Arthur Rubinstein has given his listeners so much musical pleasure and has become such a cherished institution at the age of 93 that one proceeds to dislike "My Many Years" with a hesitancy usually reserved for voting against motherhood.
"My Many Years" is the successor to Rubinstein's "My Young Life," the first half of his memoirs that took us through 1918. This excruciatingly long sequel (more than 300,000 words worth) follows his career through the present. We begin with Rubinstein in South America near the end of World War I and follow him through a whirlwind of concerts and parties, breakfasts and lunches, dinners and love affairs.
Rubinstein seems to have known everybody who was anybody in the music and art worlds of the 20th century, and lines like "Picasso dropped in that same day" abound. We have Rubinstein and Anna Pavlova gossiping about Diaghilev, and Rubinstein, Milhaud, and Claudel throwing fresh fruit off a roof at a passerby. We know what Rubinstein ate for breakfast, how well the eggs were prepared, what the bill came to -- even the color of the tablecloth.
This is a memoir in the most literal sense, an exhausting series of reminiscences that leaves nothing to the imagination, nothing on the cutting-room floor. There has been no selection of the most important or most significant events -- instead, we have a recitation of everything that has ever happened to Rubinstein, a prodigious but ultimately staggering display of memory. It is not surprising that a concert pianist should have such powers of recall, but it is disappointing that an artist should have such little critical judgment or consideration for the reader.
Even if one is willing to endure the endless recounting, there are more disturbing flaws, notably the lack of sensitive writing about music. Rubinstein occasionally expresses pleasure or dissatisfaction with a particular performance , but we never get the sense that he is trying to further the state of the art or accomplish any goals. He speaks often of his "love for life," but we are left to assume that what he loves are valets, diamonds, and Elsa Maxwell's parties.
Rubinstein is on even shakier ground politically: his meeting with Mussolini and his reactions to Nazism are uncomfortably uncritical and glossed over with banalities; he credits Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson with starting the civil-rights movement.
The original title of this volume was to have been "My Happy Life." Some editor apparently realized that this would only heighten the high-living arrogance that permeates the book, and it was changed.
At one point Rubinstein remarks that "my contacts with my musical colleagues never resulted in warm friendships. They constantly 'talked shop' . . . but hardly ever a serious word about music." A memoir by a man whose career we admire and whom we are predisposed to like should result in something like a "warm friendship." But in "My Many Years," there is so much shop talk and so few serious words about music that the friendship never gets off the ground.