Liebestod: Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn
By Leslie Epstein
W. W. Norton & Company; 294 pp. $25.95
Liebestod is the fourth and, one would think, final installment of Leslie Epstein's misadventures of Leib Goldkorn, "graduate, Akademie für Musik, Philosophie, und darstellende Kunst." The lovable and sometimes exasperating protagonist of Epstein's farcical The Steinway Quintet (1976), Goldkorn Tales (1985) and Ice Fire Water (1999) returns, at age 103, for his outrageous and poignant swan song. When the novel opens, the flautist and one-time glockenspiel player with the Vienna Philharmonic has fallen on hard times. Penniless and slapped with a restraining order from a woman he has been pestering, the feisty centenarian contemplates suicide to bring to an end what nature by itself seemingly cannot. After an aborted attempt to end his life by sticking his head in his Magic Chef oven, our disconsolate hero has decided to hurl himself out of his Upper West Side apartment window when a letter arrives and changes everything. Girding himself for one last adventure, Goldkorn accepts the invitation within the letter and sets off for his hometown in the Czech Republic.
A phantasmagoria of humor and tragedy follows — astonishing discoveries, amorous exploits, grotesque violence, appearances by everyone from Luciano Pavarotti to Esther Williams — building toward an important mission. Upon arriving in his hometown, Goldkorn makes the startling discovery that Gustav Mahler was his biological father and left his only opera for his son to produce some day as a tribute to the Jewish people. Goldkorn must translate, cast, direct and conduct the world premiere of Mahler's Rübezahl at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that Mahler's Rübezahl exists only as a libretto without music — or that the composer's ambition to write for the stage did not survive into maturity — does not discourage Goldkorn from shouldering the burden of his mission, or dissuade the rest of the world from hanging expectantly on his efforts to achieve it. With Goldkorn as our unreliable narrator and only guide, the reader experiences his baffling journey as if trapped in his fevered, mathematically challenged brain. As impossibilities begin to mount (did he just say that critics sat in parterre boxes while President Bush, the First Lady and their entire security retinue occupied the second row in the orchestra for the premiere?), our fanciful narrator's tall tales sound less boastful and more like the fitful attempts of a consciousness to assert itself as the final curtain begins to descend.
Goldkorn's Joycean wordplay and eccentric attitude toward syntax are essential to his charm, but the fun of deciphering his puzzling train of thought in Liebestod wears thin, especially as the narrative becomes increasingly obsessive and incoherent. This, the longest of the Goldkorn books, asks much of its readers, who, if unfamiliar with its lead character, may not be willing to indulge its randy protagonist. References to the famous Mahler silhouettes by Otto Böhler on the cover cannot salvage this novel when its wit turns grim and funereal.
Many real people are treated less than kindly in the narrative — Renée Fleming, James Levine and Condoleezza Rice are especially raked through the mud — and the denouement, for all its cosmic ambition, struggles to offset an accumulation of unflattering and despicable images. Likening Plácido Domingo's portrayal of the title role in Rübezahl to "Bert Lahr in his prime" barely registers in a narrative that has a group of Islamic terrorists extracting gold fillings from Jewish hostages' mouths in the auditorium of North America's largest opera company. The madcap atmosphere of Liebestod is messy, unsettling and, by the end, deeply unfunny. For those who adore Leib Goldkorn's earlier exploits, reading Liebestod is akin to the service we perform for a loved one whose once-strong vitality is flickering and ready to blow out.
JEFFERY S. MCMILLAN
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