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Wondrous Strange: Glenn Gould, a Biography

by Kevin Bazzana

There are a number of enormous risks inherent in assessing the life of Glenn Gould. The heavy layers of hype and half-truth began to cover Gould around the time of his first public appearances as a prodigiously talented teenager in 1940s Toronto. By the time of his first record release, the icily ecstatic The Goldberg Variations, which Columbia Records promoted through liner notes and a press campaign that played up the young pianist’s neuroses (soaking his arms in scalding water before each session, demanding endless adjustments to the air-conditioning, singing during takes, etc.), Gould’s fate as an infuriating-but-loveable genius/nut was sealed.

Since his death, Gould has been mentioned on The Simpsons, made a character in at least three novels (Gould is a ready-made symbol), and been used by music scholars as a convenient frame upon which to hang many undercooked theories. Gould was also, author Kevin Bazzana notes in this new biography, “the pianist of choice for the psychopathic killer Hannibal Lector” in The Silence of the Lambs.

One result of Gould’s posthumous fame and infamy, Bazzana writes, is “a reluctance to see him in any kind of context, as though any status but heroic iconoclast [does] injury to his achievement.” Bazzana’s aim in Wondrous Strange is to restore that context, to see Gould not as an inexplicable anomaly or freak but as a brilliant artist who was shaped, in part, by his environment and his times. This is a fairly modest goal, but given the amount of mythology and cliché still being spun out, it’s a noble one.

Bazzana identifies one powerful influence on Gould’s life and work that has been “glaringly absent from the biographies”: Canada. Many of Gould’s fans would prefer to believe that the object of their devotion was incubated on Europa – Canada, and especially Toronto, simply didn’t create weird geniuses back then.

They have a point, but Bazzana’s nervy contention is that Gould, even in his eccentricities, was very much the product of provincial, puritan, WASPish Toronto. If anything, he was an exaggerated caricature of it: he hated travel, disliked spicy food and strong displays of emotion, was fiercely judgmental (mostly of composers), and had little interest in the trappings of wealth and fame. He preferred Nixon to Kennedy, Robert Stanfield to Trudeau. His work was his hobby, and vice versa. Gould often called himself “the last puritan,” and he never moved from the city of his birth.

Despite an overreliance on the memories of Gould’s childhood friend and neighbour, journalist Robert Fulford, Bazzana’s long section on pre- and post-war Toronto, and its influence on the pianist’s life, is the book’s most valuable contribution to our understanding of Gould.

Bazzana’s tone is sensible and serious, with only minor slips into crude Freudianisms – “Embracing the instrument as he played, he may instinctively have been recapturing the womblike shelter he always craved.” But despite some interesting details (such as the fact that Gould’s videotapes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are catalogued, along with his papers, at the National Library of Canada), there are not many revelations here. Bazzana is more interestd in correcting outsized myths by emphasizing more prosaic truths: Gould had romantic relationships (though not many, and not for long), he had friends, and he joked around a lot, if only under certain conditions.

Bazzana allows Gould his eccentricities, but always posits them as parts of a greater, if peculiar, personal consistency. He never tries to explain away Gould’s talent and intelligence. Gould was extremly gifted, not just in the hands, but in the head, where he believed most of the work to do with performing music went on. He brought to classical music a stubborn iconoclasm and a refusal to yield his own aesthetic beliefs (which, for him, were also moral beliefs).

Wondrous Strange is necessary as a counterbalance to those who want to keep Gould as some fiendishly talented alien, but in working so hard to show the man as human, Bazzana sacrifices the humanity of the book. There are few voices that stand out in this story – even Gould’s own is downplayed. Bazzana often seems like a diligent private detective: we get a number of Gould’s enormous phone bills, but very little sense of what it was like to be on the other end of one of those marathon conversations.

Bazzana takes issue with biographer Peter Ostwald’s belief that Gould may have suffered from a mild form of autism, but Ostwald was a longtime friend of Gould’s, and his own 1997 book, Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius, is filled with a human dimension that is often missing here.

The most revealing example of this disconnect comes close to the end of the book. Discussing Gould’s second recording of The Goldberg Variations in 1981, Bazzana writes, as if as an afterthought, that “within a week of the album’s release Gould was dead.” The point that follows – that, because they ended up being his first and last official recordings, too much significance is placed on the Variations – is a good one, but it’s odd to see a biographer dispatch his subject so bluntly.