Grosse Fugue by Ian Phillips (Alliance Publishing Press, 2012)


This is a story whose outlines are familiar but which we need to hear again and again. The story of Reuben Mendel is a twentieth century biography, a story of both world wars, the holocaust and its aftermath. It is the musical journey of a talented violinist weaved around key works such the Chaconne from Bach’s violin partita, Schubert’s ‘To Music’, his string quintet and the eponymous Beethoven late string quartet movement. It is also a human journey through the best and worst of what humans do to each other. Reuben Mendel, the virtuoso is a one-off, a genius. But Reuben the man is also an archetype, a vessel for all the sufferings of the 20th century as well as a spokesman for its hopes. He has experienced the deepest depravity and the greatest joy and this compels us to listen to what he has to say.

It is hard to write well about music and its impact without resorting to technical terms which exclude many readers. Here it is lightly and skilfully weaved into the narrative as part of the main character’s development and without any trace of insider vocabulary.

The story moves at a rapid pace, broken up by occasional ‘Intermezzi’. Intermezzo #2 for example, which follows the graphic description of life in Auschwitz carries the vital message that we should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the scale of the holocaust. It should not be ‘beyond us’ to comprehend the crime and to grasp the human cost. This is the equivalent of the systematic murder of a 3-generation family; 4 grandparents, 2 parents and 2 children every day for over 2,000 years; a single project to wipe out the lifetime’s achievement, hope and potential for those 8 individuals every single day for the 2 millennia of cultural, technological and social development which have seen the creation of our modern world and the rise and fall of empires and dynasties. It is obscene, but not beyond our comprehension.

Some passages were particularly moving, during his ‘second recovery’ Reuben is bereft and unutterably lonely with no one to help him this time but he manages to find a voice and a cause and to resolve to make something of the rest of his life.

Many episodes stick in the mind, such as the description of Reuben’s return to the Toulouse farmhouse long after the end of the war, his emotional meeting with Gaston and his pleasure in eating fruit from the peach tree planted years before.

In his final appearance for Israeli television, amongst his personal anecdotes and musical stories, Reuben tells his audience: “We have to return all the land occupied since 1967…we have paid too little regard to those who were on this land before we arrived en masse and were dispossessed. If Israel was established, even in part, as some kind of compensation for the evil perpetrated against us, we should be humble enough to recognise that those most affected by our arrival were nothing to do with the original sin.” Some in the audience turn on him and accuse him of treachery. He takes on the critics and justifies himself robustly on moral grounds.

This is a story whose outlines are familiar but which we need to hear again and again even if only to strengthen our resolve that the hideous excesses of the 20th century must never be repeated.

Grosse Fugue by Ian Phillips, Alliance Publishing Press (2012)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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