Commonplace Book: E. L. Doctorow’s Homer Langley on the piano

homerI recently finished “Homer & Langley,” E. L. Doctorow’s fictionalized account of the Collyer brothers, the famed hoarders of NYC who were nearly buried alive by the accumulated possessions in their Harlem brownstone. A good read, although I found the continuation of their story past the 1940’s (when they both died) a bit disconcerting. Probably would have been better to read Franz Lidz’ “Ghosty Men,” after the Doctorow, but I encountered it several years back. Lidz’ a non-fictional account is a sympathetic elegy for two eccentrics. Doctorow has bigger game in sight, a century’s worth of American history, recounted through the perspective of a blind shut-in and his ranting brother. It’s Homer, the blind brother, and a pianist who provides the voice of the book, and music figures prominently in his story. Of many elegant passages, this one stayed with me. It occurs when a young woman, also a pianist, enters the brothers’ lives, like most characters, briefly.

I wouldn’t say Mary Riordan was an outstanding student of the piano, though she loved playing. In fact she was more than competent. I just felt her attack was not assertive enough, though when she worked on something like Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, her sensitive touch seemed justified. She was just a gentle soul in all her ways. Her goodness was like the fragrance of pure unscented soap. And she understood as I did that when you sat down and put your hands on the keys, it was not just a piano in front of you. It was a universe.


Here is the superb Krystian Zimerman in that Debussy Prelude Homer mentions. Evocative of the era, although not uniformly delicate.

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