The Symphony of Farewells

The Last Movement

by Robert Seethaler

Translated from German by Elisabeth Landes

Ed. Sabine Wespieser, 122 pages, €15

He is celebrated, applauded, even adored, as a conductor and composer. He knew how to conquer “the most beautiful woman in Vienna”, the young, statuesque and determined Alma Schindler. He posed for Auguste Rodin in Paris and New York made him a “star”…

On the deck of the ocean liner bringing him back from the United States to Europe one last time, the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler recalls, over the waves and clouds, the glorious episodes and the pains of his life. Feverish, weakened by illness, feeling the depths of the sea under his feet and the sky above his head, he unwinds his own story in jerky snippets or flat stretches. Apart from himself, his only interlocutor is a young boy placed in his service by the shipping company.

Downstairs, his wife and daughter Anna already seem so far away, almost foreign, they who mattered so much. Mahler knows how to detach himself from what occupied his thoughts, his dreams, his sufferings. Besides, hadn’t his wife already “deserted” by cheating on him with the young architect Walter Gropius? “It was as if, with Alma’s silhouette dissipating in the shadows of the fruit trees, the memories of the remaining episodes of that scorching summer had also dissipated. She was gone then, and for a moment it seemed totally incomprehensible, downright unreal, that she was still there. »

In this short introspective story, the Austrian novelist Robert Seethaler proceeds sometimes by opposition, sometimes by fusion. Opposition between the physical and nervous fragility of the musician and the immensity of his creation, like this symphony called “of the Thousand” whose gigantic execution in Munich caused the press to write: “His desire to reach the heights of art is disproportionate. It can only end in triumph or in decline, there is no middle term, there can be none. » Opposition again, between public success, sometimes snatched from hard struggle, and intimate sorrows: the disintegration of his relationship with Alma and, drama between dramas, guilt between guilt, the death of his eldest daughter Maria. Opposition always, between the famous and respected man in the evening of his existence and the little ship’s boy, in the morning of his, who brings him his tea, exchanging a few less innocuous remarks than it seems with “Mister Director”.

Yet the most touching pages are those of fusion, sips of beauty despite the sobriety of the writing, which is never paid for with words. Robert Seethaler, rather stingy with developments on music, on the other hand lets his pen run free when it comes to exalting the symbiosis between Mahler and nature, which infuses all his work. From childhood, “the murmur of the wind and the clear song of the larks” free him from his narrow daily life; as an adult, he surrenders to the spells of the forest and the original freshness of the mountains.

Often poignant, sometimes funny – the missed rendezvous between an exasperated Mahler and a rough-hewn Rodin –, elegantly mastered, the novel plays with long time and short time, speech and silence, in an authentically musical gesture. Until this coda which moves the narration towards an elsewhere whose keys the novelist hands over to his reader…


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