Katha Pollitt

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

If writers got gold stars for the risks they took, Leslie Epstein would get a handful for the title story of this collection of short fiction. "The Steinway Quintet" belongs to that rare and difficult genre, the story that is in some sense "about" large intellectual and philosophical problems. Two gun-waving, pill-popping Puerto Rican J. D.'s break into the Steinway Restaurant on Rivington Street—once a favorite haunt of Sarah Bernhardt and Einstein, but now the lonely relic of a vanished Jewish community—and hold the aged waiters, patrons and members of the restaurant orchestra hostage for a huge ransom and a plane to China.

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The setup is almost too convenient for the conflict Epstein wants to illuminate between culture and violence, but as narrated by the pianist Goldkorn, self-proclaimed free-thinker and occasional tippler, "The Steinway Quintet" manages to be deft, original and very funny. At once shrewd and wide-eyed, Goldkorn is the perpetual optimist….

Through Goldkorn, Epstein recalls with an affectionate but unsentimental playfulness the passionate intellectuality of the Eastern European Jews. But for Epstein the claims of reason, in which those Jews placed their faith, are of as little avail in the Steinway Restaurant as they were in Hitler's Germany. The puniness of reason in the face of horror becomes comic: "What is the cause of this fear of death?" asks one of the customers, a Freudian analyst, as the hoodlums prepare to murder everyone. "Let us think of it in a rational manner. Is it not in reality the childish fear of losing the penis? Of being cut off from this source of guilty pleasure? Notice how when we recognize the source of our anxiety it at once disappears. Now we feel truly joyful."

This is nonsense, of course. The truth is a darker but also more powerful talisman. When, for an audience of captives and thugs, the Steinway Quintet plays its last concert, Goldkorn feels himself to be "no longer the separate citizen, but also a part of that ocean, like a grain of salt, no different from those other grains … yes, even—do not be alarmed by what I now say—even the two murderers, for they were a part of that ocean, too. That ocean. That darkness, friends. We know what it is, do we not?" We do. It is the mystery of our common humanity and mortality, our means of embracing it neither the arid intellect nor the anarchic id, but music—the imagination, the heart.

Epstein has written a witty, moving story with a plot full of "surprise" turns, including a miraculous escape for the captives and just possibly for their captors as well. One regrets the more strongly those moments when, as though mistrusting the power of his art as Goldkorn never did that of his music, Epstein becomes self-consciously symbolic. For example, the Steinway could have done without its mural depicting the glories of ancient Greece, and the painfully tendentious conversations occasioned thereby. Surely, too, it is a lapse of taste to have the J. D.'s force their hostages to undress before they are shot, since the only reason for such a pointless request is to evoke in the reader thoughts of the showers at Auschwitz. These thoughts have already arisen quite naturally, however, and the direct pitch smacks of artistic manipulation.

I mention these instances of overstatement not to carp at a fine story, but because they indicate risks which the others do not surmount. Each begins with a complex situation, but is developed according to an overly intellectual schema….

Even the best of these stories, "The Disciple of Bacon," about an aging scholar who has wasted his life trying to prove that Mozart was a Jew, is marred by the overly literary gesture of defeat with which it concludes. It's a shame to see so much good writing (the vulnerable wit of the black children, the scholar's memories) marched, under protest, into formulaic oppositions and chicly doomful climaxes. For his next book, let's hope that Epstein takes that apostle of imagination and surprise, Leib Goldkorn, as his muse.

Katha Pollitt, in a review of "The Steinway Quintet," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1976, p. 7.

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