I have turned away from all too many books because the writing was not appealing to me. That was the case with Ian Phillip’s Grosse Fugue. I found the language almost baroque, excessively flowery. But after a few months I started in once again, pulled back in by its story and bracketed Phillip’s style as best I could.
The three sections of Grosse Fugue mirror the last movement of Beethoven’s string quartet of the same name: The violinist, Reuben Mendel’s, experience during World War I, when he lost perhaps the best friend he ever had; surviving the Holocaust and the horrors of the several camps he was sent to; and his struggle to come to terms with those years, his guilt over failing to save his family, and, at the end, the meaning of Judaism.
Reuben saw his life shaped by the violence of 20th century European history. Born in a small Jewish town in Poland, he very early showed signs of being a musical prodigy. His family fled to England, then to Vienna, where Reuben became a violin virtuoso, and then to the trenches of the Great War.
Like all his comrades, Reuben was forever scarred and shaped by the carnage he had fortuitously escaped. The rest of his life would be spent in its long shadow, the transformation irreversible.
He married, moved to Paris, only to have to flee once again, this time from the Nazis as they descended on France. From house to house in the countryside he managed to evade them, until he and his family were captured in the foothills of the Pyrenees as they were about to reach Spain.
They trusted me to keep them safe—and I failed them, completely failed them.
Thereafter, he was sent to one concentration camp after another until he arrived in Auschwitz where he was separated from his wife and children, never to see them again. The Nazis learned he played the violin and so together with other Jewish musicians they formed a small orchestra to entertain their captors in the evening, after a day of back breaking labor, little food, and bitter cold.
It is only at the end of the novel that he confronts the moral issues of his behavior in the camp. Had he compromised music itself by playing in the orchestra? When he ate, and so deprived another of food, did he commit some crime of self-preservation…By the very fact of survival in that place, had he shuffled off civilization, rather than affirm life by dying without accommodating evil?
Reuben raised these questions, they swirled around in mind for years, but he was never able to answer them, never really tried. However, ever so slowly, he reached a point where his guilt began to recede and playing his violin with a string quartet took its place. Music was his salvation, rescuing him as it always had.
For he had the consolation of knowing he would never be alone, that whenever loneliness and despair became too much to bear, he need only pick up his violin and close his eyes.