The Secret Life of Glenn Gould seriously flawed because it divorces the private man from his art
There is nothing more compelling than a good mystery. Glenn Gould and his legacy contain several, which are proving to be continuous grist for enquiring writers, and fodder for curious readers and listeners.
How did he arrive at his unique interpretations? Why did he leave the stage for good in 1964? Did he suffer from some sort of personality disorder? Was he gay or straight or asexual?
I finally finished reading The Secret Life of Glenn Gould: A Genius in Love by Michael Clarkson, published in April by ECW Press (for details, click on the book image).
For me, the ideal biography peels back the layers of the individual as well as the public figure so that, by the end, I have an appreciation of a person as well as his or her legacy. Time erases the person first, so I find it particularly satisfying when a biographer has managed to piece together the private bits before they are lost. Yes, until the advent of email, biographers have been able to use letters and notes -- decades if not centuries after the fact -- as the basis for revealing the personal, but its more of an art than a science.
Using my criteria for what a good biography is, Clarkson's book doesn't even qualify as one. But, then again, he doesn't claim that it is one. Rather, this is a peek, through the eyes of a succession of women who were personally involved in Glenn Gould's life, into the artist as sentient human. The book's promotional bumf suggests that, in reading it, we will know more about the music as well as the man.
After reading and ruminating, I don't know anything about the professional musician that hasn't been written about elsewhere, usually with far more detail. In Clarkson's work, I read about a heterosexual man who was awkward with women, who put work first, was obsessed with secrecy, afraid of romantic commitment and heavily dependent on prescription drugs to balance his body and his mind.
Did any of these women affect his choice of repertoire? Was one of them a muse for his pioneering radio-documentary experiments? Was there a feminine influence on the final recording of the Goldberg Variations? Not even Clarkson finds answers to these questions, and, as for the true nature of most of these friendships, the dividing line between friend and lover is left up to conjecture.
There isn't enough material here on which to hang a book, unless you are one of those people who obsessed with every detail concerning Gould's life.
Of the recent Gould books, far more compelling from a cultural and philosophical perspective is University of Toronto professor Mark Kingwell's fascinating anti-biography of Gould, published by Penguin last year. The pianist in me loved Katie Hafner's A Romance on Three Legs, which chronicled Gould's rocky and loving relationship with his instruments. And I still think no one has done a better job than British Columbian Kevin Bazzana in bringing us a balanced picture of man and artist, in Wondrous Strange.
Divorced from the art, as is the case in The Secret Life of Glenn Gould, the artist is just another human being -- with a few more quirks and eccentricities than most. Yes, we all have a personal story, but, in most instances, it is more interesting as a series of fireside anecdotes than as a full-length book.
I find it far more rewarding and insightful to simply listen to Glenn Gould play desire and seduction on the keyboard as well as at the sound mixer, which is what the two Op. 57 Préludes by Alexander Scriabin are all about. The extra treat in Part 1 is seeing the interior of the Eaton Auditorium, as it looked to Toronto concertgoers around 1970: