cover image THE CELLO PLAYER


Michael Kruger, , trans. from the German by Andrew Shields. . Harcourt, $26 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100591-8

A crotchety German composer's comfortable world is turned upside down by a young woman who may or may not be his daughter in Krüger's lively, intelligent novel. Though he'd like to be known for his serious compositions—several of which are available on CD and have been performed once or twice—the 50-ish narrator's substantial bank balance comes from the music he wrote for TV. He has a commission for an opera, in which he plans to immortalize the doomed Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, but it remains beyond his will even to begin the project. At the behest of an old flame, he agrees to put up her daughter, Judit, a cellist planning to study at the Munich Conservatory; she's "a carbon copy" of her mother 20 years earlier. But it soon becomes clear she's not there to better her technique. Other relatives and guests arrive, and the baffled composer is powerless in the face of the "polyglot family" Judit has assembled. Feeling displaced and irrelevant, he takes refuge in lyrical visions of his idealistic youth, the importance of art in those years, the fleeting fame of Mandelstam and, most importantly, his brief love affair with the girl's mother. He takes Judit to his slightly dilapidated French country house, where solitude should help them work. What happens next is far from what he'd hoped for, but at the same time, no different than what he might have expected. This ironic, subtly crafted story shows how domestic give-and-take can make the simple negotiations of living add up to an "incomprehensible life." (Jan.)