an author without
competition from a genius
out of the past
by Ian Frazier
ne of the most stuck-up guys I ever met is the piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. When I mention this, people always say, "But he's dead!" Try telling him that. I just finished a nine-week, twenty-nine-city book tour with the guy, and yes, he is old--he may even be "dead" (whatever that means)--but he is definitely one big pain. And when I say I was on a book tour, I flatter myself. It was supposed to be a tour to promote my most recent work of fiction, Buh . Well, instead it became one of these new "piggyback" tours that publishers are so crazy about these days, where they send an author along with an established performing artist, a surefire crowd-getter like the popular Herr Liszt. Don't look at me--I just do what they tell me: sit at a table in the concert-hall lobby, sign books, read a short selection during intermission (What intermission? The guy never comes up for air!), introduce myself to the culture-page editors waiting to interview him, get myself known. The Liszt crowd is a reading crowd, I was told.
I first met him in the sitting room of his suite in the Brown Palace Hotel, in Denver. Technically, of course, it was our suite, since my (smaller) bedroom and bath were part of it; but any space I shared with him immediately became his, and I see no reason to pretend otherwise now. He was smoking a complicatedly carved briar pipe and reading a copy of What's Doing in Downtown Denver supplied by the hotel. He hopped up on his long, wavery legs, introduced himself, and warmly took my hand. His fingers, which play tenths as easily as most concert pianists play octaves, twined around my wrist. I'd read in the publicity how "his sea-green eyes shone with rapid flashes like waves in flames," but that effect got by me somehow. Mainly what I was wondering was how he achieved that Gyro Gearloose flyaway look with his side hair. I went to my room to unpack, and when I returned, ten minutes later, the place was mobbed. Liszt fans were perched on the telephone table, the cabinet with the complimentary snack bar, and the window sills as he launched into a story about the time Edvard Grieg killed a spider with a piano stool--a recitation I was, unfortunately, to learn by heart. Bare-shouldered ladies sitting at his feet vied to rest their heads on his knees.
Talk about party ! When does he ever sleep? I stood around on the fringes and tried to make conversation, but I was pretty beat from my flight. As I headed off to bed, he was ordering up baskets of champagne. I pulled a pair of those foam-rubbery hotel pillows around my ears to drown out the noise, and eventually I drifted off. The next I knew, I was wide awake to the sound of his uproarious laughter. I hunted for the digital clock by the bed--they never put those things where you can see them lying down--and discovered it was four-fifteen. Now he was humming loudly and contrapuntally, if that's possible, to merry applause from the entourage. Somehow I got back to sleep. At five of six I heard a knock on my door. There he stood, fully dressed in old-time formal clothes and a velvet cape. He wanted me to check the little button doohickeys behind the knee on his knickers or knee breeches or whatever they were, to see if he'd got them buttoned right. I mean, enough already!
I'm not even going to discuss our first "event," it was such a nightmare. I held the fort at my table in the lobby and sold exactly two books, both of them to other writers who asked if they could send me manuscripts, as his SRO horde of screaming admirers strewed rose petals everywhere (the pink ones stain, by the way). I kept promising myself a big drink for later, and by the end of the evening it had grown to the size of a drink on a Hollywood billboard. I escaped at the first opportunity; after that the picture mercifully blurs.
iszt hadn't played in public since 1886, so naturally a lot of anticipation had built up. We sat together on the flight to Salt Lake City; when we got off the plane, there were about 200 panting Liszt-omanes waiting for him, and Art Knapp, from the Bookworm's mall store, waiting for me. If Art hadn't been holding up a copy of my book, I'd never have spotted him in the melee. (I can pick out that awful cover--why my agent didn't get us cover approval I'll never know--at 500 yards.) I hadn't checked any bags, so I just left Liszt to his fate and let Art lead me to his car. He asked how my tour was going so far, and I lied and said great. Then he asked who was that old fellow everyone was clamoring for. I wanted to grab him right there on the moving walkway and give him a kiss. Turned out he had never heard of him! Thank God there's still some sanity left in the land. But I hid my feelings and explained politely about the world-renowned nineteenth-century pianist and blah blah blah, as if I were an expert on the subject myself.
Later it got back to me that Liszt was really upset that I had run out on him at the airport. What was I supposed to do, trail along and hand out the smelling salts?
I couldn't help it. He just rubbed me wrong, constantly. Little things he did got on my nerves--the way he always said "bitte " after every question, for example. "Would you hold my garment case for a moment, bitte ?" "I cannot fit this under my seat, so may I place it under yours, bitte ?" I had to bitte my tongue not to tell him what he could do with his bitte . And those damn cookbooks he carried everyplace he went. He used to read recipes out loud to me and then ask, "Ahhh--doesn't that sound good?" And he ate Pez candies, the kind in the little dispenser. He was always popping one into his mouth. He has an amazing sweet tooth. What makes it worse is that he never puts on any weight! Any sweets I eat always go straight to my hips. But old Liszt is one of those skinny, hyper musician types we'd all secretly love to be. And I don't have to tell you how those guys do with women. Fantastic is how they do.
I mention this partly because of the chocolatier. In some airport or other Liszt met an attractive young chocolatier named Felice. We had stopped in a candy shop on the concourse to buy him his customary in-flight snack of two pounds of chocolate truffles. Felice, who waited on us, fell instantly, madly in love with him, closed up shop, bought a ticket, hopped on our flight, and was with us from then on. It happened that fast. Liszt was mad for her, too. And of course Felice absolutely hated me. Hated me. I think a lot of the problem had to do with the word "chocolatier." I just could never pronounce it to her satisfaction--in an introduction, for example. I realize it's a perfectly okay word, it's just not one I've had much occasion to use or am very comfortable with. Probably it bugged her that I always added "(French)" after it, to help people unfamiliar with its foreign origins.
Liszt and Felice immediately got themselves his-and-hers matching everything. They pored over airline shopping catalogues and ordered expensive pen-and-pencil sets, executive stress-reducers, and pocket Breathalyzers, always by twos. In Dallas they bought identical luggage, which shouldn't have irritated me, but did. I came to dread seeing my own suitcase with the broken side zipper gaping forlornly amid their gleaming equipage on the baggage carousel. They always used porters--I prefer to carry mine--and they made out in taxicabs. Felice often recorded their conversations on a small tape recorder, which I noticed she turned off whenever I had something to say. Privately each told me how amazing and wonderful the other was. Of course all I could do was agree like an idiot.
I think Felice would have preferred that I disappear; many times I felt as if I already had. In the green room of the Spokane Civic Theater she absentmindedly handed me a stack of manila envelopes meant for the UPS man--I looked just like him, she blithely explained. I could have taken the hint and gone for a walk around the block for about two weeks, but I chose to remain emphatically where I was. This was my tour too. To pass the time I paced and cleared my throat a lot and popped my knuckles, even though I knew how nuts that drove her. I sat reading my own book, occasionally chuckling at the good parts. Liszt remained oblivious of the daggers Felice now looked at me whenever I was in the vicinity. He thought she and I would be fast friends, coming from the same century and all. Mutual misunderstanding, already serious, deepened further.
t last I decided to get our conflicts out into the open. We were in the back of an airport limo, just the three of us, stuck in a traffic jam in Boise, Idaho, at seven o'clock in the morning. I looked out at the small creek of rainwater in the gutter, moving along faster than we were, and clarity seized me. "You know the real difference between you and me, Franz?" I asked. He turned to me with the smallest acceptable amount of polite interest on his seamed, subtle face, but I continued. "I am quirky. That is my essence--quirk. By that I mean I'm just me , a self that is completely my own sui generis individual kind of personality. I have my own take on things, which is always slightly skewed and edgy. This is reflected in my writing, which is quirky, skewed, et cetera, as well."
I could see he had no idea what I was talking about. Felice, pretending to yawn and stretch, cuffed me on the side of the head.
"That's me ; whereas you ," I went on, heedless, "you invented the symphonic poem, made the piano the equivalent of an entire orchestra, played for more people than any musician in history, donated vast sums to charity, composed masterpieces of tonal experimentation far ahead of their time--but, no offense, you're not quirky. I am much quirkier than you. You do have your own take on things, I admit, but it is skewed only slightly if at all, nowhere near as skewed as mine. And as for edgy, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but you are not edgy in the least. Brilliant? Yes. Edgy? No way. In fact, it's remarkable we've gotten along as well as we have."
His sea-green eyes remained fixed on me in a look of complete bafflement. Later I found out that he had misheard me to say that I was "corky," and "corkier" than he was. Even if he'd heard me right, he wouldn't have understood. He came from a time when people actually had to know how to do stuff, or else they sat around all day burning peat or something, and there wasn't much call for high-end authors like me. I gave up trying to explain. But, oddly, Liszt didn't let the moment pass. He continued looking at me. Then he reached over, took my arm, and in that accent of his said, "Well, I'm sure you're a good egg!"
Felice brought out her cell phone and pulled up the antenna and began calling vanilla suppliers. The traffic eased, the rain stopped, airport billboards appeared up ahead. Liszt rolled down the window and idly ran through some fingerings on his knee. I sat back in an unexpected rush of contentment. No, I'm being coy--ecstasy would be more like it, quiet ecstasy. Franz Liszt called me a good egg! And here I had never said even one nice thing about his piano playing. I'm nearly tone-deaf, to begin with, and my idea of good music is weepy early-eighties rock-and-roll that nobody likes nowadays, by bands with geographic place-names. What a perfect blurb for my next book: "'A good egg'--Franz Liszt." I still can't get over it. Felice finished her phone call and stowed her phone, and our glances met. The absence of a sneer on her beet-red lips could almost have been called a smile.
o I guess I have to take back some of what I've said. True, Liszt is a crazed egomaniac who believes that all the world is secondary to his towering genius. And true, he does sometimes trample the rights of others in the Preferred Customer lines, so you nearly get into fights. All the same, he's not a hundred percent bad. Old "Fist Full of Keys" Franz knows a lot more than he lets on. I mean, let's put ourselves in his position: he's been "dead" in a technical sense for more than a hundred years, and none of his friends are around anymore. He gets lonely. Of course he retreats into his celebrity and his music. Wouldn't you? Yet with all the sadness he has to keep bottled up, he still considers the other fellow's feelings--mine, for example. Soon after our exchange in the airport limo he invited me to sit in with him at a recording session at the studios of Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, that's me playing the triangle in the new version of Danse Macabre --you can just barely hear it. He wrote the part especially for me, and I was thrilled. We even jammed a little--after the tapes had stopped rolling, of course. He didn't have to do that, and I appreciated it.
As for my book, it ended up selling pretty well, especially to people in the business. To my (pleasant) surprise, the publisher turned out to be right about the tour. Much as it graveled me always to be "the guy with Liszt," the backup interview, or the "In Brief" item or sidebar piece, I did get a decent amount of coverage out of the deal. Interviewers seemed to like it when I said that if I weren't a writer, I'd probably be either dead or in jail. I don't know why, but they always quoted that line, leaving out that it isn't really true. I personally know a lot of people who bought the book, sometimes more than one copy, and obviously there are many others I don't know about, which would increase the figure. I just received a royalty statement on the sales, but I won't go into a whole long analysis of it now. I'll merely mention that line seventeen of the statement, identified as "Line Fifteen Minus Line Sixteen," shows an amount over $7,000. That is either what I owe the publisher or what the publisher owes me--quite a respectable number for a work of fiction, in any event.
Franz Liszt's place in history is already secure, and he will go on to make it even better. This time when he's reached his goals there won't be anyone who can touch him, ever. He and Felice just bought a place in Encino, and they divide their time between there and his native Hungary. He has a new tour planned, with race-car driver turned author Mario Andretti, which will be far bigger than the one I was on. They're looking at new venues on the NASCAR summer circuit, which would be way, way beyond my league but not beyond Liszt's, and more power to him. Having seen him myself in concert, I can promise that he owns the three essentials for any performer: he makes you laugh, he makes you cry, and he scares the hell out of you. No audience could ask for more. In Berlin back in 1841 people went so wild for him that they threw themselves under the wheels of his carriage--a trifle, I predict, compared with what's going to happen here. Despite everything that went down between him and me in the past, I'll be rooting for him all the way.
(Franz Liszt photograph by Nadar, 1883,
from the Mansell Collection; still photography by Bruno Debas)
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; Accompanying Franz; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 104-106.