Portrait of the Artist as a Vile Man

In this tale of classical music in wartime, career trumps conscience



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, January 21, 2008


The Emperor Nero, legend has it, fiddled while Rome burned. Now here comes Hermann Kapp-Dortmunder, the protagonist of Henry Grinberg’s novel “Variations on the Beast,” out to emulate him. As Nazi-occupied Europe is burning to cinders during the Second World War, the high-flying conductor merrily swings the baton in Berlin, having the time of his life. He philanders, he parties, and he rides high on his fame as a celebrated conductor. Life is “near heaven itself,” as he puts it.

Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, a onetime Nazi Party member, served as the inspiration for Henry Grinberg's fictional anti-hero Hermann Kapp-Dortmunder


“Variations on the Beast” is a portrait of the artist as a vile man. The presumptuously named Kapp-Dortmunder (nee Ferenc Kapp, before the Hungarian-born musician Germanizes his patronymic to better fit his exulted sense of self as an authentic Ubermensch) narrates his life in a sprawling symphony of anecdotes — now sinuous and legato, now abrupt and staccato — as if reminiscing to a table companion over a steady supply of steins brimming with frothing cold ale in a backstreet Bierhaus a decade and a half after the end of the war.


Yet his memoirs are a cautionary tale — “Great Expectations” gone horribly awry. Grinberg, a retired professor of literature at the City College of New York and a practicing psychoanalyst, allows us to follow the arc of Kapp-Dortmunder’s career from headstrong musical prodigy in a provincial Hungarian town to dissembling, ruthlessly ambitious (yet hopelessly clueless) conservatory student in Vienna during the Nazis’ rise to feted Herr Generalmusikdirektor in wartime Berlin — and beyond into musical stardom in postwar Europe.


During the early trajectory of Kapp-Dortmunder’s career, Grinberg fashions sharply focused sepia snapshots, through the eyes of an easily corruptible musical prodigy, of Central-Eastern Europe’s blood-drenched, accursed, topsy-turvy history in the first half of the 20th century, when borders of emerging nation states were being redrawn haphazardly in post-Great War settlements, throwing people’s national identities into baffled disarray and sowing the seeds of yet further war. Grinberg’s research into the conflicted, frequently bigoted mindsets of contemporary Magyars, Austrians and Germans is scrupulous — to the point of seasoning his characters’ dialogues with idiosyncratic vernacular expressions (though his renderings into English of typical Hungarian phrases are sometimes slightly off).


Yet his novel points beyond a sad chapter in European history, specific to a time and place, and confronts us with a timeless question: “How [is] it possible,” his protagonist, not yet a fully corrupted megalomaniac himself, ponders as a 17-year-old music student in a Vienna conservatory while being tormented by a small-minded and sadistic teacher who plays the piano with wonderful class, “that a man who could play as beautifully as Herr Schneidermann could also be such a brute?”


In other words, can artistic expression, however inspired, be dissociated from the crimes of the artist? Should it be?


In Grinberg’s telling, the answer is no. His characterization of the novel’s despicably self-centered protagonist defies Hannah Arendt’s dictum that evil is banal. In Kapp-Dortmunder, it isn’t: his evil comes from blind arrogance and raging narcissism. Pathetically conceited, he’s blissfully oblivious of his shortcomings and the devastating effect his callousness has on people around him, including Krisztina, a young Hungarian violinist, the only person for whom he professes what passes for love in his eyes. Kapp-Dortmunder is a poster boy for celebrated artists whose exulted virtuosity masks a stunted, loathsome spirit. He’s all technique but no soul, and even among the rampant egos of musicians, his own towers flamboyantly. The impervious fuehrer of a symphonic orchestra with “the power to engage and dismiss players at will,” Kapp-Dortmunder boasts of being “the depository of a world-class cultural heritage.”


Yet his star begins to rise only when that of David suddenly wanes — and he’s granted access to a series of coveted artistic positions forcibly vacated by talented Jewish artists in Hitler’s new Germany. Under Hitler, Jewish artists and their art became classified as “degenerate” (as did “Jewish science,” such as the work of Albert Einstein), while “Aryan” art and artists were in turn co-opted into the service of National Socialism and its virulent propaganda. A man of no convictions other than his fervent belief in his righteous greatness, Kapp-Dortmunder thrives. “I thought it wise to travel with the tide,” he explains. “I had a career to build” -- which he does, employing toadying, innuendo and blackmail with equally shameless zeal.


And if the world is collapsing all around him (often literally as during Allied bombing campaigns), so be it. As Hitler is plunging the continent into total war, Kapp-Dortmunder pooh-poohs such trifles; he fusses instead over the intransigence of opera singers.


* * *


Spiteful and condescending, Kapp-Dortmunder despises Jews, although, ironically, he will owe his opportunity one day to whitewash his wartime past to his formerly reluctant association with Jews.


His anti-Semitism is stoked not so much by congenital sadism in need of a whipping boy as by petty egotism in search of a scapegoat and a fall guy for his perceived superiority. Tellingly, he styles his own crooked nose as handsomely “aquiline” whereas a Jewish musician’s is disagreeably “hooked.” In an age when unthinking anti-Semitism was second nature to many of his contemporaries, the pianist turns into an opportunistic Jew-basher. “[T]he best way to avoid unpleasant treatment,” he posits, “is to be unpleasant first... The world belonged to the swine, not to the meek.”


And a Schwein he duly becomes. Kapp-Dortmunder (then still simply Kapp) owns his musical education largely to Jewish mentors, who take the gifted, brash Hungarian under their wings both in his native land and neighboring Austria. They get no thanks for their efforts. The ubiquity of Jewish artists in his life, Kapp-Dortmunder stresses, only “demonstrates the grip of those rootless wanderers upon the soul of German art.” He is barely 13 when, during his first concert at a Haydn festival in Austria, the precocious pianist, doted on by a penniless single mother and tutored devotedly by an erstwhile (probably Jewish) protégé of Franz Liszt, winds up with early stalwarts of the burgeoning Nazi Party smarting at having been “stabbed in the back” by traitors of the Fatherland -- Jews, especially.


It is 1923, the year Hitler first came to notice after a half-baked, abortive putsch to topple the Weimar Republic.


Stirred by the theatrical bombast and boisterous, Jew-bashing camaraderie of thuggish brownshirts, a rampaging Nazi paramilitary unit, the naive Hungarian takes his first step on a new career parallel to his artistic inspirations: to transcend his lowly station and his humiliations thereof by belonging to the self-styled guardians of the Volk — “so generous with its gifts to the world in music and art, industry and science,” in the words of Bruno von Hornberger (“Herr Doktor”), a pretentious, corpulent concert organizer turned Nazi agitator.


In short order, after a rousing, hate-filled diatribe by Adolf Hitler himself, the apolitical young musician metamorphoses into a Nazi sympathizer. “I discovered that loathing others could provide a remedy for shame,” Kapp-Dortmunder, who is forever insecure despite his towering narcissism, muses. When he witnesses German thugs attacking and murdering a young Dutch-Jewish pianist, whose virtuosity and superior technique Kapp-Dortmunder greatly envies, he shudders at their brutish violence but allies himself with them in principle for having correctly “identified the unclean enemy — Jews, Bolsheviks, Gypsies and mocking women.”


* * *


“Variations on the Beast” lives up to its title by offering literary fugues about a beastly man, yet its plotline remains rather episodic. The Great Depression, the Nazis’ rise to power, the Second World War, the bombing of Berlin by the Allies, the fall of the Nazi eagle, postwar reconstruction — all this is mere backdrop for Kapp-Dortmunder in the minutely narrated course of his career, retold in chapter-size episodes chronicling the various stages — “variations” — of his life, which in its main thrust is modeled on the biography of Herbert von Karajan, the prodigiously talented Austrian conductor who sold himself to the Nazis but turned out none the worse for it in his career later on.


In Kapp-Dortmunder’s long-winded monologues, intriguing characters make momentous entrances, then promptly disappear, never to be seen again. They serve only to nudge the narrative along in a new direction or to lend the ruthlessly ambitious musician further psychological exposition through his own ungrateful and malicious views of others. Even collectively, the characters in “Variations on the Beast” hardly make for a memorable ensemble (although Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, von Karajan, and Richard Strauss all have cameos); this grand symphony is very much a one-man show. Jews who populate the pages also remain bit players, serving as foils for Kapp-Dortmunder’s humdrum, anti-Semitic sermonizing, or else as briefly sketched prototypes for myriad lives destroyed across Germany and Europe.


Perhaps having Kapp-Dortmunder’s tale recounted by a perceptive observer, rather than let him tell it himself, would have served it better since Grinberg’s protagonist himself has zero tolerance, or ability, for introspection. He’s also a supercilious bore — quite unlike, say, the captivatingly honest rogue Sir Harry Flashman, another unscrupulous antihero boasting of his ill-gotten glory, in the novels of George MacDonald Fraser. The frequent banality of Kapp-Dortmunder, an insufferable buffoon without a glimmer of conscience or a hint of self-doubt, often makes for wearying fare over the novel’s 400-pages. A third of that already acquaints us with his rampaging vanity, and we’ll hope in vain for the slightest shading of character to this preening primadonna: he doesn't have a single redeeming or intriguing quality beyond his artistry.


Years after the war, asked to conduct what he labels a “wretched” cantata by a survivor of Buchenwald for the opening of a rebuilt festival hall in Vienna, where he’s feted as a maestro despite his wartime dalliance with the Nazis (another echo of von Karajan), Kapp-Dortmunder feigns amiability (one needs to be diplomatic, after all), then backs out by shrewdly recommending Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony instead in the interest of the city’s “humanistic tradition.” This episode is revealed on the first pages of the novel, yet could just as easily be on its concluding one.


The novel’s real appeal lies in its premise: When artistic expression is divorced from basic principles of morality and turns into a narcissistically self-aggrandizing pursuit, art becomes twisted and perverted in the service of the artist's own ego. Rather than reveal, or even sublimate, the human condition and universal human values, it distorts and corrupts them. “Variations on the Beast” testifies to that.



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