Nicholas Delbanco Essay - Delbanco, Nicholas (Vol. 167)

Delbanco, Nicholas (Vol. 167)

Introduction

Nicholas Delbanco 1942-

(Full name Nicholas Franklin Delbanco) English-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, travel writer, critic, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Delbanco's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6 and 13.

Delbanco is best known for his works of fiction, most notably the Sherbrookes Trilogy, which traces five generations of a prominent New England family. His many novels include the experimental work In the Middle Distance (1971), a part-fictional, part-autobiographical narrative, In the Name of Mercy (1995), a murder mystery focused on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, and What Remains (2000), the story of a German-Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany to settle in England and the United States. Delbanco's short stories, like his novels, address themes of aging, masculinity, intergenerational family dynamics, the craft of writing, and tensions between the past and the present. His style is characterized by poetic language, multiple character perspectives, and narratives that jump back and forth between distinct time periods. Delbanco's several works of nonfiction range across a variety of subjects, including travel writing, literary biography, and music history.

Biographical Information

Delbanco was born on August 27, 1942, in London, England, the son of German Jews who had left Germany before World War II to escape Nazi persecution. When Delbanco was six years old, the family immigrated to the United States, where they settled in Larchmont, New York. Delbanco graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1963 with a major in literature. In 1966 he completed a master's degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Delbanco was twenty-four when his first novel, The Martlet's Tale (1966), was published. In 1970 he married Elena Greenhouse, with whom he has two children. Delbanco has held posts at several colleges and universities throughout the United States. He taught creative writing and English literature in the department of language and literature at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, from 1966 to 1984. From 1984 to 1985 he taught as a professor of English at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1985 Delbanco was hired as a professor of English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he serves as the head of the graduate program in creative writing as well as the Hopwood Awards program. Delbanco was also a staff member at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference from 1984 to 1994. He has received numerous awards and accolades, including the National Endowment for the Arts creative writing award in 1973 and 1982, the PEN syndicated fiction award in 1983, 1985, and 1989, and the Michigan Council for the Arts award in 1986.

Major Works

Some of Delbanco's earliest novels are modern stories based on biblical and classical texts. The Martlet's Tale is a reimagining of the biblical tale of the prodigal son, set in modern Greece. Fathering (1973) is a modern retelling of the Theban trilogy—Sophocles's series of plays about Oedipus and Antigone. In the Middle Distance is an experimental novel combining fiction and autobiography in a self-conscious, multi-layered narrative voice. In the Middle Distance alternates between first-person narration in the form of a journal kept by the protagonist—a fictional author by the name of Nicholas Delbanco—and third-person narration which describes the life of the Delbanco character. The novel intentionally blurs the distinctions between the real-life author Nicholas Delbanco and the fictional character who shares the same name. The plot concerns the writer's attempts to remodel his farmhouse in upstate New York while engaging in self-analysis and struggling with his creative process. Delbanco's Sherbrookes Trilogy—Possession (1977), Sherbrookes (1978), and Stillness (1980)—follows the history and genealogy of the Sherbrookes, a distinguished family from Vermont. The Sherbrookes Trilogy is written in Delbanco's characteristic poetic prose and examines the tensions between the family's past and present. In the Name of Mercy, set in a hospice care facility in Michigan, explores the topical issue of doctor-assisted suicide within the genre of the murder mystery. Old Scores (1997) describes an affair between a professor and a student on a small Vermont college campus that turns out to have a profound impact on the lives of both characters. The narrative of Old Scores moves back and forth between the time of the affair and the present lives of the characters. What Remains follows three generations of a German-Jewish family who fled Hamburg to escape the Holocaust and settled in England and the United States. The story is told from the multiple perspectives of various members of the family.

The short stories in About My Table, and Other Stories (1983) focus on men in their late thirties grappling with the experience of aging who are torn between marital commitments and their own escapist fantasies. The tales in The Writer's Trade, and Other Stories (1990) feature characters who are writers in the process of struggling with their craft and their careers. In the 1980s Delbanco began to publish various works of nonfiction, covering a wide range of topics. Group Portrait (1982) examines a group of famous writers—including Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells—who all lived in the same area of England during the early twentieth century. Delbanco discusses the professional and personal relationships between the writers and the extent of their influence on each other's writing. The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait (1985) is based on Delbanco's travels with this well-known musical trio; one member of group is his wife's father. Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France (1989) recounts Delbanco's journey with his wife and two daughters through the region of Provence in southern France. Delbanco contrasts his current perspective of the region with his impressions from his previous journeys to the area. The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life (2000) includes a collection of fiction and essays on the craft of writing. The title piece is Delbanco's fictional reconstruction of an incident in which a suitcase full of original manuscripts by Ernest Hemingway was lost in a train station. In The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein Ex-Paganini Stradivarius Cello of 1707 (2001) Delbanco traces the history and restoration process of his father-in-law's antique musical instrument, a rare Stradivarius cello crafted in 1707.

Critical Reception

Delbanco's first novel, The Martlet's Tale, earned him early recognition as a promising young novelist. Gregory L. Morris has extolled In the Middle Distance for its complex narrative structure, arguing that, “What Delbanco ultimately pursues in this novel is a triple-layered examination of self and the ability to accurately declare the truths of that examination.” The novels of the Sherbrookes Trilogy have remained Delbanco's most celebrated works of fiction. Critics have complimented the poetic prose and deftly drawn characters in the trilogy and have lauded Delbanco's treatment of the family's intergenerational tensions. His novel In the Name of Mercy has received mixed assessments. Some critics have found the fictional narrative compelling and praised Delbanco for his ability to build suspense. Others have found the novel overly topical in addressing the issue of doctor-assisted suicide and observed that the book fails to adequately clarify the arguments on either side of the debate. Reviewers have been generally enthusiastic about What Remains, applauding Delbanco's skill at crafting the alternating perspectives of the novel's variety of characters. Neil Gordon has admired Delbanco's characterizations in What Remains, remarking that, “In a prose as evocative and clear as any being written in America today, Delbanco draws us into the very thought processes of his characters, showing us the past through their eyes and with the thick reality of their emotions.” Critical response to Delbanco's short story collections has been largely positive, with commentators praising Delbanco's craftsmanship and ability to evoke strong emotion through well-chosen details. Richard Eder has observed that the stories in About My Table are “written with breathtaking technique and an uncanny ability to bring a penetrating emotion up out of a gesture, a pause or a random thought.” Response to Delbanco's various works of nonfiction, however, has been largely mixed. Reviewers of Group Portrait have faulted Delbanco for failing to provide the reader with new insight or information on the authors included in the study. Despite these criticisms, the work has been commended for expressing a strong sense of affection for its subjects. Additionally, several critics have found Delbanco's accounts of his travels in The Beaux Arts Trio and Running in Place to be tedious and overwritten, offering little in the way of original observations on his subject. On the other hand, The Countess of Stanlein Restored has garnered an enthusiastic response by some reviewers, with Amanda Heller describing the book as “a little gem, a trove of fact, lore, and sensual description evoking two enduring and intertwined traditions—the art of the musician and the art of the luthier.”

Principal Works

The Martlet's Tale (novel) 1966

Grasse, 3/23/66 (novel) 1968

Consider Sappho Burning (novel) 1969

News (novel) 1970

In the Middle Distance (novel) 1971

Fathering (novel) 1973

Small Rain (novel) 1975

*Possession (novel) 1977

*Sherbrookes (novel) 1978

*Stillness (novel) 1980

Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells (criticism) 1982

About My Table, and Other Stories (short stories) 1983

The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait (nonfiction) 1985

Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France (travel writing) 1989

The Writer's Trade, and Other Stories (short stories) 1990

Writers and Their Craft: Short Stories and Essays on the Narrative [editor; with Laurence Goldstein] (short stories and essays) 1991

In the Name of Mercy (novel) 1995

Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work [editor; with Alan Cheuse] (nonfiction) 1996

Old Scores (novel) 1997

The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life (nonfiction) 2000

What Remains (novel) 2000

The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein Ex-Paganini Stradivarius Cello of 1707 (nonfiction) 2001

*These novels comprise Delbanco's Sherbrookes Trilogy.

Criticism

Allan Massie (review date 9 October 1982)

SOURCE: Massie, Allan. “Foreigners.” Spectator 249, no. 8048 (9 October 1982): 28-9.

[In the following review, Massie describes Group Portrait as interesting, perceptive, and well-crafted.]

‘Some years ago my friend H. G. Wells wrote to the papers to say that for many years he was conscious of a ring of foreign conspirators plotting against British letters at no great distance from his residence, Spade House, Sandgate’. (Ford Madox Ford: Return to Yesterday.) These words lie at the heart of Mr Delbanco's book, [Group Portrait,] though, curiously, he doesn't quote them. Three of the foreign conspirators were Henry James, Joseph Conrad and...

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Frank Tuohy (review date 22 October 1982)

SOURCE: Tuohy, Frank. “Birds of a Feather.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4151 (22 October 1982): 1148.

[In the following review, Tuohy comments that Group Portrait fails to offer the reader any new insight or information on its subject.]

Nicholas Delbanco has planned his work [Group Portrait] to illustrate what he calls “colleagueship” or “collegiality”: a quality that he identifies as having existed among these writers when all of them were living close to each other in West Kent or East Sussex around the turn of the century.

Today, especially when one is resident at a university, it is easy to assume that writers enjoy...

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Thomas C. Moser (essay date April 1983)

SOURCE: Moser, Thomas C. “Views of Edwardian Fiction.” Sewanee Review 91, no. 2 (April 1983): 282-91.

[In the following review, Moser compares Group Portrait with two other books on Edwardian fiction. Moser comments that Delbanco's book is neatly organized and well-written, and that the strength of the book lies in the author's expression of a strong sense of affection for his subject.]

Even though all periods, all decades, are transitional, the Edwardian age is one of the most conspicuous. Richard Ellmann's phrase is the “two faces” of Edward; Samuel Hynes's, the Edwardian “turn of mind.” Between the end of Victoria's lengthy reign with its...

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Richard Eder (review date 7 August 1983)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Fidelity and the Urge to Fight.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 August 1983): 2, 8.

[In the following review, Eder discusses the themes of aging and the struggle of individuals caught between marital fidelity and escapist fantasy in the stories of About My Table.]

“We do not die from being ill; we die from being alive,” Montaigne wrote. [In About My Table,] Nicholas Delbanco writes of early middle life, when a certain amount of dying has already been done. Bloom has become sheen. The body's youthfulness is still there, but beginning to harden into its own memorial—it will not be renewed. It is the time when blows become...

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Ann Hulbert (review date 31 October 1983)

SOURCE: Hulbert, Ann. “Welcome the Wimps.” New Republic 189, no. 18 (31 October 1983): 35-8.

[In the following review, Hulbert compares About My Table to two other books of fiction about “men ill at ease in a post-feminist age.” Hulbert asserts that Delbanco's stories are poorly plotted and lacking in variety, and that the female characters are mere caricatures, observing that the collection fails to evoke a “moral sympathy” in the reader.]

“A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949), the book that helped inspire a flood of literature...

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Nicholas Delbanco and Gregory L. Morris (interview date November 1983)

SOURCE: Delbanco, Nicholas, and Gregory L. Morris. “An Interview with Nicholas Delbanco.” Contemporary Literature 25, no. 4 (winter 1984): 386-96.

[In the following interview, which originally took place in November 1983, Delbanco discusses connections between his fiction and his own life, developments in his writing style, and the origins of his Sherbrookes trilogy.]

Nicholas Delbanco lives in Bennington, Vermont and teaches at Bennington College, where he directs the Bennington Writing Workshop and directs the M.F.A. in Writing program. He is the author of ten novels, including the three books of the acclaimed Sherbrookes trilogy (Possession,...

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Southern Humanities Review (review date summer 1984)

SOURCE: Review of Group Portrait, by Nicholas Delbanco. Southern Humanities Review 18, no. 3 (summer 1984): 268-69.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that Group Portrait offers little new factual information concerning the community of six authors in London in 1900, and that the central ideas of the book are not argued in depth.]

In 1900 within a day's journey from each other, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells were neighbors in Kent and East Sussex. Comparing their situation to the expatriate Left Bank of Paris and to Bloomsbury, Nicholas Delbanco examines the community of these artists [in Group...

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Gregory L. Morris (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Morris, Gregory L. “Nicholas Delbanco in the Middle Distance.” Critique 29, no. 1 (fall 1987): 30-45.

[In the following essay, Morris discusses In the Middle Distance in terms of its multilayered narrative, observing that the novel is an examination of the self and the writer's struggle to accurately represent the truth about himself.]

Nicholas Delbanco is the author of eleven published works of fiction. The earliest of these works were experimental, dense, and highly subjective; Delbanco's emphasis here was largely upon language, and in such novels as Grasse, 3/23/66 and Consider Sappho Burning, he strained the limits of allusiveness...

(The entire section is 7170 words.)

Eugene Wildman (review date 23 July 1989)

SOURCE: Wildman, Eugene. “Going Away Again.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 July 1989): 4-5.

[In the following review, Wildman describes Running in Place as part autobiography, part travel literature, and observes that the book is an expression of Delbanco's “love affair” with the area of Provence, France.]

The interplay of memory and landscape is the subject of this non-fiction offering by novelist Nicholas Delbanco. The book [Running in Place] is part autobiography, part travel literature and is an account of the author's several stays in Provence, that storied region of the South of France. It is a description of a love affair with the land, a...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 1 September 1989)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Travel Writing that Goes No Place.” Christian Science Monitor 81, no. 195 (1 September 1989): 13.

[In the following review, Rubin is highly critical of Running in Place, describing the book as unoriginal, uninteresting, monotonous, and poorly organized.]

Society hostess Elsa Maxwell is often credited with turning the South of France, specifically the Cote d'Azur, into a fashionable summer resort in the 1920s. (Before that, it was a place “resorted to” chiefly in the winter.) But Provence, the region of southeastern France that includes that stretch of coastline, has a long history of colorful associations: Roman Gaul, the...

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Melissa Pritchard (review date 4 February 1990)

SOURCE: Pritchard, Melissa. “The Perils of Literature.” Chicago Tribune Books (4 February 1990): 6-7.

[In the following review, Pritchard praises The Writer's Trade as a brilliantly ordered and controlled book that examines the “craft and peril” of being a writer.]

Each of us erects our hidden altars, secretly hoping for salvation from mortality. Art exists as a particularly potent religion, the artist exalted as free agent, as re-creator of the universe. In Nicholas Delbanco's 13th book and second collection of short stories, The Writers' Trade, the craft and peril of being a writer is scrupulously examined.

In the title story,...

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Charles Simmons (review date 8 February 1990)

SOURCE: Simmons, Charles. “The Non-Telling Detail.” Washington Post (8 February 1990): B3.

[In the following review, Simmons comments that most of the stories in The Writer's Trade are flawed and bogged down by tedious details, but does reserve praise for two of the stories which he contends are well-written.]

Most of these nine stories are full of faults, some more interesting than others. In the title story [of The Writer's Trade] 22-year-old Mark Fusco has just published a first novel. It gets good reviews, and he appears to be at the start of a successful writing career. Author Nicholas Delbanco describes his professional progress: “Mark was...

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Walter Cummins (review date winter 1993)

SOURCE: Cummins, Walter. Review of Writers and Their Craft, by Nicholas Delbanco. Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 102-03.

[In the following review, Cummins asserts that Writers and Their Craft is entertaining, but that it fails to provide new ideas or a fresh perspective on the craft of writing.]

This collection, [Writers and Their Craft,] material originally contained in a two-volume issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, is an olio of essays, interviews, memoirs, short statements, stories, and even cartoons that the editors hoped would provide “a kind of road map through [American fiction] of the 1990s, a work whose...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

James Idema (review date 1 October 1995)

SOURCE: Idema, James. “Fatal Decisions.” Chicago Tribune Books (1 October 1995): 6.

[In the following review, Idema praises In the Name of Mercy as an entertaining, masterfully written novel that includes a number of compelling characters. Idema comments that, although Delbanco's views on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide seem ambiguous, the story is thoroughly engaging.]

What seems for much of Nicholas Delbanco's riveting new novel to be an eloquent plea for legitimatizing euthanasia becomes in the long run more a cautionary tale. Man cannot be trusted with the institutionalized practice of assisted suicide, Delbanco appears to say. For all its merciful...

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John Leggett (review date 3 October 1995)

SOURCE: Leggett, John. “Can Death Be Humane and Cost-Effective?” Los Angeles Times (3 October 1995): 6.

[In the following review, Leggett comments that the novel In the Name of Mercy is a provocative story, but that it fails to clarify the arguments for and against doctor-assisted suicide.]

Nicholas Delbanco has taken on a provocative theme in his new novel, In the Name of Mercy.

He has seen the conflict between a doctor's Hippocratic obligation to heal, to do no harm, to leave the ending of a life to God and the contrary belief, acclaimed by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, that there is mercy in hastening the death of an incurable patient in...

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Steven G. Kellman (review date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Kellman, Steven G. “Half in Love with Easeful Death.” Michigan Quarterly Review 36, no. 3 (summer 1997): 520-28.

[In the following review, Kellman discusses In the Name of Mercy in the context of societal debates over doctor-assisted suicide, and compares Delbanco's novel to other books addressing the same issue. Kellman asserts that In the Name of Mercy holds little interest as a work of fiction, beyond its topical relevance to a current social problem.]

To be or not to be is the most compelling of all literary questions. The illustrious cases of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Phaedra, Willy Loman, Ophelia, Antigone, Dido, Romeo, Hedda Gabler,...

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Alfred Kazin (review date 9 October 1997)

SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “A Single Jew.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 15 (9 October 1997): 8-9.

[In the following review, Kazin asserts that Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work offers no new information or understanding that isn't already made clear in Malamud's fiction.]

Bernard Malamud's The Magic Barrel was awarded the National Book Award for 1958 against the outraged opposition of one judge. Malamud, amazed that he had won, exclaimed, “A miracle has passed.” He was delayed by a reporter in getting to the dinner in his honor. The waiter, looking him up and down, briskly informed him that the table was full and that there was no...

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Robert Buckeye (review date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Buckeye, Robert. Review of Old Scores, by Nicholas Delbanco. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 1 (spring 1998): 250-51.

[In the following review of Old Scores, Buckeye praises Delbanco's writing as intelligent, compassionate, and well-crafted.]

We know the story: the sixties; college; the professor, Paul Ballard, and the student he becomes involved with, Elizabeth Sieverdsen; the brief flaring of their love, its near predictable failure. It was the sixties, after all, and too many mistook indulgence for love. And its sequel: to revisit, with the cold eye of experience and time, that youthful evanescence. Or, even worse, to come together again...

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Jeff Gundy (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Gundy, Jeff. “Handling the Truth.” Georgia Review 106, no. 3 (fall 2000): 559-72.

[In the following excerpt, Gundy explores notions of truth in the essay collections of several authors, including Delbanco's The Lost Suitcase.]

Essays are often viewed as a kind of supplement, something that novelists and poets do with the leftover thoughts and stray impulses and bits of material that won't fit into their “real” work. Several aspects of the books under discussion here support this theory. One of them begins with an essay that the author breezily confesses having pieced together out of fragments from his commonplace book. And while dust-jacket notes are...

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Neil Gordon (review date 14 January 2001)

SOURCE: Gordon, Neil. “No Direction Home.” Washington Post Book World (14 January 2001): 3-4.

[In the following review, Gordon praises What Remains for its thoughtful, evocative, and lucid prose, as well as vivid characterization. Gordon discusses the theme of Jewish identity in the wake of the Holocaust as treated in Delbanco's novel.]

The Holocaust is not only the brutal history of an attempted genocide nor the nightmarish story of the camps. It's also a symphony of dignity lost, of warmth and childhood forever poisoned by the knowledge that generations of Jews anchored in Europe were uprooted in a few sudden years by implacable bureaucrats and jackbooted...

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Binnie Kirshenbaum (review date January-February 2001)

SOURCE: Kirshenbaum, Binnie. “A Desire to Belong.” New Leader 134, no. 1 (January-February 2001): 30-1.

[In the following review, Kirshenbaum praises What Remains as emotionally compelling and gracefully written.]

Nicholas Delbanco's 13th novel is a breathtakingly beautiful slim volume. But don't be misled by its size. The scope of What Remains is epic, spanning generations and continents. It is further testimony to Delbanco's skill as a writer that he artfully packs so much into such a compact work. There is nothing splashy here, no verbal pyrotechnics. Rather, it is the grace of language and of ideas that creates the gravitational pull which draws...

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Amanda Heller (review date 19 August 2001)

SOURCE: Heller, Amanda. Review of The Countess of Stanlein Restored, by Nicholas Delbanco. Boston Globe (19 August 2001): D3.

[In the following review, Heller describes The Countess of Stanlein Restored as an intriguing account focused on both the art of the musician and the art of the luthier.]

It is one of those confluences of circumstance best summed up as “genius of place”: For a number of variably evident reasons, about 300 years ago in the vicinity of Cremona, in northern Italy, a handful of craftsmen briefly produced the most sublime violins and cellos the world has ever known. Their names speak for themselves: Amati, Guarneri, and the most...

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Robin Elliott (review date 27 October 2001)

SOURCE: Elliott, Robin. “Lure and Lore of the Cello.” Irish Times (27 October 2001): 69.

[In the following excerpt, Elliott describes The Countess of Stanlein Restored as an engaging and affectionate portrait of a rare cello.]

The cello is an object of such consummate perfection that it is hard to believe that it was created by the human mind. It is exquisitely beautiful to look at, and has a range of musical expression rivalled only by the violin. By turns, it can provide a sturdy yet flexible accompanying line, or take flight in full-throated song. …

[In The Countess of Stanlein Restored,] Delbanco sheds light on the mysterious...

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Michael Foss (review date 30 November 2001)

SOURCE: Foss, Michael. “Yours for Twenty Pence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5148 (30 November 2001): 21.

[In the following review, Foss offers a mixed assessment of The Countess of Stanlein Restored, faulting Delbanco for focusing too heavily on renowned persons such as cello-craftsman Antonio Stradivari and cellist Bernard Greenhouse, among others.]

This curious little book [The Countess of Stanlein Restored] promises to tell the story of the life, and the restoration, of a musical instrument. The instrument is the so-called Countess of Stanlein cello, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1707 and now in the possession of the respected American cellist...

(The entire section is 479 words.)