This book is a triumph of the biographer's art. But the subject of the biography is sad beyond words. Ervin Nyiregyházi (pronounced, approximately NEER-edge-hawzy) was a profoundly gifted musical child prodigy, born in 1903 in Budapest and compared with Mozart in his youth. His first biography, written by Hungarian psychologist Géza Révész in 1910-1914 when the child was only 7-11, is one of the most detailed studies of a child genius ever written. Kevin Bazzana, a Canadian whose previous biography of Glenn Gould was acclaimed, pursued his subject's life story for more than ten years and looked under virtually every stone in search of material about his subject. Other reviewers here have detailed his sad descent from feted prodigy to sex-obsessed skidrow bum with his odd autumn in the sun when he was 'rediscovered' in the 1970s and a few recordings put on the market. Those recordings revealed the wreck of a great pianist, one with an obsession for emotional expression perhaps at the expense of technical finesse. Those records sold rather well and pianistic cognoscenti debated their worth, and still do.
Nyiregyházi considered himself more a composer than a pianist, but frankly little is known of his works. They were apparently typically slow, lugubrious and cryptic; many of them had bizarre autobiographical titles. For instance, toward the end of his life he wrote pieces with titles such as 'Hopeless Vista', 'The Grim Reaper Approaches', 'Time is Running Out', 'With Slow Footsteps Death Approaches'. From the reproduction of one of his pieces, the aforementioned 'Hopeless Vista', one gathers that his style was to write brief, harmonically odd works that attempt to convey a single emotional state. I could make little of 'Hopeless Vista' except that it would certainly not be a crowd-pleaser. Which brings us to the crux of Nyiregyházi's life -- his refusal to make compromises with the public appetite, his profoundly idiosyncratic style of making music, his incredibly inept psychological coping mechanisms and his dependence of a series of ten wives and many other women and men who at least briefly attempted to help him. A psychiatrist/pianist who knew him offered the likelihood of a diagnosis of 'borderline personality disorder', and as a psychiatrist myself I would tend to agree with this diagnosis, dangerous though it be to diagnose without ever having personally examined him. Certainly his tendency to have wildly fluctuating moods over a matter of minutes or hours, his intense interpersonal sensitivity that became outright paranoia at times, his inflated sense of his own importance coupled nonetheless with intense self-doubts, his furious reaction to what he considered insulting behavior of others and his alcoholism and sexual compulsions all point to this severe diagnosis. In short, he couldn't help himself, couldn't stop his inexorable path toward self-destruction. A sad, sad case.
Kevin Bazzana has written a riveting book, not sparing us either the outré details of Nyiregyházi's life nor his brief and soaring triumphs. I found myself unable to put the book down.
Strongly recommended both as a work of art and as a fascinating story.