The Piano Student

Written by Elisabeth Lauffer (trans.) Lea Singer
Review by Jean Huets

In Lea Singer’s biographical novel, The Piano Student, an elderly man, Nico Kaufmann, brings a younger man on a guided tour of his turbulent love affair with the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Together, they visit the places, mostly hotels, mostly in Zurich, where the lovers snatched hours and sometimes days with each other, in a time when the most compassionate mainstream attitude toward homosexuality branded it a mental disorder and when being outed could destroy even the most illustrious career, or even end in prison and death. Singer drew the book, which spans from the late 1930s to 1986, from Kaufmann’s partial memoir and Horowitz’s letters to him.

Lovers of classical music, especially piano repertoire, will find much to mine in Horowitz’s and Kaufmann’s comments on various compositions. While that may sound a bit dry, the story also packs in plenty of Sturm und Drang. Beauty and the loftiest ideals collide with the hypocrisy, shame, self-hatred, cruelty, betrayal, fear, reckless lust, and, perhaps worst of all, the thwarted love inherent in an affair walled in by the mortal dangers of social and familial ostracism. Artistic ambition, too, exacts a devastating toll on the two men, as individuals, and as lovers.

The shifts in time and lack of quotation marks in the prose reward reading, even while they sometimes confuse. As memory blurs into the present moment, Singer masterfully erodes Kaufmann’s somewhat detached air to reveal a grand passion that never died, or even approached resolution, a passion he’s still trying to work out.

Kaufmann’s confession/auto narrative reflects the inevitable sordidness of a concealed love affair. Yet throughout its telling, Singer maintains an elegance and depth that will leave the reader pondering the nature of personal courage and how—or whether—life and maturity can ever bring into harmony art, ambition, and love.