“Notes rose hesitantly, like the memory of something distant, but never forgotten. It seemed the pianist wasn’t so much playing as he was ruminating, straining to hear whatever it was his fingers would awaken” –The Piano Student.
German novelist Lea Singer was born Eva Gesine Baur in 1960. A doctor of Art History since 1984, Singer’s career as a writer remained academic in nature until 2000, when she adopted her pen name and began to translate her historical expertise into research-intensive novelizations, several of which take artistic geniuses for subjects.
Her latest from New Vessel Press, The Piano Student (2020), translated into English by Elisabeth Lauffer, is one such book. Despite the success of her other novels in over 30 different languages, The Piano Student is Singer’s first book to be translated into English. First published in German as Der Klavierschüler by Zurich-based press Kampa Verlag in 2019, the novel pulls from the many letters exchanged between the pianist Vladimir Horowitz and his so-called pupil, Nico Kauffman, in the late 1930’s.
The Piano Student opens with Renato Donati, a man who, in 1986, is sick of living with a secret—or living, altogether. His plans to end his life are interrupted by a sudden memory of his youth: Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei,” a piece no longer than three-and-a-half minutes. He sets out to find someone who can play the tune of his salvation, which is how he meets Kauffman, an aging performer in a piano bar. He too is transported by the piece to a time when, as a young adult, he was the most intimate person to one of the most renowned virtuosos of the time, who also happened to be the son-in-law of famed conductor Arturo Toscanini.
Together, the pair travel through Zurich, revisiting locations Kauffman has come to associate with his teacher and lover. It is a student’s vain attempt to retrace the notes that a master has struck just a moment ago.
Singer has received such distinguished awards as the Hannelore Greve Literature Prize in 2010, the Schwabing Art Prize in 2016, and the Bodensee Literature Prize in 2018. She lives and writes in Munich.
Maddie King: Before The Piano Student, you had written biographies on Frederic Chopin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as novels inspired by the lives of Constanze Mozart and the pianist, Paul Wittgenstein. What has been your relationship to music both in life and career?
Lea Singer: The relationship was always a love affair, but I was not faithful. I have studied violin since childhood and then, when arms were long enough, viola; I also studied singing, until I was in my mid-twenties. Despite my privileges, I gave up all professional ambitions in music: It was a betrayal I didn’t regret. It freed up time and energy to experience great musicians more intensively. And it freed up time to find out how I could build a new relationship to music by writing. That’s when I discovered two possibilities and I became a bigamist.
As a cultural historian I have an objective relationship with music, exploring new perspectives, backgrounds, and sources. As a writer of novels, I have an erotic relationship to music. Here, too, I’m aroused by newly discovered facts and connections, but above all, there is one thing that makes me hot: The question of how I bring music into language, in its rhythm, in its sound, but also in the construction, meaning, and composition. I am lucky to have, in Liz Lauffer, a highly musical translator who understands that.
MK: How has working with New Vessel Press differed, if at all, from your experience publishing outside of the US?
LS: Working with my wonderful Zurich publisher, Kampa, for novels, and my Munich-based non-fiction publisher, C.H. Beck is in many ways similar to working with New Vessel Press: warm, funny, fast, informative, and almost family-like. But New Vessel Press is very active in social media, much more than is usual with German publishers. Working with Michael Wise is a new and exciting experience for me in this regard. He also chose my excellent translator Liz Lauffer, who, as it turned out, is a close friend of a great translator whom I have regarded highly for many years and know personally, Shelley Frisch.
MK: What about Horowitz’s letters initially caught your attention? Would there have been a book without them?
LS: In December 1996, I came upon a tiny article from NZZ [the Swiss newspaper, Neue Zürcher Zeitung] which concerned a donation of letters bequeathed from a Horowitz pupil to a Swiss archive. I was baffled: There was no evidence that Horowitz had taken any students before he lived in the USA. My admiration for Horowitz and my enthusiasm for Plaskin’s excellent biography were too great to dare to write a book about Horowitz without this find; it is the heart of the novel. It moved me so much because as a very young woman I saw Horowitz perform live in 1986 in Berlin. I was unable to forget his tears as he played “Träumerei” as an encore, his sadness behind the bright facade. These letters brought me on the trail of Horowitz’s sexual self-denial, to his life’s lie, his grand delusion. The reason for his sadness.
MK: “When Horowitz struck a key and immediately let off, the resonance unfolded in the space like magic, and the space unfolded into outer space. I was witnessing firsthand the birth of music through tone.” Have you found it challenging to translate music into the written word?
LS: For me it’s only possible to do it briefly and precisely. If I use too many words, they get in the way.
MK: Do you listen to music as you write?
LS: I’m used to working in complete silence. The reader hears the music through my words. Fortunately, I live in a lab. I can check if what I’m trying to do works, and also whether the language, the sound, the rhythm is off. My beloved in-laws are my guinea-pigs who read each chapter when it’s finished. If they don’t get something the way it’s meant, or it doesn’t sound right when read aloud, I’ll change it.
MK: You published your first novel under your pen name when you were 40 years old. The Tongue (Klett-Cotta Verlag, 2000) explores the life of another culturally and historically preeminent figure: Alexandre Grimod de la Reynière, one of the world’s first food critics. How has adapting yourself to fiction changed, if at all, your perspective on the past?
LS: Writing my first novel, I felt the past drawing nearer, often so close, that it hurt. For this one, and all the following novels, I dealt intensively with all dimensions of the respective times and places, the fabric of clothes, the smells, the flavors, the noises, the habits of life, the interiors of houses and hotels, the means of transport, the hygiene emergencies, lighting and sewage issues, everything became sensually experienceable for me.
I always try to convey this to the readers because my task is to create the spaces in which the readers move, as if they were at home in the past.
MK: People in the literary field have posed the following question about your work: What is true and what is lie? Given the very nature of history and memory, how do you contend with such a question?
LS: When it sounds unlikely, it is usually exactly as documented. In this novel, I italicized the quotes from the letters. There are also passages that were very close to his original text, but since Horowitz’s German sentences are often faulty and misleading, I cleaned them up a bit.
I never lie in books, that remains my private matter; at best there are a few fictional situations, but they are born out of facts and their parents are psychology and credibility.
MK: “Forget Volodya, think of me as Horowitz, he wrote, and started signing his letters as such. At the same time, he didn’t want to be forgotten as Volodya and kept subscribing to chronicles of my sexual escapades for his bedtime stories.” By your account, controlling his name was a way for Horowitz to compartmentalize his public and private personas. What led you to adopt a pen name? What personal and professional lines delineate Lea from Eva, if any?
LS: Yes, it was an attempt to do that, which probably did not succeed. I adopted a pen name because I didn’t want to appear as a novelist in public, but since then I have been revealed as the person behind the pen name. I still regret that I left this hiding place at the insistence of my publisher at the time.
The literary scene in the USA is much freer and more open-minded than in our country, where the media wants to put an author in a pigeonhole. I will never be told how to comport myself as a writer, or, in general, what writers may do and may not do. Lea is my left hand, Eva my right hand, I’m ambidextrous and can do everything with the left as well as with the right, and I like to switch between the two. The worst thing: I’m also a mental switcher. That’s confusing for some people and who likes confusion?
MK: This “hiding place” you speak of…was there a point where no one knew you were Lea Singer?
LS: I mean two different things. On the one hand, it was the former publisher who was against hiding behind a pen name; my current one would have allowed me to do so. The former publisher said: “We need a face.” My argument that there were more than enough faces was not accepted.
On the other hand, nearly twenty years ago, when the Internet was still young, it really was possible to keep your identity hidden. In my first novel, I partly invented my biography, claiming, for example, to have lived and studied in Berlin. And immediately in the first review, which appeared on the day of publication, a well-known critic named Karl Heinz Kramberg (you can read this at www.buecher.de) wrote in Süddeutsche Zeitung that the novel was “a masterpiece by virtue of an almost divine prose,” but asked himself: “How do we imagine the author who is not portrayed, neither on the cover, nor in the publisher’s portfolio? Jubilee young and pretty, although the cover text of course conceals details like this, because publishing custom is frowned upon according to gallantry.” On his TV show “aspekte,” Wolfgang Herles speculated that the book was written too skillfully for the author to be unknown to the public. A Swiss magazine published a gossipy article hypothesizing on who the writer could be.
MK: What, then, in your biography, is fact, and what is fiction?
LS: Myself? I’m not more than a colorful dog and a contradiction from head to toe. I wrote my doctoral thesis about the representations of children but I have no children. I’m a scientist and cook, long-distance jogger and connoisseur, novelist and researcher, horribly faithful and always curious. With each book I enter a new field. My new novel La Fenice, the phoenix in Italian where the word for this bird is female, is about a young woman who became the victim of a mass rape at the age of 23 and then went on to be the top model of Titian in Venice of the Renaissance. An authentic and documented story.
I don’t care about prizes, but what counts for me as a writer is the attention. Prizes bring me to the attention of people who haven’t read my books before. It’s not about reaching as many readers as possible, but the right ones. In the case of The Piano Student someone who expects a thriller or only wants to read about obscene indiscretions is not my intended audience; pornography is protein, eroticism is a clue. Billy Wilder said about Ernst Lubitsch: “He could say more with a locked door than other directors could with an open fly.”
The Piano Student is first of all about the authentic and dramatic, sometimes funny, homosexual affair between two extraordinary characters. But it is also about the question that concerns us all: sexual identity and the courage it takes to be true to oneself. This is not a guarantee for happiness, but it is in my eyes, the basic requirement of inner freedom.
Writing means for me taking responsibility for the content, for the characters, for historical accuracy. And for what is told beyond the concrete story.
Maddie King graduated from Skidmore College in 2018 with a degree in English and a focus in Creative Writing and Film. She is a judge for NYC Midnight’s 2020 Fiction Competition.