazzo Papesse and takes the narrow street down the hill to the Piazza del Campo. There are only a few people on the road with him on this cold, damp autumn evening, most of them sporting turned up collars with scarves draped artfully around their necks, as the current fashion dictates. And this surprises him again and again, that there is so much emphasis on outward appearance in this country, that even people over sixty obey its dictates. There must be countless variations lately in which the colorfully striped scarves are tied around the neck, although with most of them the original purpose-- to warm the wearer--has been lost to mere decoration. Höller recalls his attempt a few days ago to tie his scarf in a similar way, which he undid immediately after he had accidentally seen his reflection in the foyer mir- ror of the small pension where he has lived for several weeks.
In front of a closed shop, whose display window is filled with horri- ble, tasteless pottery, he smokes a cigarette and imagines how visitors from around the world squeeze through the narrow alley during tourist season, hurrying quickly from being amazed by the Piazza to being amazed by the cathedral, then storming into the shops. They gather up ceramics with symbols of the Contrade, kitschy watercolors, wild boar sausages, truffles, with the same enthusiasm as Armani jackets, Furla pocketbooks and Gucci ornaments, then they descend with all their junk into Pasticceria Nanini, which cannot be missed because Nanini’s daughter is a singer and the son is a race car driver. In such a place even the candy may cost more, but one more or less consumes them anyway, along with devouring the proximity of two world-famous stars, because such an opportunity does not present itself every day. Only a few of them notice the fact that the memorial plaque, on the wall of the house of the city’s most important poet, has been tarnished by the weather. And to those who do not miss the plaque, the name means nothing. It is not worth noticing, they think as they walk on, because if it referred to a ce- lebrity, it would hardly be in such poor condition . . . .
Höller tosses the cigarette through a sewer grate and moves on. He is irritated that he has squandered his time with this senseless idea, of hordes of tourists who waltz through all the cities in the world and, in addition to their money, leave behind an equal amount of devastation. Too little time remains for him to waste it with draped scarves and shops full of kitsch.
On the steep steps down to the Piazza his thoughts are once again concerned with the piano recital at the Palazzo Papesse. He had been sitting with Sophie in the second row, on a seat from which he could see the pianist’s hands fly over the keyboard. He has forgotten the pianist’s name already. A young Italian, not without talent, technically savvy, dynamic in his runs and clear in his attack. A young man with the figure of an athlete and a long black mane, which he has tied into a bushy braid at the back of his neck. A pleasing appearance, which certainly im- presses most of the female concert-goers and disconcerts their compan- ions for a moment . . . .
Höller is served caffè doppio outdoors at the Café Palio. The waiter asks if he really wants to sit outside in this weather, and returns inside shaking his head. Once again he has let himself be distracted by matters of minor importance. He has not attended the concert because of the pianist, but only because of the hall in the Palazzo. It is important to find the ideal place for the Fantasy. After he decided on Castelnuovo, this visit to the concert only served to confirm his decision. Because of it Höller is convinced: for every work of art there is an ideal place where it can be presented. To display David in a place other than the Academy in Florence would be the same kind of nonsense as moving the Palio from the Piazza del Campo. And one must experience the ultimate interpreta- tion of the Wanderer Fantasy in Castelnuovo. After such a performance, it could not be played anywhere else.
Has the second half already begun? Sophie’s tired glance when she communicates her decision to forgo the two “Impromptus” and the “Sonata.” Why did he lure her out of the pension and drag her here, when he must know that she does not regard piano music with the same enthusiastic fanaticism he does and that the cold dampness harms her frail lungs? A question he was unable to provide an answer for, because there was none. At least none that Sophie could have understood. And after all these years of marriage, in which they had continued to grow further and further apart, his silence was enough for her. She did not try to persuade him to stay, nor did she ask a second time for his reason, saying only that he should wait in the Café Palio for her phone call. She would pick him up in a taxi after the concert.
Höller enjoys the view across the oval of the deserted piazza. The noise from La Mangia does not bother him, neither the voices nor the soft music. From time to time people come out of the restaurant to smoke a cigarette. Then they stand in a group outside the entrance, laugh- ing together, and Höller envies them for a brief moment for the collusion that connects them. But while he waits for his second caffè doppio, that feeling fades away, because this evening it is no longer true. No longer true in his life, in which there is no room for things that have nothing to do with the Fantasy and its ultimate interpretation. How easy his life has become, in one fell swoop, after all the small goals have vanished from his horizon. Yet only one remains. And Höller pities the people in front of the restaurant, those whose lives are surely disrupted by requirements, desires, hopes, and disappointments until only fragments remain, those who attempt to join together in celebration. But the next morning they will wake up under the debris, and the same play will begin again. The waiter comes to his table, and the laughing people in front of La Mangia disappear into the restaurant.
Is he Signor Höller? The Signora is waiting for him in a taxi on the street behind the piazza.
AS THE TAXI heads for the ring road and the driver accelerates the car, Sophie grasps Höller’s hand. She looks at him in silence for a short time, then whispers that nothing has been decided yet and that he could still reconsider his plans and recognize his mistake in time to avoid a seri- ous error that he would be unable to correct later. Höller is silent, and Sophie releases his hand. He really must think about the future of the children. Even if he has taken less and less interest in his children these past few years, they were still his children. He was still responsible for them. He cannot live as if he was alone in the world, free from all obliga- tions . . . .
Höller is silent, and Sophie says she will fly back the next morning. In a few days she must begin the trial that the media has declared will be the trial of the year, in which she will defend a high-ranking politician who is suspected of corruption. This senseless journey, whose single purpose was to find the ideal place for a Schubert concert, has cost her valuable time in which to prepare her case. Now she must read the file again, working day and night to make sure she does not lose the case on the very first day of trial. And after a long pause: perhaps she could under- stand his reasons for this absurd search, if only he would talk to her. But he has remained silent for months, evading her. The fact that he has lost all interest in his work did not escape her. At first she thought that he was overworked, searching for regeneration in the music, that afterwards he would return his full attention to business. For weeks, no word, until he had announced to her in a subordinate clause that he was going to sell the business to the Russians. And this at a time just shortly before admitting that the negotiations were almost concluded.
Book Club Discussion Guide
Brendel's Fantasy by Günther Freitag
Without any explanation to his family, the German manufacturer Höller has decided to sell the family business and use the proceeds to pursue his new found dreams. While his wife is in the middle of defending the most important client of her career, (a shady politician accused of funneling money from the government coffers), Höller slips away to Castelnuovo, a sleepy village in the hills of Tuscany. Here he intends to build the perfect concert hall, a place to stage the ultimate performance of Schubert‟s “Wanderer Fantasy”. While waiting for a letter from Alfred Brendel, Höller wanders through the Italian countryside, making friends with a retired professor, the landlady at his pension, a dwarf employed by the mysterious Sindaico, and an entourage of village misfits who stand in the way of his success. Höller is plagued with fears of his impending death and the hallucinations that accompany his growing illness. Will Brendel agree to perform the „Fantasy‟? Will the villagers let him build the concert hall? A compelling, illuminating portrait of mortality and desire.
In Günther Freitag‟s recent book, music plays an important role. Mr. Freitag himself started playing piano at the age of 8 and continues to play today. Schubert, together with Mahler and Schönberg, are his favourite composers. In his opinion, Alfred Brendel, the Austrian pianist who stopped giving concerts in 2008, is one of the best interpreters of Schubert‟s music in the world today.
How does the protagonist in Brendel’s Fantasy use the the music of Schubert to find meaning in his prognosis?
The main caracter in Günther Freitag‟s novel Bienenkrieg (War of Bees) is a music critic who lost suddenly looses hic capacity to hear. After this illness, he also loses his job in the cultural department of the newspaper and had to re-arrange his life. These extreme situations color Freitag‟s work. In addition to the protagonist‟s illness in Brendel’s Fantasy, what other extreme conditions occur that move the story forward?
The major part of the novel is situated in a small Tuscan village. According the Mr. Freitag, this village is a micro-system in a metaphoric sense, playing the role of the Italian State and society of today, especially under the government of the Prime Minister Berlusconi. What parallels can you draw between the village and the contemporary Italian state?
Although it is never specifically named, the flashbacks in Brendel’s Fantasy all occur in Vienna. How does this knowledge change your overall understanding of the story?