One Perfect Reader
August 16, 2005
Reading is such a private and seemingly passive activity that no one gets credit for it. Kurt Oppens, who died in 1998 at the age of 87, is remembered as the German musicologist who arrived in Aspen in 1951 to tune pianos and who left us nearly four decades of program notes that equal in quality any annotations produced by his contemporaries in the English-speaking world. Those familiar with Oppens’ essays that examine music through a prism of history, philosophy, literature and evolving culture can assume that their author was well-read, and might suppose that he read mainly to illumine music. The fact that Kurt’s scholarship, command of European languages and prodigious memory were brought to bear on his published subject camouflaged another Kurt Oppens: the extra-musical reader, obsessed.
I had been clipping Kurt’s program notes for years before I got to know him, in the late ’70s, when I studied piano with his wife Edith. The ensuing friendship included many meetings in Aspen, occasional visits in New York, and a correspondence that continued until three days before a stroke, at the beginning of 1996, all but stopped his writing. Much of our exchange centered on literature that had nothing to do with music, beginning with Kurt’s fixation on Eudora Welty’s first novel, “Delta Wedding.” When I wrote him my thoughts on the novel, he replied with a complete essay for which I was the audience of one. He sent me the original and asked me to keep it, apologizing that he had made a Xerox copy for himself but had lost some of the pages. In the accompanying letter he confessed, “Delta Wedding is a book which one has to exorcize to get rid of – as an engaged reader you become part of it yourself, and then you cannot let go … the imagined family becomes a real family substitute.” He compared the Welty to works by Goethe and Thomas Mann and found its level “not much below those monuments.” I took his reference to exorcism for hyperbole, but he wrote in the next letter that when he finished his fourth reading of “Delta Wedding” and found himself beginning it again, he suddenly threw it into the fire, for that was the only way to escape Welty’s delta.
In a slightly different way he became obsessed with another Welty work, a short story called “The Bride of the Innisfallen.” I personally found the work disconnected but he took it as a symbolic journey into a new state, a kind of paradise, and after we discussed it over lunch he told me he felt “high.” His response was to translate the story into German, changing the narration from the third to the first person and adding a transitional section he thought it needed. When I suggested that he translate his version back into English and send it to Ms. Welty, he startled me by taking my sarcasm seriously, but didn’t follow through.Kurt’s enthusiasms were unexpected. I once ran into him at Explore Booksellers and asked what he was looking for. “A book on Carlo Ponti,” I heard in a wispy breathlessness that always sounded as if he were straining for syllables slightly out of reach. Why, I wondered, was he interested in an Italian film director who married Sophia Loren? When next I saw him I asked about the book. “Who is Carlo Ponti?” he inquired. “I was looking for a biography of Charlotte Bronte.” That slightly disconnected quality was less assuring when I was a passenger in his car. Once, picking me up for lunch, he backed partway off my driveway’s small bridge over an irrigation ditch. He thought he could jack the dangling side and turn the wheel to regain firm ground, but I summoned a tow truck before the calamity deepened. On another occasion he wanted to lunch in Basalt, saying that he liked to get out of Aspen, and Basalt was real America. In his beat-up green sedan, with no safety belts and a rug over the seat, we floated erratically down Highway 82 with Kurt oblivious to the honking behind him.
In literature, at least, Kurt was quite serious about the “real America” as expressed by Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. He sent me a long essay on the four levels of the latter’s “Bellefleur,” which he wrote “to get the novel out of my system.” I have never made it through an entire Oates novel but several of them devoured Kurt, along with short stories he considered “worthy of Henry James,” even as he pronounced other Oaters worthless. During an immersion in the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, he reported that one of the characters was surely based on Aspen Music School alumna Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.While we were both Brahms fanatics, I only truly explored music with Kurt during the summer of 1984, when he asked if I was familiar with Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger.” I knew only the overture. It was, said Kurt, probably the greatest 19th-century opera. The Oppens were staying on after the Festival and Kurt would take me through it, an act a day. He was not thrilled with my recording, a set of scratchy LPs from a garage sale, but each morning we read through an act’s libretto, with Kurt explaining its setting among the singing contests of medieval German principalities, and then we heard, through my hissing speakers, how Wagner musically fleshed his text. The opera just happened to be scheduled by the Met that winter and Kurt insisted I come to New York. Months later I was sitting with him in the first row of the second balcony, hearing and seeing clearly what we had glimpsed through static and the libretto’s glossy paper at my window table. During the last act Kurt got up unexpectedly and said, “Now I must leave. I’ll call you tomorrow.” I noticed that several dozen others in the huge house were fleeing noiselessly. When we had gone over the work in Aspen, Kurt had presented the work’s paean to German unification as one more medieval circumstance, but when the banners and pageantry of the Met’s sumptuous production heralded German destiny, I understood how Kurt, who had lost his father at Auschwitz – and others with similar associations – could take no more in what seemed, to me, an already indulgent love of Wagner.
For most of the time that I knew Kurt he was obsessed with North American writers who worked in English, but in his last years he turned to the vast project of reading Balzac complete in French. Launching into that rewording of Paris, he wrote me, “I consider myself really fortunate to have discovered Balzac late in life, having now the patience to read it all, to accept all that is strange, absurd and not-of-our-time.” Further inebriated by the next letter, he wrote, “he stupefies me to the extent that I feel like tumbling around, half-blindfolded, in a subterranean treasure trove. In this author I don’t find myself anywhere – I’ve had enough of myself, and now I can really go exploring with a free mind.” An odd spinoff to his Balzac saturation was to translate a story whose last English rendition, in 1895, was “too full of archaisms.” The exercise made little sense, since he had no plans to publish it, but the mere existence in the world of a more adequate translation fulfilled some inner need.Literature itself, of course, fulfilled an inner need, and I did make out a pattern in his obsessions. Welty, Oates, Davies, O’Connor, the Wagner of “Die Meistersinger,” and Balzac all created connected social worlds rather than isolated psychological interiors. Kurt’s mother, he told me, committed suicide when he was 9, and his father had died in a Nazi camp. During music class when he was 12, Kurt experienced a revelation when a teacher explained the Overture to Weber’s “Der Freichutz.” A certain crescendo represented the Black Forest, a magic kingdom where one could enter and forget about the past. For Kurt that musical forest was the discovery of art, an alternative world he could escape to and inhabit. When I asked him whether he read Proust, he said that he found Proust overly sensitive and interior. This, I remembered, was a man who had written of “Delta Wedding,” “the imagined family becomes a family substitute.” Music was the art that communed with his interior; in literature, I believe, he found the substitute family he missed in youth and whose extended community he often shrank from as an adult. Reading is unfairly belittled as a substitute for life. Only nonreaders could find it merely vicarious. Literature is a primary experience of art, and if you open yourself, as Kurt did, like a lens through which words burn themselves to a focus, literature can strike with the force of raw sensation.
The late poet James Merrill has said that, rather than a mass following, he would settle for one perfect reader. Over the years I sent Kurt my poems on musical subjects, in retaliation for his essays. I was elated by his thoroughness as a reader. Of a poem on Brahms, he told me what I had left out as well as what I had caught. He tried to stimulate poems from me on the painter Max Beckmann and the composer Leos Janácek by taking me to a Beckman triptych at the Museum of Modern Art and by sending me a Janácek CD. Alas, his feelings weren’t mine and I couldn’t comply. He told me that a renewed musical interest was partly triggered by my poem “Late Sibelius,” and when he was hospitalized for open heart surgery in 1990 he took earphones and a tape deck so he could listen to Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 on morphine. When I kidded him about doing an artistic drug trip in the manner of Aldous Huxley, he smiled and said, “Precisely.” I don’t know whether he took a tape recorder when he was hospitalized again for heart surgery in 1993, but he took my poems so that they could be the first thing he read when he came to.As a practice I don’t dedicate my books to individuals, but when the publisher of a book of poetry demanded one, I chose without hesitation. The dedication to Kurt is probably the only line of the book I wouldn’t tamper with. Like most poets, I was disappointed by the paucity of reviews, awards and other noise when the book came out. In retrospect, any hoopla would have been anticlimactic, for I had already had something better: one perfect reader.Bruce Berger’s books include “The Telling Distance,” winner of the Western States Book Award, and “Music in the Mountains,” a history of the Aspen Music Festival. This essay is from the forthcoming “The Complete Half-Aspenite,” to be released at the end of the summer.