September 2012

Josh Zajdman

nonfiction

Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya by Ethan Mordden

With Love Song, Ethan Mordden's written a jerkily paced, strangely assembled but ultimately enjoyable lazy afternoon of a book. It's the type of book where you could continue straight through, or read it over time, without much difference. Unfortunately, it's also the type of book that doesn't propel you with its style or interest in characters. If you've listened to Weill and Lenya regularly, or read some of the other books acknowledged by Mordden (including their fantastic collection of letters, Speak Low), and were interested enough to pick it up in the first place, it's a book for you, but you won't miss anything by passing it up. The story behind their relationship has been recounted elsewhere, and their small-town life before meeting each other is not very interesting. Love Song is the type of book you might pick from an English-language shelf if you're on an international vacation. It's not a "bad" book, by any means, but a middling one.

The problem lies in the way Mordden treats his subjects or, perhaps more appropriately, to what degree he does. He isn't focused solely on Weill and Lenya, regardless of what the subtitle might imply. The book is chock full of descriptions and translations, footnotes, discographies, and explanations, but doesn't allow Weill and Lenya much space to breathe on the page. Instead, it's Weill and Lenya and also their creations, their colleagues, their country, their travels, or their love. Or its occasional dissolution, as it were. That's the frustrating point. Mordden doesn't overemphasize everything or, conversely, downplay it, but vacillates. Accordingly, there is no pacing to the narrative. It seems as if he is trying to decide, almost while writing, how to reflect on an event. The one consistency is a strange feeling of Mordden's stringing things together, which reads like a conscious attempt at continuity. It's a jerky sensation, and an unpleasant one.

Within fewer than 300 pages, Love Song tries to capture all of Lenya and Weill's life, resulting in an unpleasant sensation for the reader. It's as if Mordden's guided by a compulsion to completely render biographical pointillist portraits, instead of a larger, more complex and nuanced landscape of their lives. The book is the equivalent of an overfilled stockpot. In a rush to fit everything in, very little can be tasted, savored, or enjoyed independently. And something inevitably gets burnt and stuck to the bottom -- in this case, it's the reader's interest. After Weill's untimely death, Mordden moves on to the niggling particulars of Lenya's twilight years. Strangely enough, binding it all together is an unwavering set of references to Stendhal's The Red and the Black. The reasoning behind it is tenuous at best, and another example of Mordden's overemphasis of all the wrong things.

This serves to make Mordden's grandiose phrasing all the more irritating. Sentences like "There are plenty of Lotte Lenya stories, and, in all of them, she seems to be having a grand time on the planet Earth" and "So Kurt and Linnerl finally reach the same place at the same time, as if in a screwball comedy of the 1930s: and when they meet they will meet cute." Ick. These two people lived in one of the most vital art communities in recorded history. Surely, letting said community and its players speak for themselves and without such colloquial language would make for a more beneficial reading experience. And, by community, I don't mean the unnecessary anecdotes of theater owners and producers.

Again, if you've picked up this book, it's for a good and simple reason: the names Weill and Lenya mean something to you. They mean something to me too, a great deal, in fact. But even I grow weary with Mordden's hagiographic tone. However wonderful their music might be, it's difficult to see them "among the defining people of their century" as Mordden does. Their story should be told, but could benefit from more surehandedness. Lenya said, "Speak low." I continually found myself wishing Mordden at least had something to say when he did. Unless you have boatloads of time and patience, skip the book. Instead, read the letters and watch the Pabst film of The Threepenny Opera. Above all, listen and listen and listen to the music. Pick up Happy End, Street Scene, Threepenny, and Touch of Venus, all of it. Don't let the discord throw you. Where you first hear clamor, you will soon hear clarity and beauty written on a scale of love and iron. That's all the legacy Lenya and Weill need, and only a hint of what they deserve.

Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya by Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 978-0312676575
352 pages