For better or worse, the movie Amadeus has set our era's musical tone by building an unbreachable wall between genius and ordinary talent. Salieri's unholy war on Mozart stands for our own unease over extraordinary artists, whose uncanny power to move us sets them irrevocably apart from our day-to-day lives.
Now comes Sleeping with Schubert, in all its irreverent glory, poised to overthrow Amadeus' austere artistic paradigm. If there is any justice in the realm of musical metaphysics, Bonnie Marson's first novel and the Paramount Pictures film slated to be made from it soon will make everyone who bought the "Mozart vs. Salieri" model trade it in happily and wisely for "Schubert-in-Liza Durbin" instead. Liza is a Brooklyn lawyer who suddenly finds the spirit of Franz Schubert inhabiting her body while she is shopping at Nordstrom. Although she has not had a piano lesson since childhood, Liza sits down at the store piano and plays like a virtuoso. Franz's presence leads to her nervous breakdown, her discovery by a Julliard School piano teacher and her Carnegie Hall debut. In the course of Liza's hilarious account of her adventures, we hear Schubert's own sweet voice only in the briefest of interludes, in which he comments upon his unanticipated luck at having a second chance at existence in the 21st century, after such a tragically brief first stint in the 19th. These novelistic grace notes are perhaps the most memorable things in the book, for they subtly confirm what Liza Durbin has only just begun to learn that real, deathless genius, is above all human; what is more, that it is humane, in absolute touch with the ordinary passages of peoples' lives, their petty concerns, their joys and woes. At some incalculable point in the novel, it dawns on the astonished reader that Schubert's resurrected creativity and Liza's ongoing problems with her hair have somehow found common ground with each other. This wedding between the sublime and the ludicrous will no doubt offend some readers of Sleeping with Schubert. But to discerning Schubert lovers, the great fun of the book will strike a blissful note of fidelity to the composer, especially when it glides imperceptibly into pathos. Genius literally takes possession of the ordinary, so that the two together can continue to work on the ever-unfinished symphony of the human spirit. Michael Alec Rose teaches at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.