Though his music has lasted beyond his lifetime, George Gershwin’s work also seems to capture, as if in amber, a sense of the time in which it was created–the Roaring Twenties and its aftermath. It was a time of innovation and abandon, when great writers and musicians, particularly American ones, left an enduring mark on culture. Gershwin’s music straddled both classical and popular milieus. What other composer had such a wide range? He wrote everything from hit songs to movie music to Broadway musicals to symphonic works and opera.
In 1924, he met Kay Swift, herself a talented musician, one of the first graduates of the new Juilliard school (its name was different back then), who struggled for recognition in her own right in a world where male achievement was celebrated and women artists were mere asterisks in cultural history.
Mitchell James Kaplan’s lovely book Rhapsody tells the story of Swift and Gershwin’s love affair, a relationship as sweet and tumultuous as the times in which they lived. Swift was married to a wealthy banker; Gershwin was a known womanizer. Eventually she divorced her husband, and Gershwin…well, everyone knows the ending to his tragic tale. He died in 1937 at the young age of 38 from a brain tumor.
Kaplan does a wonderful job of telling the story of their relationship, no small feat when it was crammed into such a short time and, like the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, also full to bursting with well-known names in the arts and history. He’s also very good at keeping the sometimes fantastical tale real and its main characters sympathetic, even when readers might inwardly cringe at their actions (Kay’s sometimes cool attitude toward her daughters, Gershwin’s philandering).
Bravo was the word that came to my mind when I finished this well-done historical novel.
This short novel is both mystery and ghost story, and it succeeds most spectacularly as the latter. Set in Prague, it tells the tale of a television journalist tasked in the mid 1990s with making a documentary about a woman who claims to be visited by the ghost of Chopin who dictates new compositions to her. Is she real or a skillful faker who will make money from these so-called new works?
The book toggles back and forth between the journalist and a private detective he hires, between the time of their investigation and the present. In 1995, the Czech Republic had just been reborn, after shaking off decades of Soviet socialism, and both journalist and detective have things in their pasts that make them “guilty” of deceptions. The PI had once investigated dissidents, the journalist had won accolades for an expose of a Soviet author, only because he happened to produce it at the time the Soviets lost power.
Faye does a wonderful job of capturing the upheaval and melancholy of that time as the country struggled into a new economy and cast off the vestiges of the old surveillance state. His language (or at least, the translation of it from the original French) is often poetic, especially as he describes how the West felt as dreamy and unreal to Eastern Bloc Czechs as the Afterlife does to mortals.
As the memories and loves of the journalist and detective are explored, they try to figure out if Vera Foltynova, a housewife in her 50s, is a fraud or a medium. A hard-core skeptic, the journalist nearly drives himself mad trying to prove the woman fools them all.
To reveal whether he is right would spoil the ending. A book like this will surely leave some readers disappointed no matter how it is wrapped up. Faye does a skillful job of keeping that disappointment low. The last lines will satisfy all lovers of great ghost stories.
The tale is apparently inspired by the story of Rosemary Brown, a British woman who, in the 1960s, claimed to be visited by the ghosts of famous composers who dictated new music to her.