August 27, 2012
Guest: Regina Spektor
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is songwriter, singer and pianist Regina Spektor. Her latest album, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats," debuted at number three on the Billboard Album Chart. Her music has been used in many TV shows and movies, including "Grey's Anatomy," "How I Met Your Mother," "Enlightened," "500 Days of Summer," "In Bruges" and "Chronicles of Narnia."
Her life has a very different trajectory than most singer-songwriters in America. She was born in Russia in 1980, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. As she'll explain, her family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1989, when the reform movement Perestroika, made it possible for many Jews to leave. Spektor's family settled in the Bronx.
She was already a serious student of classical music, but one of the things the family had to leave behind was her piano. Earlier this summer, she returned to Russia for the first time for performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Let's start with a song, "All the Rowboats," from Regina Spektor's latest album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE ROWBOATS")
REGINA SPEKTOR: (Singing) All the rowboats in the paintings, they keep trying to row away. And the captains worried faces stay contorted and staring at the waves. They'll keep hanging in their gold frames for forever, forever and a day. All the rowboats in the oil paintings, they keep trying to row away, row away.
(Singing) Hear them whispering French and German, Dutch, Italian, and Latin. When no one's looking I touch a sculpture, marble, cold, and soft as satin. But the most special are the most lonely. God, I pity the violins. In glass coffins they keep coughing. They've forgotten, forgotten how to sing, how to sing.
GROSS: That's "All The Rowboats" from Regina Spektor's new album "What We Saw from the Cheap Seats." Regina Spektor, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you here.
SPEKTOR: Thank you.
GROSS: What I love about the song is that percussive rhythm behind you, and of course it's you playing piano. Did the song come to you, when you thought of it, with that rhythm?
SPEKTOR: Yeah, a lot of the time when I would write on piano, I would hear a lot of kind of supplementary beats and sounds in my head, and then I was just kind of stuck with just piano and voice until I would go to the studio, and then I would get to kind of take everything that was inside my head and put it into the tangible world and record it using real instruments.
And I think that's why a lot of the time I end up sort of simulating in places where I can, like little sounds or almost like placeholders or markers of beats or other instruments. It's just kind of out of necessity because I'm so limited by just singing and playing piano.
GROSS: When you say inserting beats, do you mean those strange vocal things that you do?
SPEKTOR: Yeah, the (makes noise).
GROSS: When you want to be, when it's appropriate for the song, you're a very muscular piano player. I assume that comes from all the classical training that you've had, starting from, what, age 6 or something?
SPEKTOR: Yeah, yeah, I started from age 6, but it's funny because I think it's not necessarily a - in classical music it's not necessarily a great thing to play that loud. And I've had kind of arguments sometimes with even piano tuners were, you know, sometimes the way that I need to play the instruments is - it gets to loud that the strings reverberate in a certain way, and then it gets kind of a metallic thing.
And I always want them to work a lot on the voicing and to get - to soften, a lot of the times, the hammers, and they get kind of argumentative with me, and they're like you're not supposed to be playing this loud. And then, you know, I have to play how I play, you know. And so it's not necessarily - that part of me maybe is much more coming from, like, the punk and the rock and roll side than the classical side, I guess.
GROSS: I hear such a contrast between your muscular piano playing and your voice, which is relatively small and high.
SPEKTOR: Like when I sing?
GROSS: Um-huh. Though you have several voices. You have, like, a small voice, and you have a much fuller voice that you use.
SPEKTOR: I think that, you know what it is, to me the voice is an instrument, just like any other instrument, and the same way that you can, you know, you can play piano in a really percussive way because it is a percussion instrument, or it could be really flowing, you could use a pedal and sustain it, or you could use the mute, or you could have so many different colors, you know, whether you go all the way to the top or to the bottom or everywhere.
And the same way that I love to kind of use every color of every instrument when I record, like if I'm working with cello, I'm going to use tremolo, I'm going to use, you know, I'm going to use a lot of pizzicato and a all kinds of distortion.
And I think of it, I guess as composition first. So if I write something, then I'm going to try and do it. So if I need to sing really high, or if I need to sing really ugly, or if I need to sing really soft, or if I need to sing from really deep inside my stomach or something, then I will just do that.
GROSS: I want to play a song that I think is a really nice contrast to "All the Rowboats," and this is like a bonus track that's on the bonus track edition of your latest CD. And it's a beautiful song, it's a Russian song, and it's called "The Prayer of Francois Villon." And it's by - you say his name because I'm going to pronounce it...
SPEKTOR: Bulat Okudzhava. Yeah, it's by Bulat Okudzhava.
GROSS: OK, and so as we'll talk about in a couple of minutes, you grew up in Russia and moved to the United States when you were 9.
GROSS: So what did this songwriter mean to you when you were in Russia? Were you familiar with his work then?
SPEKTOR: Yeah, I - when I was growing up, we had basically three types of music in the house. One, was the most main kind of music that we listened to is classical music, and then we also listened a lot to the Russian bards like Okudzhava and Vysotsky and a lot of singer-songwriters that were, you know, they were sort of usually just a person with a guitar writing very beautiful poetry and singing it by themselves with no orchestration, really.
And I really loved that style of music, especially because it was very, very imaginative. A lot of it was stories about the war, a lot of World War II kind of - I mean, I was so immersed, I think, as just in the '80s even as a Soviet kid in World War II that I sort of was under the impression that it had just happened.
SPEKTOR: And I got to America, and I was so surprised that kids my age were just - didn't feel like World War II had just happened. And then the third type of music that we had in the house was The Beatles. It was all the kind of British-American stuff that my dad, that was all his doing. He was a great collector of tapes and trading tapes with friends and kind of this underground community of people that loved Western music.
And so we had Moody Blues and Queen and all kinds of cool stuff.
GROSS: So let's hear this Russian song, and before we hear it, tell us what the lyrics are about because they're in Russian, and most of our listeners will not understand it.
SPEKTOR: Well, they're really beautiful. It's - I don't want to do a crude translation, but approximately, it's - basically, it's a prayer to God, and it's saying, you know - through the different verses, it talks about all the things that he's asking for. He's asking for, you know, the lucky person to have some money and the generous person to have a rest and for the, you know, for the fearful person to get some bravery.
And he's saying, you know, for the one who is, you know, dying to rule, give him all of the power that he thirsts for, you know. And at the end of each one, he says: And don't forget about me. And it's really - it's really touching, and it starts out with saying, like, as the world is still turning, while there's still light above, give to everyone that which they do not have. And then it goes on to list all the things.
GROSS: Oh, that's really nice. OK, so this is Regina Spektor, and it's a bonus track on the bonus track edition of her latest album, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PRAYER OF FRANCOIS VILLON")
SPEKTOR: (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: That's Regina Spektor singing a song by the Russian songwriter Bulat Okudzhava, and it's from a bonus track from her latest album, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats." It's really a beautiful melody and, from how you described it and translated it, a beautiful lyric, as well.
I'm sure you've performed that in the United States but also in Russia because you went on a Russian tour over the summer. It was your first time back since leaving when you were 9. How does response to that song compare in Russia and the United States?
SPEKTOR: Well, you know, I mean, just being in Russia again after 23 years was super-intense for me. I sort of spent the whole time I was there just kind of either crying or laughing or both at the same time. It was just very surreal and emotional and incredible experience.
So I think just speaking between songs to everyone in Russian and singing songs that contained Russian the way that the people - it just felt like we were so happy, both me and the audience, to just kind of have this shared language. It was really, really an amazing feeling.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Regina Spektor. She's a singer, songwriter and pianist. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and pianist Regina Spektor, and she has a new CD called "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats." She and her family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1989, when Regina Spektor was 9 years old.
You mentioned that when you were growing up, you though, like, World War II was just, you know, a few days ago...
GROSS: And it was - it just seemed very close. And I'm wondering why that was.
SPEKTOR: In Russia, you know, Russia was just - WWII was fought on its soil. There was the blockade. There was - every single person in the country was touched by the war in some way. Everybody had a lot of people in their family that fought, that died. You know, it's very different having war on your soil rather than, you know, kind of sending troops to some remote place where the people just don't really feel it.
There are people walking around with an arm missing and a leg missing. And it was just, you know, real visible wounds and stories of survival, stories of heroism, stories of, you know, destruction that all the kids grew up with it all the time. And so I think that is sort of why I felt completely immersed in it.
GROSS: And I know in one of your albums, the cap that you're wearing is your grandfather's cap from his military uniform from World War II. So what - how did the war affect your family? What are the stories that you grew up with?
SPEKTOR: Oh, there's, I mean, tremendous amounts. Yeah, the hat on "Soviet Kitsch" is my grandpa's navy hat. He was a navigator on a ship that he was in charge of de-mining the ocean. So just that alone, hearing him tell me how you have to be really decisive, which I still haven't learned, unfortunately, how, you know, if he would be - you know, he would have mines on one side and then crazy rocks on the other side, and he would have the lives of so many sailors in his hands when he was making a decision.
I don't know, this kind of stuff, it's very hard to, you know, just a lot - and then everybody was kind of - has all these stories of hunger. You know, hunger always terrifies me because I grew up with all these memories of hunger and casualties. Like my grandmother and her sister were - they spent the war in Asia on foot, just wandering, and they were separated from their parents, and her sister died in a labor camp in Asia of typhus.
And my grandmother on my mom's - my mom's mom had to intercept three death notices of her three brothers because she had six brothers, and three were killed during the war, and she would intercept them and sew them into the inside of her coat because she thought that her parents wouldn't survive the war if they found out.
You know, just stuff like that. You know, just little stuff like that, Terry.
GROSS: Right, yeah, little things like that.
SPEKTOR: You know like a real bummer, right? Like our problems, like, the coffee is, like, the wrong temperature, you know. It just - I mean, I think that I'm just - my mind is so overwhelmed by these giant things and has been since I was a kid that sometimes I - I just have a hard time not feeling, not feeling so guilty for how easy we have it, you know.
GROSS: I think I'm going to play another song here, and this is a song that now that I know what the lyric is to the Russian song that we heard, I think that this song is very close to it in some ways because it's about God. And it's about how no one laughs at God when something awful is happening to them, including war.
And this is from your previous album called "Far." Do you want to talk about the inspiration for this song?
SPEKTOR: You know, it's always - I'd love to talk about it. It's always so hard, though, because I feel like I don't fully ever understand exactly a specific lineage of a song. It sort of feels more like lots and lots of things happen, and then - and then I just write a song. You know, it's a combination of books and thoughts and stories and things I saw in the streets of New York and just a million things that, like, oh, I wrote a song, you know, kind of. It's very - it's not usually - it's usually not coming from one specific thing.
GROSS: OK, so let's hear this song, which is from your previous album "Far."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAUGHING WITH")
SPEKTOR: (Singing) No one laughs at God in a hospital. No one laughs at God in a war. No one's laughing at God when they're starving or freezing or so very poor. No one laughs at God when the doctor calls after some routine tests. No one's laughing at God when it's gotten real late, and their kid's not back from the party yet.
(Singing) No one laughs at God when their airplane start to uncontrollably shake. No one's laughing at God when they see the one they love, hand in hand with someone else, and they hope that they're mistaken. No one laughs at God when the cops knock on their door, and they say we got some bad news, sir. No one's laughing at God when there's a famine or fire or flood.
(Singing) But God can be funny at a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or, or when the crazies say He hates us, and they get so red in the head you think they're 'bout to choke. God can be funny when told he'll give you money if you just pray the right way and when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus. God can be so hilarious. Ha-ha, ha-ha.
(Singing) No one laughs at God in a hospital. No one laughs at God in a war. No one's laughing at God when they've lost all they've got, and they don't know what for. No one laughs at God on a day they realize that the last sight they'll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes. No one's laughing at God when they're saying their goodbyes.
(Singing) But God can be funny at a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or, or when the crazies say He hates us, and they get so red in the head you think they're 'bout to choke. God can be funny...
GROSS: Regina Spektor will be back in the second half of the show. Her latest album is called "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW")
SPEKTOR: (Singing) ...and we will meet again, somehow.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with songwriter, pianist and singer Regina Spektor. Her latest album is called "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats."
Spektor grew up in Russia when it was still part of the Soviet Union. During the perestroika era, when Gorbachev's reforms made it possible for many Jews to leave the USSR, her family emigrated to the United States and ended up in the Bronx. She was nine and didn't know any English, but she was already a serious piano student.
You started piano lessons when you were six. How did you get so serious about piano at a young age? Were your parents convinced, early on, that you were prodigy because...
GROSS: ...you could learn your way around the piano or sound things out on your own really easily?
SPEKTOR: I'm the complete opposite of what a prodigy is. I'm lazy. I - I have a really hard time putting - having work ethic, which I think is the, the main ingredient of anybody who's an actual - and I have tremendous amounts of equal parts a respect and envy of people that are - people that have it and people that are, that kind of strong-willed, you know? I, I, I always loved music and I always loved singing and humming and I, I grew up with, you know, a piano in the house and my mom playing it, and my parents just loving music. And - and I would, you know, I, I was always asking them to put out records and cassette tapes and there was always time for music and I would listen to hours and hours of it on the record player and, and the cassette tape player in every possible way. And they would take me to concerts and my life was just filled with music. So I really loved it. And I had an awesome teacher in Russia that I actually got to reconnect with this summer. And I saw her and I went and she - she and I hung out in, in, in her music classroom and we played piano together and it was, it was like a dream. I kept, I kept touching her...
SPEKTOR: ...and just like petting her because I, I couldn't believe that, that she was real. You know, I couldn't believe that it was really happening. And she was also that, that kind of a rare teacher who was really kind to children, and also really serious and strict.
GROSS: So when you were nine, your - your family decided to leave the Soviet Union and this was during the period of perestroika when President Mikhail Gorbachev was leading a reform movement within the country. So how did that enable the family to leave and why did the family decide to take advantage of the new openness?
SPEKTOR: Well, it was a really exciting time because Soviet Union had opened its doors for some, some Jews believe in, in the late '70s and then closed them back up again. And, you know, it's besides all the obvious things like, you know, lack of certain human rights and freedoms - no freedom of religion, all kinds of things like that - it was also, just on top of all that, it was very anti-Semitic place to be. And openly anti-Semitic, kind of, as an institution. So in your passport was stamped that you're a Jew. And, you know, you would, you would not be allowed into certain schools if they had too many Jews and sometimes they'd decide five Jews is too many Jews. So it was just as soon as, as soon as the ability to apply for a visa was, sort of, presented, my parents right away applied because they really, they really had, I think they'd wanted to leave earlier than a closed. And so as soon as it was open again they really wanted to take me out of there and, and have me sort of grow up in a different - in a different situation.
GROSS: So being a Jew meant that you were going to be discriminated against in many ways. What else did it mean? Did you, were you observant at all? Did, did you feel much of a, you know, Jewish identity outside of the - the negative things that were projected on you?
SPEKTOR: I mean - that's interesting because to me I - I think that because I, because I, I grew up kind of surround it with the negative stuff more, more so, I had a strong feeling of pride and identity as a Jew, even from being very little. But there wasn't really any kind of like religious - you can go to synagogue, you couldn't do stuff like that - but we did have little like relics of-of religion, sort of, passed down here and there. Like we, my grandmother, my mom's mom would always make sure that we, we knew when Passover was and she would somehow get through, through a connection of a connection, we would have matzo. And, and so she would make, you know chicken soup with matzo balls. But then we would have bread alongside that because we didn't know that you are not supposed to eat bread.
SPEKTOR: So things were, things were sort of like kind of half - they were kind of half superstition, half tradition, half hearsay. And when we got to the Bronx and it was the first time that we were, kind of, immersed in the, kind of, Jewish religious community and started going to synagogue and started going to Jewish school, then we learned, you know, what things actually were. And it was sort of be like oh, wow, we were kind of doing it but mostly wrong.
GROSS: So when you came to the United States, when you moved to the Bronx you didn't have a piano, you couldn't afford one. You were able to use the piano in the basement of the neighborhood synagogue. And then there's a great story about how you found the woman who became your piano teacher. Your father actually met the man who was the husband of the woman who became your piano teacher. So tell the story of how your father met this man and how his wife became your teacher.
SPEKTOR: Well, my dad really didn't want to stay on any kind of government help. So he got this minimum-wage job at night developing photographs at this big company. And he was coming back from there on the subway one night, and he saw a man with a violin case between his feet and - an older man - and he started talking. And he heard that he had a Yiddish accent, and they kind of, you know, got to a little bit more talking. And my dad said that he had played violin in his youth and my mom was a piano professor, and that they had a kid and she had studied piano, and how we, we haven't been to and to hear any classical music for a long time, and that we're really fans of classical music as a family. And he said, well, why don't you come over to our house and we could play you - me and my wife, she's a pianist - and we can play you our program because we're going on tour to Spain to play duets?
So me and my whole family, we, we got dressed up and went up the hill and we went to their house. And their house was just incredible. It was full of love, and books, and art, and pianos, and cats, and dogs and just the - the best kind of vibe you could picture...
SPEKTOR: ...just the - a true art partnership between this husband and this wife. And they played us their program and then I asked very rudely if Sonia - Sonia Vargas is the wife and Samuel Marder is the husband - and I asked if Sonia would be my teacher and she said, of course. So from that moment on she taught me and my cousin Marcia, until we were grown up. And we came and practiced at her house and then as the time went on, we were able to - people gifted us a piano, first to my family and then to Marcia's family, and we practiced at home.
GROSS: Did she make you audition before agreeing to be your teacher?
SPEKTOR: No, she didn't. She had heard a single note. She was just the most kind, generous person. She is from Peru and she was already playing with orchestras when she was 12 and was sent to study in America by the president of Peru when she was really young. And so she was a classical pianist but she was also a professor of classical piano at Manhattan School of Music for many, many years. I - I guess she just saw how much I wanted and she just - and she gifted it to me and my cousin. And she never ever charged us for any lessons ever in our whole life and just her and her husband are - they're basically our family for many years now. They're, they're, they might as well be, you know, related to us.
GROSS: Does she like your music?
SPEKTOR: She does. She does and she and her husband have come to shows. And she and Sam came when I played Radio City. And yeah, it's - it, it makes me the happiest when they come to shows. I just, I'm, I feel so, so glad and relieved that she, that she likes what I do because I wouldn't, I wouldn't be able to write songs without her - not for a moment.
GROSS: Do you make her stand up and take a bow?
SPEKTOR: No. She's, she is the most humble person you could ever meet. I - I, I don't think, I honestly don't think they make people like Sonia and Sam anywhere, except they've made them once and that's it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Regina Spektor. She's a singer, songwriter and pianist who emigrated with her family at the age of nine, from the Soviet Union, to the United States.
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and pianist Regina Spektor. And she has a new CD called "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats." She and her family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1989, when Regina Spektor was nine years old.
So, how did you start singing?
SPEKTOR: Um, well, I, I was always humming and always kind of singing in the shower and singing to myself. But my parents found it really annoying and...
SPEKTOR: And, and so, you know, they would just kind of be like OK, calm down. Because, you know, I think that I would just every time I would listen to something I would just try and parody it. So if I come if I was listening to Edith Piaf I would just try and sound like Edith Piaf. And, you know, I used to sing a lot of fake opera, which was really annoying to my parents, you know, because it was just crappy. And - and I don't know I just, I loved just singing, just the act of singing. And I never really wrote any words and I never ever thought to put it together with, with playing piano, because to me it was just completely separate things.
SPEKTOR: Until I went on an artist kid trip to Israel. I got a scholarship to go on, on this program to Israel - it was my first time in Israel - called Nesiya. And it was just really great trip to Israel that was organized, kind of, for kids that were interested in creative things. And I had, sort of, up till that point had felt really out of place because I was so interested in art and music and kind of scribbling little poems and doodling and, and there weren't really any kids like that in my school and I - I felt really out of place because of that. And so for me it was very exciting because not only was I getting to go to Israel for the first time, but I also was surrounded by teenagers from all around America and Israel who were, you know, I don't know, dancing and drawing and sculpting and playing instruments and writing poems and sketching and it was very, very exciting.
REGINA SPEKTOR, MUSICIAN And I got, I felt really encouraged because I would, I would hum and sing, kind of, just in life and then people would sort of walk around me and say stuff like, you have a really great voice or that's a cool song, you know, and stuff that I'd never heard in my life from anybody. And, you know, I had a very hard time believing it. But they were all sort of like, you know, you should learn an instrument because then you could write songs, you know, and I was sort of just kind of it just dawned on me which was, oh yeah, I know an instrument, I could write songs. So when I got home I started trying to write songs and that's sort of how I began.
GROSS: Let me get another song in from your new album, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats," and this is "Small Town Moon." And, you know, lyrically what's kind of interesting about this is that it's not at all your experience.
GROSS: It's about somebody who's from a small town and wants to leave but feels they can't. How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me? But it does make me wonder if your family felt that way, leaving the Soviet Union.
SPEKTOR: I think - I think that a lot of the time - I mean, I'm sure, I'm sure they did. I mean, I know that when we were leaving, we didn't know, for example, whether my grandparents, my dad's parents, were allowed to come yet. They were Refuseniks. So they ended up coming to the Bronx about a year after we did.
But you know, when we were leaving, it was a very possible permanent goodbye. So I think - I'm sure, just like everything else of my experiences, it's in there. But I think one of things that I love the most is that you can connect with experiences and it doesn't have to all come from your exact life. You can have empathy and you can put yourself in other people's shoes and sort of get to experience things and connect with people in a big way, even if that wasn't part of your particular experience.
GROSS: Do you want to say anything about what's happening musically on this track?
SPEKTOR: Sure. This track was really, really fun to record because when I first wrote it, it had this section where I myself just kind of stomped and clapped in this specific rhythm. But because of, you know, studio magic, I got to stomp and clap with the drummer and the producer, and we were - and at one point we were just in there with all these microphones on the floor, and unfortunately I was wearing sneakers, so none of my stomps could be heard.
So I borrowed the producer's giant shoes and stomped in those. So if there's anything out of place, it's probably me.
GROSS: Well, Regina Spektor, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.
SPEKTOR: Thanks so much, Terry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL TOWN MOON")
SPEKTOR: (Singing) I must have left a thousand times, but every day begins the same 'cause there's a small town in my mind. How can I leave without hurting every one that made me? How can I leave without hurting every one that made me? Oh, baby, baby, it's all about the moon. I wish you wouldn't have broke my camera 'cause we're gonna get real old real soon. Today we're younger than we ever gonna be. Today we're younger than we ever gonna be. Whoo. Today we're younger than we ever gonna be.
(Singing) Stop, stop, what's the hurry? Come on, baby, don't you worry, worry. Everybody not so nice, nice. Everybody not so nice, nice. Stop, stop, what's the hurry? Come on baby, don't you worry, worry. Everybody not so nice, nice. Everybody not so nice, nice. Thought you ought to know by now, I thought you ought to know by now, everybody not so nice, nice, everybody not so nice, nice.
(Singing) Oh baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, it's all about the moon. I must have left a thousand times, but there's a small town in my mind. How can I leave without hurting every one that made me...
GROSS: That's "Small Town Moon" from Regina Spektor's latest album, "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats." You can hear a concert by her and see video of her performing one song on our website, freshair.npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Every year, tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world travel to an English village in West Yorkshire to visit the sites made famous in novels written by the Bronte sisters. Biographer Juliet Barker was the curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum for six years.
In 1994, Barker brought out a biography of the Bronte family. A revised version of that biography has just been published, and book critic Maureen Corrigan says that it's a monumental page-turner.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In the new, updated edition of her landmark biography, "The Brontes," Juliet Barker tells a sad story about Branwell, the infamous brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
In 1834, Branwell began to study painting under a man named William Robinson, a member of the prestigious Royal Academy of Art. These lessons came at great expense, but what neither young Branwell nor his cash-strapped minister father, Patrick, could have known was that Robinson was a poor teacher. In fact, he failed to show Branwell how to mix his pigments correctly, and so the paintings Branwell did execute faded rapidly.
Ironically, one of Branwell's clumsy efforts is now one of the most famous paintings in London's National Portrait Gallery. It's a portrait of his sisters, but because the badly mixed paint is becoming transparent with age, the delicate pencil sketches beneath, including Branwell's own face, which he'd rubbed out of the composition, are gradually re-emerging.
For roughly a century and a half, the Brontes have been the subject of biographies that, much like poor Branwell's painting, cover up more than they reveal. When Juliet Barker's monumental family biography of the Brontes was first published in 1994, it was as though a skilled restorer had come along to work on the group portrait, gently rubbing off the lurid colors of myth and gossip and revealing the bones of truth underneath.
Now Barker has updated the biography, which has become the standard Bronte biography, with new material. The footnotes alone in this new edition of "The Brontes" run to 136 pages. It's rare that I have occasion to say this, but taken collectively those footnotes are thrilling. Referencing sources as dry and diverse as the daily engagement diaries of obscure Bronte neighbors and ordinance survey maps, Barker attests to the fact that with steady scholarly detective work the truth of the past can slowly be approached.
Anyone with any interest in the Brontes already knows the tall tales, which were first served up in novelist Elizabeth Gaskell's 1857 "Life" of her by then deceased close friend, Charlotte Bronte.
Living together in the isolated parsonage at Haworth, the Brontes were characterized as a 19th-century version of the Addams Family. Patriarch Patrick was given to violent bouts of his Irish temper, randomly shooting pistols out of the parsonage window; Branwell was a drug-addled roue; Emily a kindly mystic; Anne the shrinking violet; and Charlotte the steady survivor.
Rather than stock characters out of Gothic melodrama, the Bronte children surface here as messy human beings, touched with genius, certainly, as well as mental illness, crippling shyness, and ultimately, given their early deaths, very bad luck.
Barker's own original approach as a biographer in 1994 was to regard the Brontes as a unit. As children, Branwell, Charlotte, Anne and Emily only had each others' company. Well into adulthood they crafted elaborate stories involving imaginary kingdoms called Gondal and Angria. Barker traces how those absorbing fantasies, as well as the siblings' intense interdependency, fueled the creation of "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights," and the other novels.
Barker also further redeems the reputation of Patrick Bronte, showing him to be a compassionate father and liberal-minded minister, and darkens our view of narcissistic Emily. Charlotte comes off as one of those tetchy authors better to read than to meet. As a teacher, she was prone to calling her pupils dolts and fat-headed.
But that icy impression of Charlotte is thawed somewhat later in this biography courtesy of a charming new letter that's been discovered. Writing in 1854 to a friend, Charlotte confesses to being talked into a white wedding dress, which she describes as plain book muslin with a tuck or two. Also the white veil, being simply of tulle with little tucks. If I must make a fool of myself, the 38-year-old Charlotte wrote, it shall be on an economical plan.
A year later, Charlotte would be dead. The official cause was exhaustion during pregnancy. She joined her siblings, who'd all died before her of consumption. Barker's updated and enthralling biography of the Brontes carries us deeper into the everyday realities of their strange world and elicits sympathy for their father, who alone lived on to old age and to witness the transformation of his family history into the stuff of lurid legend.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Brontes" by Juliet Barker. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download Podcasts of our show.
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