Monday, October 26, 2009

A Life in Obscurity

Sometimes, the most interesting biographical subjects are those that are relatively obscure. Such is the case with the strange and amazing life of piano prodigy Ervin Nyiregyhazi (pronounced Neer-edge-hah-zee), chronicled in Lost Genius: The Curious and True Story of an Extraordinary Musical Talent by Kevin Bazzana.

Nyiregyhazi was born in 1903, in Hungary. He was an extraordinary piano talent, and his social-climbing parents were quick to cash in. Like Mozart before him and Micahel Jackson after, he was paraded around, held to a grueling performance schedule and forced to be the primary support of the family. And like both men, it messed him up, too. It wasn't just all the attention at an early age, but the weird dichotomy of his expected behavior: in some respects, he had to be absolutely adult. If he was scared before a performance, he wasn't supposed to hide or cry; if he didn't want to perform, he wasn't allowed to back out. But his marketability lay in the very fact of him being a child. His mother made him wear long hair and short pants years after social norms dictated that he dress in a more adult fashion. She forbade him from doing much of anything other than practicing, and the forbidden activities ran the gamut from chess to sex. Astonishingly, he was fifteen when he learned the most basic facts about where babies came from and the differences between male and female bodies.

With this odd upbringing, which combined overprotection with exploitation, it's no wonder he grew up screwed up. From his parents, he learned that he was special, a genius, an aristocrat, and entitled to the best. Yet he was so sheltered that he had almost no resources to guarantee his own future. He was taken advantage of by various women, and by unscrupulous and incompetent managers. He crumbled under the slightest criticism, developed terribly anxiety and paranoia, but never lost his taste for finer things or his huge sexual appetite. He married ten times, had numerous long-term affairs, and frequented brothels the way most people frequent grocery stores.

But always, there was the music. Often, he didn't want to perform, and often, the public didn't want him, but it was always a part of his life. He was a prolific composer as well as performer, and wrote pieces based on the most mundane experiences ("The Installation of the Telephone," for example). Nyiregyhazi came of age when the worth of Liszt and Grieg was still being hotly debated, when it was possible to shock audiences with performaces of classical music, and these chapters particularly intrigued me. His brief renaissance, in the late 1970s, was not so much an effort at recognition as at preservation of a "last voice from a bygone era." In hearing his playing, people believed they were listening to the last of the Romantic-era pianists.

As interesting as his life was, the book could be dull at times. I'm not sure whether it's the fault of the biographer or not, but Nyiregyhazi's personality never fully jumps off the page. He ultimately passes the Maxwell Perkins test -- by the end of the book, you would indeed know him if you met him on the street, and know how to respond -- but it takes a long while to get there. And a large portion of his life was simply not that interesting. Petty scraping to get by, life in cheap hotels, staying indoors and eating at rotten coffee shops (as long as they don't play Muzak!) is not really the stuff of great literature. It's really the bookends of Nyiregyhazi's life that are interesting: his bizarre childhood, and his unlikely renaissance at the end of his life. Most of his ten marriages aren't even that interesting.

Still, if you like classical music, this one's worth a read. And if you like sad Hollywood stories about faded stars, this one's also worth a read, for it gives sort of an inside view of how one can wind up there, even without excessive chemical assistance.