Wednesday's Book

Glenn Gould: the ecstasy and tragedy of genius by Peter Ostwald WW Norton, pounds 20
Glenn Gould: the ecstasy and tragedy of genius by Peter Ostwald

WW Norton, pounds 20

He grimaced, he sang, he hummed. He conducted himself with whichever hand wasn't occupied at the keyboard. His position, arms level with the keys, was eccentric. As was his chair: 14 inches high, upholstery burst, weight born by his genitals resting on the crossbar. A hypochondriac, his frantic phone calls described how he had contracted the symptoms of "sub-clinical polio".

Glenn Gould's eccentricities were as famous as his playing. A pianist with an extreme style, he gave up public performance to present himself through recordings. He encouraged listeners to interfere with his recorded work. To twiddle our dials, he said, is to assert the value of "aesthetic narcissism".

"Gould created a living legend of himself", the author of this new biography writes. Any writer on the Gould trail needs a touch of their subject's savvy and scepticism. Peter Ostwald is aware of the complexities. But the symbolic frisson is not his field. The key to Gould, he decides, is to combine biographical data with "personal knowledge".

They first met backstage after a concert. "He was ill-at-ease, his face tense and there was some mild twitching of the muscles around his right eye." Ostwald, who died shortly after completing the work, was a psychiatrist. His style, like Gould's polio, can be distinctly sub-clinical. The author hoped his work might stimulate interest in the speciality of performing- arts medicine, and Gould was a deserving case. Medical and psychological "postulations" are scattered throughout: was Gould a victim of Asperger's Disease, a type of autism associated with musically gifted people?

Ostwald considered Gould a friend but for many years the two did not meet. Prior to Gould's death at 50 in 1982, a final encounter proved brief and sour. "It would have helped," Ostwald huffs, "if Glenn had served refreshments". The note of wounded amour propre is unsettling; the revelation that they met just once in the last 15 years of the subject's life is rather more so.