Back in 2003, I interviewed Paul Elie about The Life You Save May Be Your Own, his book on the lives and work of the great Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, and the connections between them. Unlike so many biographers who pummel you with exhaustive detail while affecting a cool academic distance, Elie put his deep emotional connection to his subjects at center stage, inviting us to join him in knowing the lives and work of writers who mean so much to him.
When he told me back then that his next book would be about the recordings of J.S. Bach, it seemed a jump in an entirely different direction, but after reading his new book, Reinventing Bach, I can see that the move makes absolute sense. Here, as in the earlier book, Elie mixes biography, history, travelogue, and personal reflection to tell the story of the great composer, and also the captivating stories of the most celebrated modern interpreters of his music, including Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, and Glenn Gould, who reinvented Bach for the age of recordings. In doing so, Elie once again gives us a compellingly readable and intellectually satisfying meditation on art that inspires us to discover and find joy in the work — in this case from Bach and the constellation of geniuses who devoted their lives to his music.
This February, Elie, who for many years was a senior editor at FSG, became a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. We met near his shared writing studio at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, with pies and scones on the plank table and Pandora playing loudly in the background, to talk about the book.
The Millions: When did you decide to write a book about Bach?
Paul Elie: I think I suspected that my interest in Bach would turn into a book even before I wrote my first book, but I didn’t know enough about Bach yet to write it. I had the ardor without the sense to know what to do with it. I kept making notes and listening to recordings and putting myself into encounters with Bach’s music, aware that after some time something would come of it.
TM: Were you conscious of the connections between your two books as you were writing this new one?
PE: Very much so, in the sense that I knew that in the new book as well as the old one I was telling distinct stories that come together as one story. I realized that Albert Schweitzer and Pablo Casals were near-exact contemporaries, that they had similar preoccupations, and that they made their crucial Bach recordings in London in the middle thirties. Casals’s famous recording of Bach’s cello suites, which he began at Abbey Road studios in November 1936, follows Schweitzer’s recording at the church of All Hallows in the old City by about a year. You read those dates in CD liner notes and feel connections emerging unbidden.
Also, the two books are alike in the sense that they are meant to represent areas where transcendence still feels authentic in our society. The four writers whose stories I told in The Life You Save May Be Your Own make Christian belief credible to people for whom it might not otherwise be so, and that’s true of Bach, too. His music seems to find receptive ears among people of faith, people of no faith, and people who don’t think the matter of faith makes any difference one way or the other.
[Elie pauses and smiles at the music being played on the radio — the slow organ opening to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”]
Listen to that. That organ riff is basically the same riff as in Bach’s “Air on the G String.” Gary Brooker of Procol Harum said that he was noodling around on Bach on the piano and the song came out — a song that has made millions of dollars for him and the rest of the band. It’s not just the two of us sitting here in a café saying, “That sounds like Bach.” The songwriter himself actually said so. People often describe the instrumental middle section of the Beatles’s song “In My Life” as Baroque-like, but it’s not just an impression: John Lennon himself said to George Martin, “Play like Bach” — and then went out for a smoke or whatever.
TM: When you first mention Abbey Road (in regard to Casals’s recording of the cello suites), I of course thought of the Beatles and hoped they’d come into the story, and they do.
PE: If you are writing a narrative work, you never flash-forward if you can help it; you forbid yourself to make comments like “Abbey Road, which would later become famous as the studio of the Beatles.” So many biographies are ruined by that move: it’s a biography of Shelley, say, and the author will intone, “It was now a week before Shelley’s death.” And so you know when Shelley goes out sailing that he’s never coming back — when the power of Shelley’s story lies in the fact that his life was cut off abruptly when he was still a young man.
TM: Takes away the suspense.
PE: Withholding some of the information you have is a way to produce the narrative effect that you need. The excitement of writing the book is figuring out where to do certain things — when to withhold, and when to disclose.
TM: How, in the practical sense, did you work out a story that covers 75 years and brings in Bach’s own story, which took place two hundred years earlier? Did you have timelines? An architecture you were trying to fit the pieces into?
PE: At one point early on I had a giant piece of graph paper, as big as a tablecloth, with a lot of Post-Its on it — but that was just a way to get the brain working; once it was made, I never looked at it again. The decision to give Schweitzer, Casals, and Stokowski each his own part or suite came pretty early. When I realized that each suite coincided with a great leap forward in audio technology, the structure firmed up considerably. The wild card was Bach — how to get Bach himself in there. When I realized that he was an inventor — the composer of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions — it clicked. Bach’s way of invention could run in parallel to the inventive powers of his modern interpreters and of pioneers in recording technology. But that was several years in. You have to be ready to work in the dark.
TM: It seemed you used musical techniques, not only in making the overall structure akin to a suite but in particular passages. For example, you return to certain key scenes, like Schweitzer making his seminal recording of the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” as if they are recurring musical motifs.
PE: I definitely wanted the book to feel musical, but I didn’t attempt to use musical motifs in a rigorous way. In Bach’s cello suites, the fifth suite is longer than the others, so I made my fifth suite a little longer. But I left it at that. I’m not a classically trained musician. I don’t know canon and fugue inside out the way some musicians do.
I’ve noticed that those formal preoccupations sometimes deform books about music. Take Anthony Burgess, a writer whose more naturalistic work I love: in the works where he’s expressly trying to make a piece of music in words, the formal element can become a distraction. I was definitely wary of overdoing the musical effects that way. I hoped instead to absorb enough of Bach’s way of doing things to approximate some of his effects. All the while I was writing the book, after all, I was listening to recordings of the music of Bach, the best pattern maker who ever lived, and I hope that I was able to bring a little of that patterning into the book through my own patterns.
TM: By listening, the inventions get inside of you, and you let it come out organically.
PE: Right. Even if you don’t know every jot and tittle of the Inventions, you can hear that they are inventive. You can hear how they are distinctly different from one another. When I was teaching writing at Columbia, I found myself stressing the need for variety, especially in longer work. You need to keep making it new straight through to the end, not just develop the motifs you’ve already set going. So if you opened chapter three with a long descriptive passage, you might try to open chapter four with dialogue, and chapter five by extending a metaphor that goes outside the main story, or whatever — the way Bach varied his openings in his suites, or the way a card player would vary his openings.
TM: How do you approach listening to this near inexhaustible supply of great music? Did you strive for a sense of completeness or trust your explorations would take you were you needed to go?
PE: I had to trust that the book would take me there. The fact that there is so much of Bach’s music, and so many recordings, means that you know from the start that you are never going to hear it all, even if you live to be 100. There’s always going to be a freshly rearranged cantata, or another new recording. So as a writer you know you have to cover all the important works and let other pieces fill themselves in.
Once FSG moved from Union Square to 18th Street, I had the tremendous good fortune of working upstairs from Academy Records, the best CD shop I can imagine for obscure CDs of classical music remastered from old 78s. I’d go down to the shop religiously at least once a week and keep an eye out for strange stuff: the lute suites played on the Lautenwerk, an instrument Bach invented, or a straight-through live recording of the Goldberg Variations by a pianist who threw the I Ching with John Cage. I would also talk about Bach with people and they would send me things — links to YouTube videos, movies with Bach used as incidental music. Somebody told me that Jimmy Page quotes a Bach bourrée in the live version of “Heartbreaker” — and sure enough, in the Led Zeppelin video from Earls Court, there it is.
One evening I was walking up Broadway on my way to teach at Columbia, and I noticed that a street vendor selling CDs had about three quarters of a “complete” Bach set issued in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. I took one look and said, “Forty dollars,” and he said, “Done.” I showed up at class five minutes late with a rubber-banded stack of CDs as long as my arm and told the students — this is the way the book is being written. You have to be willing to get lucky.
TM: There’s so much depth there, how did you know when to stop? The book is 400 pages and probably includes the stories of a hundred musicians, not just your protagonists. Was the manuscript much larger in draft? Did you have to prune it down?
PE: It wasn’t that much larger. I like the definition of art given by St. Thomas Aquinas. A work of art, Aquinas said, possesses wholeness, harmony, and radiance, and some translators render it as order, proportion and radiance. In writing the book, I was always thinking about proportion. Before you go too deeply into an arcane exploration of the “St. Matthew Passion” or whatever, you have to ask yourself whether the structure of the book you are writing can bear it. In the case of the “St. Matthew Passion,” I found a way to dovetail the two main narrative lines of the book so that the account of Bach composing the work in 1727 was followed immediately by the account of Otto Klemperer leading a recording of it in London in 1961. That kind of joinery is what makes the structure hold up. That’s the idea, anyhow.
TM: In the prelude of the book, you write that the recorded music from Bach “defies the argument that experience mediated by technology is a diminished thing.” Glenn Gould embraced this idea — he believed that the microphone and his ability to record his performances in relative solitude and them send them out into the world expanded his possibilities as a musician, rather than diminished his creative life.
PE: All of us are aware of the potential of technology, but we assume that there’s a cost too — that there’s something inhuman about technology, and that the inhumanity is the price we have to pay for the convenience. But Gould’s experience was very different. He said, No, I’m more myself when I am playing before the microphone than in the crazy circus of a recital, where I’m wearing awkward concert dress and I have to talk to strangers afterwards. I’m more human when I’m in a recording studio.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own was written out of the conviction that mediated experience is not necessarily inauthentic. The four writers in the book had religious experience “mediated” to them through the works of great writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; they sought such experience for themselves, and then in effect “mediated” their experience to the next generation through their own writing.
In Reality Hunger, as you know, David Shields made a hodgepodge of riffs on other people’s work and one of the riffs is taken from my first book. It’s a baffling revision of what I wrote — he got the sense of the passage and the book exactly wrong. It’s a paraphrase of a stock late modern or postmodern point of view that Walker Percy was writing his way out of, in a particular essay and then, in effect, in his entire subsequent 30-year career, and the story I tell in the book is of the great effort he made to transcend that point of view in his life and his writing. Percy succeeded, I’d say, and that he and his counterparts managed to do so is the heart of my book.
TM: Shields is attributing the paraphrase to you.
PE: I know him a bit, and I have admired his work. I couldn’t figure out whether he’d gotten the point wrong because he had honestly missed it, or because he was angry at me and decided to falsify my work, or because it’s part of the game he’s playing to show that you can rewrite other people’s conclusions to suit your own, or because he didn’t actually read the book, just saw that passage quoted somewhere. I don’t know. In any case, now people are writing to me — “do you see you’re quoted in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book [A Sense of Direction]?” Well, I’m not quoted, and it seems to me that the whole passage as I wrote it would have been more apt for Lewis-Kraus than the paraphrase he wound up citing. I’d like to send him my book. Because the thrust of both my books is that you can live authentically and the obvious fact that experience is mediated to us is not necessarily crippling. It’s often enabling.
TM: If I picked up a typical biography of a vaunted figure like Bach, I’d expect a crushing amount of “authoritative” detail. Your book is almost the opposite. You’re not trying to say, “This is the final authoritative work on Bach,” but “This is my experience of this great artist and his work. See and listen for yourself.”
PE: I’m not capable of writing the definitive book about Bach. I don’t have German. I’m not a musicologist. But the fact is, the books by musicologists and German language scholars aren’t definitive either. Five biographies of Bach were published in English or in English translation in the last 10 years. They are remarkable works, and I was able to draw from an amazing flowering of research and scholarship that is found in them. The fact that those books exist enables me as a writer on Bach to get everything right, I hope, but also frees me from certain obligations. I don’t have to produce a chart or table showing which pipe organ Bach inspected at which date in his career. It has already been done.
I think the presence of the web can be liberating for nonfiction writers. In the age prior to ours, there was a certain kind of biographer who felt a professional obligation to work stuff into the book, because if it weren’t in the book there would be no access to it. You wound up with multi-volume biographies of middling people, books that are a combination of a life story and a scholarly resource. I don’t want my book to be a resource. I want it to be a work of art in its own right an invitation to the reader to experience all the music of Bach that’s out there.
TM: You’re saying to the reader you don’t need to have a certain background. You can experience Bach as music. That just listening can be your way in.
PE: My most important formative experience of Bach was the WKCR Bachfest, which airs every year. In graduate school, I listened to the station for jazz, and suddenly the music of Bach took over for 10 days around Christmas and I was blown away. I know now that I was getting educated in Bach, but at the time I was just blissing out. I was having what to me is the fundamental experience of Bach — the experience of the superabundance of the music. There is so much Bach. WKCR can play Bach for 10 days and have lots left over. As a listener, you’re buoyed up by the knowledge you’re not going to reach the end of Bach — not ever.
That’s a long way of saying my point of entry was pleasure, full stop. I hope the pleasure comes through in the book.
TM: As I was reading, I was engaged in the stories of Schweitzer, Casals, Stokowski, and Gould, but then they all die about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I wondered how could you possibly sustain the narrative drive to make me want to keep reading. Then you interject yourself into the story and you give the reader another opportunity to experience the seminal recordings, through you.
PE: People often say that you have to decide whether your book is written in the first person or the third person, that you must have a scheme. But the FSG way is to figure out what feels right rather than working in absolutes. Most great works of literature are mongrel works, blended things. When he was editing my first book, Jonathan Galassi warned me not to load up the story with personal experiences early on. He was absolutely right. This time, at some level he let me know that it felt right for me to come into the book later rather than earlier. As for the earlier sections, I drew on my own experiences as a listener — and I tried to make my descriptions of the music personal and passionate but without suddenly putting the reader in my apartment in 2000 and spoiling the flow of the story that is taking place in the war years.
The narrative possibilities for non-fiction are just extraordinary right now. We know that we don’t have to make our books resources. We don’t have to take timeouts from the narrative to enter data into the record. We know that we can make a nonfiction book a work of art — a sculpted thing that does allow the reader to be immersed, does have the vividness associated with fiction, the sense of layering, of recapitulations, and of a whole figurative scheme working organically between the lines. That’s tremendously exciting.