Thursday, September 3, 2015

Schubert's Winter Journey: An Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge (2015)

This is the second book we've read for book club, and it's a doozy. It wasn't the easiest book to read, -- and I really like nonfiction! It was kind of like reading extra-long program notes before a concert starts, the concert in this case being a performance of Schubert's Winterreise, which Bostridge has sung many, many times.  I listened to each individual song in the cycle before reading the coordinating chapter, which was actually the most interesting experience here.  Unfortunately, Bostridge doesn't make it at all easy for the reader; his writing style, or rather his narrative thread, is quite clunky at times, and he has trouble moving us along at various parts.  As my husband (who is reading this book with me!) pointed out, you can tell which pieces Bostridge likes and which ones he does not.

Bostridge also seems to occasionally be grasping at straws to make his points about various pieces.  I listened (briefly) to Bostridge being interviewed about his book on YouTube, and he brought up the New Historicism, which seems to be what he is striving to do in this book.  I will quote from, because that's where I found the most succinct definition of this modern school of literary theory:

"The New Historicists aim to do two things: first, they want to study how a work of literature reflects its historical and sociocultural context—that’s why you’ll often find dust-covered New Historicists digging in ancient archives to get the background for that one line in one poem. 
"Second, they want to understand how a literary work comments on and relates to its context. So the archive hunt won’t just reveal that this thing was written in 1385, but also what it was like to live in that year, and what people (or at least poets) thought and felt at that starriest of historical moments."

I don't think Bostridge totally succeeded at this, although he definitely gave it a game try.  But I definitely feel that I came away with a greater cultural and literary appreciation for Schubert and this song cycle in particular.  If Bostridge was setting out to prove Winterreise as a premier example of the birth of modernity, then he definitely succeeded.  Whether he wrote a completely coherent and likable book is another thing altogether.

This is most definitely one of those books that makes you feel extra stupid and illiterate.  Bostridge name drops a lot - and quite a few things I hadn't read (a few I'd never heard of).  He assumes some cultural knowledge which may exist at Oxford or Cambridge (or wherever he went to school; it wasn't Kansas State) but definitely didn't exist for me.  And I consider myself rather well read.  I guess well read, but not well bred.

Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an ObsessionSchubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A disorderly book, and not in any sort of good way.  Uneven; some chapters are little gems, but most are at best trivial throw-aways.  I definitely came away with a cultural appreciation of Schubert and his works - so in this Bostridge succeeds - but the journey there was pretty difficult (dare I say icy?).  If you plan on reading this book, take a look at the many youtube videos or listen to Bostridge (or others) singing this as you read-along; essentially this is extra-long program notes, and it will make the experience far more pleasant.  

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