Your RDA of Irony


After a wonderful concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I was left with a remarkable insight:  Gustav Mahler is the Philip Roth of music.  Of course, there is the obvious and essential similarity: they are both brilliant, nasty Jewish boys.  But couldn’t the same be said of Karl Marx and St. Paul?  Perhaps, but unlike Gus and Phil, no one would say that Charlie or Saul were funny.  (And whatever Saul’s neuroses, none was caused by women.)

However, the works of Roth and Mahler are amazingly parallel.  Mahler’s First Symphony, with its cruel parody of Klezmer music, is the equivalent of “Goodbye Columbus.”  Gustav was proclaiming that there was more to him than being Jewish.  No, he was a child of nature and a man of the world.  However, by his Seventh Symphony, the world had convinced him that he was still just a Jew.  That, and the adulteries of his young, attractive shiksa wife, goaded him to compose a portrait of a dystopic world.

Yes, he still has evocations of nature but they seem desperate respites between shrill waltzes and sinister Germanic marches.  In his misery, Mahler created a brilliant satire of Austria-Hungary, a requiem kaddish.  His friend Dr. Freud might have reassured Mahler, “Yes, life is meshuggah, your marriage is a humiliation, and your career a torture, but that’s no reason to think that the Empire is about to collapse and disintegrate.”

The symphony premiered in 1908.  In this case, Mahler made a better diagnosis than Freud.


  1. Tony H says:

    I had thought Mahler was gay but apparently I was misled by Visconti’s Death in Venice. Would you say the Seventh Symphony was as transcendentally nasty and brilliant as Sabbath’s Theatre, the Great American Novel?

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      The appropriate film on Mahler’s love life would be directed by Judd Apatow.

      scene 47: Mahler (played by Ben Stiller) returns home to find Alma (Anne Hathaway) in bed with the Spanish Riding School, including the horses. She tells him that dinner will be a little late.

      I have not read “Sabbath’s Theatre.” My preference is for history. In fact, I just finished an engrossing history of Norman Sicily by your landlord–Lord Norwich. However he is as a neighbor, he is an excellent historical raconteur.


  2. Eugene Finerman says:

    Public Announcement:

    My friend and congenial blackmailer Hal Gordon corrects me on the title of Mahler’s First Symphony. It is “Titan”; no doubt Mahler meant to rise above his humble origins to bestride the world. “The Resurrection Symphony” was his second.

    Omniscience ain’t what it used to be.


  3. Eugene Finerman says:

    You know who might be the ideal director for “Death in Venice”? Quentin Tarentino. Just imagine Gustav von Aschenbach (played by Bruce Willis) gunning down Benito Mussolini, Al Capone and Pope Pius XII.


  4. Tony H says:

    I might be wrong but I doubt Norwich has ever been seen in Norwich, so if he’s a landlord he’s an absentee one. Much as I like it here, I too would prefer to live in Venice. You couldn’t help loving Sabbath’s Theatre – it’s thoroughly unpleasant from beginning to end, but upliftingly so. In fact, Tarentino might consider saving his career by directing it, though he might lack the psychological insight to bring it off.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Lord Norwich now is too old to enforce “droit de seigneur” but I thought that he would havethe noblesse oblige to offer you a brace of partridges from his manor.


  5. Tony H says:

    Although it entails admitting that I’ve been looking up John Julius on Wikipedia, I simply had to bring this footnote to your attention. The mind boggles!

    “Lady Diana [Duff Cooper] herself had revealed that although she was brought up as a daughter of the Duke of Rutland, she was actually fathered by Harry Cust, a Lincolnshire landowner and MP. Cust is also said to have slept with Margaret Thatcher’s grandmother, one of his servants. (Khan, Urmee, “Allegra Huston Speaks of the Shock at Discovering She was the Love Child of a Lord”, The Daily Telegraph [ ], 6 April 2009.)

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      I feel that I am corrupting your morals.

      I also know that both Lord Norwich and Prime Minister David Cameron are descended from William IV. Need I mention that William IV had no legitimate descendants.


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