Leslie Epstein was born in Los Angeles to a family of film makers. His father and uncle together wrote dozens of films, including Casablanca. He has published ten works of fiction and his best known novel, King of the Jews, became a classic of Holocaust Fiction. His articles and stories have appeared in such places as Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's. He was a Rhodes Scholar and later won many additional awards and fellowships, including a Fulbright. He received his D.F.A. in Playwriting from the Yale Drama School. Epstein has been the director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University for over thirty years.
AN EXCERPT FROM
LIEBESTOD, a new Lieb Goldkorn novel
Now let us fly on our magic carpet closer to home, ja, all the way to the capital of our beloved empire. 1907, Vienna, where the Jews and Gentiles—not to make any comparisons—were busily moving about the streets. On a bright, sunny day a father and his large-eared son could be seen riding along the Schubertring in an open-air tram. On a youth from provincial Iglau, what an impression! The many ladies in hip hoops and puff sleeves, with visible chests. The men in derbies and turbans and fezes. The lurch of the red painted car on its metal tracks. Where are the horses? This question the boy put to the man. Ha! Ha! Ha! Dies Trambahn ist elektrisiert! True, as evidenced by the lightning bolts that snapped along the wires above, and the smell of lightning, like burnt cork, that wafted down from those same taut strings. Through the glass-less windows anyone could see—two, three, five, ten: too many to count—the many Personnenwegen. weaving back and forth along the streets, leaving here a cloud of white steam, there a cloud of black smoke. Poor horses! Goodbye fair Dobbin! The century to come belongs not to you.
A clang. A double clang. The car came to a stop. The father took the son by the collar, as a cat might a kitten, and the two passengers stepped from the platform to the ground. Ach! Why this affectation? It was I, little Leib, on my first trip to Vienna, and the gentleman with the moustache and woolen waistcoat, was none other than the putative pére. We left the Schubertring and turned onto a street named for Pestalozzi, whose educational principles I had already encountered in my Kingergarten class, and then onto a small side street that took its name from the confirmed bachelor, Immanuel Kant.
At the third house, a tall, narrow one, I squinted up at the brass nameplate: J.U.L—I spelled out, only to have G.G. speed through the words. Julius J. Epstein, Herr Doktor Professor.
All musical Vienna, and all Iglauans too, knew of this famed friend of Brahms, mentor to the greats, and professor of piano at the Conservatorium, now retired.
"Teacher of Ignaz Brüll!" I declared. "Who composed Die Bettler von Samarkand!" "Ja,” answered the owner of hundreds of hectars of hops. "Also teacher of
Something in the way he ground his molars at the word Mahler, and cracked his knuckles too, made me shiver. With his thumb pad he pressed the button beneath the name of the pedagogue-pianist and, at the answering signal, led me into the building.
Up we went on the stone staircase, one flight, then another; suddenly, silently, and smoothly too, the lift came down. I heard, from the putative pére, a gasp, like a puncture in a pneumatic tire, and just had time to see a dark-haired woman—wide, black-rimmed eyes, long nose of the aristocratic type, and manly chin—press the palm of her hand against the cabin glass, before she dropped away. On the landing Gaston Goldkorn paused to mop, with his handkerchief square, his brow; then we walked onward to the topmost floor.
The man who ushered us into his rooms was small, bent, semi-bald, and as white as the keys he had depressed for much of his seventy-five years. "Aha," he declared upon seeing Leib in lederhosen. "Here is theWunderkind!"
Proud putative pére: "This Junge plays two-handed piano and is known throughout the town of Iglau for woodwind expertise."
Here Gaston Goldkorn squeezed my shoulder, a signal that I should remove from between my suspender straps my instrument, a panpipe similar to the pinkillo of Peru, on which I could produce six notes on the diatonic scale, the last of which would cause Die Hausfrauen of the Jewish quarter to run to their kitchens, certain that their kettles were boiling over. [Can'st read, clever cat? Auf Englisch? Go to pp. 143-144 of Goldkorn Tales, L. Goldkorn, author—"Evokes the spirit of the comic operas of Mozart," in non-Kakutani Boston Globe—to see why Yakhne gave to her younger brother this first of flutes.]
Julius J: "This is a fine, sturdy lad. Such ears! Such lips! And from Iglau! I remember the day, it was more than thirty years ago, that another boy from this town arrived at my studio to audition for the Konservatorium. And tonight that fifteen-year-old will at the Hofopera conduct the Tristan of Richard Wagner. Question number one of my exam: Of whom do I speak?"
L.G.: "Hmmm. Hmmm. Humperdink! Composer of—"
J.J.: "Ho. Ho. I mean little Gustav. G. Mahler."
The molars ground. The knuckles cracked. The pére pushed me forward. "Herr Doktor Professor. I leave you this afternoon my precious treasure. My only Sohn. The Moravian Mozart, people say. I return at 5 PM. Here, a small token"—impossible not to see how a thousand Kronen banknote passed from one hand, tanned, to another, pale. "And now, goodbye. Make music! Auf Wiedersehen!"
My father, the good Gaston, moved to the door. I meant to trod after, but he quickly closed it behind him.
"So, my little woodwinder, we shall now hear whether you can play for J.J. Epstein the way the famed J.J. Quantz played for Frederick the Great. Please to follow me."
Here the pianist led me into a small room overlooking the Kantstrasse. The afternoon sun streamed through its open windows. A black-laquered Bösendorfer took up most of the space, along with a small, round table, covered with a rug and a piece of the white lace named for the Englishman Doiley.
"Adelheit!" Herr Epstein called. "We shall have a tea. Mit Butterkekse!"
"Ja, Ja, Professor," answered a female voice, from deep within the apartment.
As the snow-white foot of a woman slips into her patent-leather pump, so did the professor slide onto the bench of his piano. "What should we play together, eh? Perhaps the Sonata in E Flat major, Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis 1031." So saying, the maestro ran his hands over the keys in an impromptu cadenza:glissando, bruscamente, furioso. I stood, immobile, the pipe at my lips. Then the pianist paused,smorzando, and into the hum of the fading notes I threw back my head and cried:
"Fly in the buttermilk,
Shoo, fly shoo—"
"Fly in the buttermilk,
Shoo, fly shoo—"
"Excellent!" exclaimed my accompanist, bringing all ten fingers down on the proper G-minor chord. "Ein Amerikanisches Volkslied!"
Then I blew with all my might:
TWORP! TWIPPLE! TWAPFT!
"Gott im Himmel!" cried J. J. Epstein, whose skin, impossibly, grew a shade lighter.
From outside, on Kantgasse, on Christengasse, and even on the distant Beethovenplatz a variety of canines began to howl. On our own block schnauzers and dachshunds, two boxer-types, and an Affenpinscher ran through doors and leapt from first-story windows. Behind my back I heard a shriek and a crash: Adelheit, the servant, had spilled the tea service, with shortbreads, onto the hard wooden floor. There was a second crash: the fallboard of the piano had slammed down on the keys. The piano itself, like a living beast, was trembling and making a sospirando,
“Cow's in the cornfield
What'll I do?”
“Cow's in the—”
“Halt! Bitte! Halt!" The Herr Doktor Professor, seeming, like certain peanut worms, to have not a drop of blood in his body, was crawling beneath his instrument.
Suddenly the entire sky went dark and there was a clapping sound: had the sun fled from the heavens? No. Flights of crows, numbering thousands, were wheeling over the roofs and chimney pots of Vienna, creating an artificial eclipse. It was then that I noticed something in that unnatural shade: a man and a woman, huddled in a doorway, holding their hands over their ears.
The septuagenarian regained his feet. He leaned out the window—so far, in fact that, like a desperate man in a burning building, it seemed he would jump. Instead, he called toward the couple on Kantgasse:
"Komm zurück! Now! At once! Do you hear me? Kommen sie zurück!."
The man and woman turned; each looked up. To my amazement I saw that it was the lady in the lift and the putative pére.
“Bitte! Bitte! I beg you. Look. Look! See what I am doing! I am destroying the Geld! I don't want it! I refuse to take it!"
True to his word the professor was tossing pieces of the thousand Kronen note into the air like so much confetti. The pére, adjusting his waistcoat, blinked upward, against the sun that had just come out from the cloud of crows. His mouth was open, though he said not a word.
"So hören Sie doch! Listen!" J. J. E. cried imploringly. "The audition is completed. Come back at once. I make a promise. I take an oath. I shall recommend him to the Akademie. I swear it! At age fifteen, he will be admitted. Woodwind section. One-hundred percent guarantee. In Gottes Namen! Take this child away!"
Two things occured: the dark-haired woman ran up the street in the direction of Johannesgasse, and Gaston, glowering, moved back toward our building, inside of which the Herr Doktor Professor, the maid servant in black skirt and white apron, the Bösendorfer, and the boy all stood motionless, listening to the to the heavy tread of his feet upon the stairs.
"And that, my dears, is how Leib Goldkorn was to enter, and become a Graduate of, the Akademie für Musik, Philosophie, und darstellende Kunst."