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One Finger Too Many

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Alfred Brendel - internationally famous as the supreme interpreter of the piano music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt - is also a poet. Between concert engagements and recording sessions, he has found the time to write this collection of sardonic, wise, funny, and beautifully turned verses. Penetrating light is thrown on those parts of the author's endlessly subtle mind and sensibility which his devoted audiences can barely have guessed existed. The supernumerary finger of the book's title, the appearance of Brahms's smelly ghost, the war between the bearded and the beardless, the camel's loss of his humps, the appropriateness of laughter, the eventual appearance of Godot and the usefulness of identical twins are among the important subjects he tackles. With the help of Richard Stokes, Alfred Brendel has produced English versions of his original texts which go out to meet the reader with refreshing directness and wit. Review. A top-drawer interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, the pianist Alfred Brendel is famous for his restraint--this brilliant technician never lapses into Romantic fireworks. His first book of poetry evinces a similar modesty. Yet these brief verses, which have been effectively translated from the German by the author and Richard Stokes, also showcase a sneaky and surreal sense of humor. Like the artist he describes in one poem, Brendel is always on the lookout for the comic paradox: "When the dadaist looked into the mirror / he saw some fetching contradictions / himself and his opposite / tomfoolery and method.". Not surprisingly, many of the pieces evoke the world of classical music. The title poem asks us to imagine a pianist with a kind of utility finger, capable of clarifying a knotty passage or "beckoning a lady in the third row." Elsewhere Brendel compares the public ardor of concertizing to the more private one of sex, saddling his pianist with a truly formidable case of performance anxiety: "both reviled and spurred on by the public / painstakingly supervised by the author / who / on top of it all / has entrusted the lovers with the burden of dialogue." Still, the author's poetic interests extend considerably beyond the keyboard. One Finger Too Many is infused with a healthy dose of skepticism, and on several occasions Brendel applies the nightstick to organized religion: And once again. the Lord of the Universe. recorded a day of good works. three religious wars launched. several tornadoes let loose. a new brand of pestilence devised. utopias planted into souls. countless children successfully harmed. a good reason. to grant oneself a moment's rest. True, a literary spitball like the above isn't about to shake the convictions of a true believer. But that's not the point. These poems are written to amuse, edify, and tickle the reader's sensibility--banging the pulpit is something that Brendel the poet (and Brendel the pianist) religiously avoids. --James Marcus