What does it mean to be a mere fiend in a time of monsters?
In any other era, the life of Hermann Kapp-Dortmunder might have been just another cautionary tale about the sins of hubris. In Variations on the Beast, this gifted musical prodigy has been born into exactly the right era–that of the Third Reich–to feed his monstrous arrogance and narcissism as he rises to fame and glory. Told from Herr Kapp’s uniquely derisive point-of-view, the book captures his life over the course of 11 episodes between 1917 and the end of World War II. Born a bastard, the young musician stumbles into study under some of Europe’s great conductors in Vienna, Austria. Kapp’s brusque nature pushes away those who are trying to help him and enrages his competitors, but his strutting potency, both musical and physical, helps him con and manipulate mentors, friends and lovers. Kapp’s ambition proves deadly for Krisztina, his good-natured but eccentric girlfriend. When she becomes pregnant, he abandons her. After she dies following a botched abortion, the conductor is firmly committed to his bitter course. Despite suffering from hysterical fits, Kapp is a slave to both his ambition and his self-indulgence. His rise to prominence as the generalmusikdirektor of Vienna’s finest orchestra is assured when he conducts Richard Wagner’s Die WalkÃ¼re, a performance that brings him to the attention of the burgeoning National Socialist Party. Kapp changes his name to the more refined Kapp-Dortmunder, rising alongside Hitler to the heights of influence. By the time war breaks out, the conductor is entrenched among Nazi leaders, including Goebbels and GÃ¶ring, all the while ignoring the sound advice of legendary composer Richard Strauss. Grinberg succeeds in making the obsessive composer a convincing, if deeply disturbing, character, and his questions about the behavior of the â€œGood Germans”–those who reaped the benefits of Hitler’s machinations while ignoring the apparent atrocities in its society–are valid; the intellectual curiosity makes the experience of reading the book no less emotionally taxing. It all comes to an implausible ending in which the maestro is simultaneously acquitted of his crimes and permanently marked by them.
A disquieting allegory for the rise and fall of man, played out in the fractured soul of a genius.