Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo by Sandrine Revel

There's no obvious reason why there would be a loose series of biographical graphic novels, mostly about North American figures, translated from European originals. But there is one, from NBM, and it's been running for a decade or so.

It's not really a "series," I suppose: there's no unified trade dress. But the books tend to list each other on their card pages, and it's clearly one distinct thread in the books NBM publishes. And I've been coming to them, semi-randomly, as I notice that each of them exists.

It comes out of the fact that Europe has a larger and more robust comics industry, I suppose: that the world of bandes desinées is more varied than the US Wednesday Crowd equivalent - full of semi-junky adventure stories, sure, like any popular medium, but not defined by a specific, tight conception of those semi-junky adventure stories.

Anyway, that's how I came to read an artsy, allusive, non-linear "biography" of the mid-20th century pianist Glenn Gould, from French creator (painter, cartoonist, maker of children's books, illustrator, etc.) Sandrine Revel.

It's Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo, and it's a difficult book to sum up. It's a fine read: not bogged down with facts and dates and minutia no reader will remember, it tells a personal story about Gould's life, focused on his emotions and interior life, as expressed in what he did and said. It jumps around in time quite a lot, without signposting any of the eras: readers will look to see how old Gould is on each page to place them, and probably have a vaguer sense of overall chronology.

(I had to look him up to get the dates: he was born in 1932 and died, quite young, in 1982. He was also Canadian, which is probably more important than it might seem.)

Revel has a very illustrative style - I can see how she'd have success in books for children; she makes great pictures rather than trying to ape reality - and her work here often has lots of panels to show movement or time passing, especially of Gould playing piano. I would not have thought playing piano was something that would come through clearly in a comics format, but Revel does a brilliant job of that here, leading off with a visionary sequence that sets the tone and includes most of a page of just close-ups of Gould's hands as they form notes. (I know she has some specific piece in mind here, and I bet actual musicians can also tell what that is.)

So this is a biography of feeling and sense, not of detail and sequence. We see Gould a bit in his late childhood, but it's mostly about his adult career. He had a lot of quirks, to put it mildly, and Revel displays those rather than explaining or describing them. It's as if she's transformed Gould's work, which was all about sound, into visual elements, making a comics version of the Goldberg Variations.

I came into this knowing very little about Gould; I've probably heard his work - I went through a big Classical phase in the '90s, when I was more of an old man than I am now - but I'm not any kind of fan or expert. Readers who do know Gould, or how to play the piano, or the world of classical recordings, will probably get more out of this than I did. But I got more than enough, and I assume that you, whoever you are, would as well. This is a visionary biography of a visionary man, that brilliantly transforms sound into sight through its pages.

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