Rodney and Me and the Harpsichord: a Challenge to Jeffrey Eugenides

On an October afternoon in 2005, a little more than a month after I had returned to Ithaca, New York from a two-year sabbatical in Berlin, I lay in my hammock with a copy of the New Yorker. Much to my surprise, the magazine contained a short story by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides entitled “Early Music” and featuring that little-known keyboard instrument, the clavichord, as its central prop. More surprising still was my immediate realization that the main character was a fictionalized version of me, a long-time clavichordist:  “The eighteenth-century musicians who played [the clavichord] were small.  Rodney was big, however—six feet three.”  Rodney is also very boring: “early music is rational, mathematical, a little bit stiff, and so was Rodney.”

Much of me had of course been transformed by the novelistic imagination, but I was still there even in the distorted details. Rodney is a failed musicologist, reduced to supporting his wife — who had also given up on a Ph.D. in musicology a decade before — and their two daughters as a drudge at a nameless Chicago HMO.  When he can, Rodney snatches moments of solace from wage-slavery and the chaos of family at a clavichord that stands in the modest “music room” in the apartment.

How is it that the clavichord—the quietest of 18th-century keyboard instruments—penetrated the consciousness of a writer whose novels have been concerned with hermaphroditism (Middlesex) and teenage death pacts (The Virgin Suicides)?

Though my wife and I generally tried to avoid the American expatriate scene in Berlin we went to a few happenings organized by friends in our neighborhood in Schöneberg, and we soon met Jeff Eugenides, his wife, Karen, and their daughter Georgia, with whom my own daughters sometimes played. The Eugenides had been living in Berlin for five years during which time Jeff finished Middlesex.  We often saw them around our neighborhood. On one memorable occasion—at least for me—I ran into Karen at the Schöneberg swimming pool, a wonderful complex built in the 1920s as part of Berlin’s ambitious public bathing program begun some  thirty years earlier.

There is a café next to the big upstairs pool, and over cappuccino, I launched into a devastating critique for Karen’s benefit of the movie I’d seen the night before, Lost in Translation, which had just arrived in Berlin.  My diatribe went something like this: Sofia Coppola writes a part for a woman (played by Scarlett Johansson), who wants herself to be a writer but pathetically does nothing but paint her toenails and prance around in her underwear and try to please men. How is it, I asked, that a female writer/director (Coppola) is feted for producing  a movie so profoundly misogynistic that it outdoes even the macho crap of the Hollywood testosterone-toughs, who would later bestow an Academy Award on her for best original screenplay for this exercise pandering?

So exercised was I over the undeserved praise the film was getting, that I’d forgotten that Coppola had made a film of Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicide. Karen casually informed of this the first moment I came up for air several minutes into my screed. But she didn’t seem particularly fazed by my vehemence about the Coppola movie, and she even took the opportunity to provide me with a juicy piece of gossip. I now pass on this tibit with the generosity for which the Musical Patriot is rightly celebrated:  she claimed Coppola and Bill Murray, the star of Lost in Translation, had an affair during the filming of the movie.

Anyway, our lease ran only for a year and by the spring of 2004 were looking for another apartment in our section of Berlin. We learned that the Eugenides were planning to move back to Chicago (the city where the present of “Early Music” takes place.) There was much to-ing and fro-ing about whether we would indeed sub-let from the Eugenides. The problem was that their apartment was on the main artery through Schöneberg, the Hauptstrasse, with its earth-shaking buses and big trucks, and we expressed our concern about whether our clavichord could even be heard over traffic. In fact, that decision had less to do with the clavichord’s introverted sound than with our own dread of the relentless noise; the clavichord provided a convenient excuse. But Eugenides probably thought us a bit fusty for worrying about the matter on account of the clavichord.  I doubt he even knew there was such a thing as clavichord before these discussions took place, and from “Early Music” it seems clear he’d never heard one being played. In any event, expiring leases, the frantic search for new accommodation and ambient noise were the mundane events and considerations that brought the clavichord across the Eugenides’ path.

In the summer of 2006, when both my family and the Eugenides happened to be visiting Berlin about a year after the story appeared, I had ice cream with his wife and some other Americans in the shadow of the Schöneberger Rathaus, where JFK said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” As we paid the bill, I told her I’d read the New Yorker story “with interest.” She blushed slightly and mumbled something about the kitty toys that Rodney’s wife makes in “Early Music.”

I didn’t take the details in the story personally, though I suppose I could have done so. While the passing reference to the fictional wife’s sharp chin is hardly meant as a compliment in Eugenides’ story, I consider it one of my real wife’s most lovely features.  The brisk 58 degrees at which Rodney keeps his apartment is meant to show his stingy and austere temperament.  This detail has to do with the fact that German heating bills are paid in advance and then, if less energy is used in the course of the year, the difference is reimbursed to the tenant.  The Eugenides kept the heating cranked up and paid a good deal for it, so we had to pay too much up front and never got the difference back.

But the apartment was hardly cold.  A Berlin nudist of 1960s vintage lived directly beneath us and kept his apartment at sauna-like levels, thus blessing us with abundant second-hand heat. This petty hassle over the heat elicits one of the better lines in the story: “Bach was like cold weather: it sorted the mind.” Rodney studies Bach “père et fils”. In “Early Music” the temperature of the apartment is a metaphor for the supposed aridity of Bach scholarship. Why the Eugenides paid so much for heat, I don’t know.  Perhaps they had gone native during their years in the apartment and paraded around the place stark naked.

What I found troubling about the story was not seeing the twisted image of me and my family.  That I quite enjoyed.  What was most disappointing was how poorly researched the the piece was, consisting of nothing more than tissue of internet searches stitched together with clichés about music in general and early music in specific. The worst thing about all this was that it made me begin to doubt the research on hermaphroditism that undergirds, Middlesex, the novel which got Eugenides the Pulitzer. Was that prize-winning as shoddily cobbled together?

Clearly beyond  Eugenides’ imits of cultural reference, the clavichord appealed to his authorial sensibilities because it is something out of the ordinary.  Fair enough, but why must it is serve as an obsession for the eccentric, the stodgy, the antiquarian, the foolish, and the failed?  It seems that only the hopelessly aloof and awkward would devote themselves to such antiques and their music. At one of Rodney’s recitals “the early music [rings out], prim and lurching.” If the audience isn’t dead it soon will be.

How different this view is from that of 18th-century writers who embraced the limitless expressive potential the clavichord offered the player, as in the following passage from Jean Paul’s autobiographical novel Hesperus:

“When I want to express a particular feeling that seizes me, it strives to find not words but sounds, and I crave to express it on my clavichord.  As soon as I shed tears at the clavichord over my invention, the creative process is over and feeling takes command.  Nothing exhausts me as much, nothing soothes me more than improvising at the clavichord.  I could improvise myself to death.”

But for Eugenides the clavichord lacks all ability to move; it is less musical instrument than algorithm: “rational, mathematical, a little bit stiff.” Oh, Rodney!  Oh, Jeff!! If only I could show you that I am indeed a man of sentiment and that the clavichord is not simply a wood and wire calculator on which the emotionally frigid punch in their selfish equations.

These and other internal dialogues occupied me that afternoon as I swung in my hammock beneath the autumnal oaks contemplating the meaning of the clavichord and of life — as if there were a difference between the two …

After five years in Berlin and a few in Chicago, Jeff and his family have moved to Princeton where he has taken up a position at the university’s creative writing program. I’m going to fire off an email to him now inviting him to come to my next clavichord recital at Cornell.  I’ll ask him if he wouldn’t mind reading from his New Yorker story during the concert. Maybe he can then interview me and Rodney together. Or, better, the fictional Rodney and the real me can interview the famed author of “Early Music.”

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu







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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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