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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 4, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Late Quartet, Ulysses Grant

It may be that the best thing I ever wrote was a short story called "Unaccompanied Sonata."

Early in my career, when this story about a tortured musician -- literally maimed because of his disobedience to the rules of a utopian society -- missed winning a Hugo award by a hair, I despaired of ever winning, because I didn't think I'd ever write anything that good again.

As far as I know, I haven't.

Because the main character is a composer and performer, the story speaks especially strongly to musicians, though of course music stands for any intense human enterprise.

Soon after it appeared in Omni magazine, it attracted a flurry of interest from people who wanted to make it into a movie.

I had option feelers from people associated with Mick Jagger, Steven Sondheim ... and even though each is, in his own area, an accomplished musician, I still had one fundamental question: Really? You think you can write this music?

Because there's a reason for making the character a musician -- I don't have to create his oh-so-brilliant work.

Even Ayn Rand, making Howard Roark an architect, had to describe his buildings, and alas, they are now very dated. Very Frank Lloyd Wright "modern."

With music, though, readers know that it can't really be recreated in fiction, merely referred to.

But in a movie, the music has to exist. When I tell you in the story that people come from thousands of miles to hear Christian Haroldsen's nature-based synth music, or from dozens of miles to hear him improvise jazz on a honky-tonk piano, or learn his folksongs and are moved by them, you can believe it.

In the movie, though, somebody has to compose that music, those songs; somebody has to perform it. And then you have to believe that people would respond that strongly to music that you have actually heard.

If the music composed for the film is not utterly brilliant, will you believe the rest of the story? Will you care? Will the movie even work?

The same is true (and more so) for my novel Songmaster. After those two pieces, I pretty much left music alone in my fiction. But these two works are the ones would-be filmmakers most often ask about. And my answer is always, "Tell me who's going to write the music, and then we'll talk."

This isn't the normal situation in filmmaking. The elements that make a movie's funding work are usually star, director, and/or writer, in that order.

But I don't care whom you cast as Christian Haroldsen in "Unaccompanied Sonata." If the music isn't breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly good, there is no movie.

So I wasn't optimistic when I was approached by a producer who was working with a writer/director named Yaron Zilberman. I gave my standard answer -- who's your composer? -- and was told that they wanted to talk to me, but first I should watch Zilberman's first fictional feature, A Late Quartet.

Ah. A musical theme. There's a perverse logic to the idea that somebody whose first feature was A Late Quartet should want his next to be Unaccompanied Sonata.

Knowing nothing at all about the movie, my wife and I sat down one evening, a couple of days before my phone meeting with the producer and the director, and watched A Late Quartet.

It was a 2012 independent film about which I had heard nothing. Which meant that nobody had picked it up as Oscar bait.

Yet in many ways it is head and shoulders better than anything on the Oscar ballot from last year. Not because there weren't some wonderful films on that ballot, including the winner. But because A Late Quartet is a breathtakingly powerful film.

If I tell you the storyline, it'll just sound like a soap opera about four musicians who have spent their adult lives performing as a string quartet together. Now they're preparing to perform for the last time, since one of them has Parkinson's disease and will never be able to play again at the level of competence his own musical sensibility requires.

My wife and I both know and care a great deal about music, having performed and conducted music all our adult lives. So I can't say whether this movie will be as compelling to non-musicians as it was to us.

Yet I believe it will. The relationships among them are human, and everyone can understand and care; the pursuit of perfection in performance is the maguffin, but it could as easily be sports or business, politics or war.

If it were war, this movie would be Patton; if it were sports, it would be The Natural; if it were business, it would be The Social Network.

The cast of this movie tells you a great deal about it. With a writer/director no one had heard of, these non-musician actors read the script and understood that this was going to be something extraordinary.

They worked obsessively to learn the fingering so that as you watch the movie, most of the time the actors themselves can be seen to play the notes you are hearing. This is far harder to bring off than the live singing in Les Miserables.

But that is technical; what really surprised me is that each of the actors gave the performance of their lives. Christopher Walken as the musician losing his art is moving and beautiful; this is far from the eccentric parts that have marked his career; you have to look all the way back to The Deer Hunter to see him with such personal depth and beauty.

I have occasionally liked Philip Seymour Hoffman; he always does a good job with the parts he plays, but mostly he is offered or chooses to play roles that I find repellant. Not in A Late Quartet; his character could have been pathetic, but because Hoffman plays his deep decency, he rises to the tragic.

I have never enjoyed a performance by Catherine Keener because she always plays cold, repellant characters. In this movie she burns with an inner fire that moved me.

Mark Ivanir, an actor I don't remember seeing (though I've seen movies he was in), plays the dominant character. Imagine having to rule the screen in scenes with Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman; he turned out to be up to the challenge.

The rest of the cast is also wonderful, including an extraordinary near-cameo by real-life cellist Nina Lee and a delightful turn by Wallace Shawn.

The experience of watching A Late Quartet left us breathless. We knew the movie wasn't for everyone; there are some scenes and some language that will make the experience unpleasant for certain people.

But for me, it was the best movie of 2012, though I didn't see it until the Oscars were over. It's available on DVD and as a download; if it sounds interesting to you, there's no reason not to see it now.

As you might guess, when I had my phone meeting with Yaron Zilberman and the producer who is trying to put together "Unaccompanied Sonata," I didn't even ask "Who's the composer?"

Because I knew, from watching A Late Quartet, that this is a writer-director who will not settle for anything less than excellence. Whatever the music is, it will be convincing; however the short story is expanded, it will stay true to the deep fable at its heart.

Most options don't lead to funded movies; few of them ever get made. But I hope I get to see the Zilberman version of "Unaccompanied Sonata." It is my best story, in the hands of the only director I know of who could possibly make it live as a visual and musical experience.


Around 1900, a sort of consensus emerged about Ulysses S. Grant. Southern politicians and Northern businessmen, determined to lay the bitterness of the Civil War to rest, settled on a view of Grant that diminished him and downplayed the issues that had divided the country.

In this new consensus, which has been followed by historians, textbook writers, and politicians who should have known better, the Civil War was about states' rights, not slavery, and Grant's administration was about nothing in particular, except that it was tainted with corruption.

Grant himself was a general who only won because the Union Army outnumbered and was better supplied than Lee's, and Grant was callous enough to burn up the lives of his soldiers like candlewax.

I know enough about the Civil War and about military leadership to recognize the stupidity of this view of Grant as a general. Every other Union commander had the same "inevitable" advantages -- outnumbering their Southern opponents, with inexhaustible supplies.

Yet only Grant had the boldness to use those advantages to overcome the advantages of the South -- fighting on home ground, with interior lines of communication and entrenched positions.

Those who say that any Union commander could have won must be answered with the obvious fact that in four years of war, a dozen commanders tried, but only Grant succeeded.

Even the achievements of other commanders in the endgame of the war -- Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas -- only succeeded because they had Grant above them, behind them, saying yes to the genius and vigor of Sherman and Sheridan, or prodding Thomas into action.

In fact, as I survey the whole history of warfare, what emerges very clearly is that the great war leaders are always men who act boldly. Yes, they prepare thoroughly, they train their men, they outthink their opponents. But what separates them from others who prepare, train, and think well is that the great commanders then act boldly and quickly.

There are those who are sure the great commanders of the Civil War were all southern -- Lee, Jackson, Forrest, Stuart. These were very good commanders it is true, but Forrest's only job was to be disruptive, not to win battles, and at key moments every one of the others faltered.

Jackson's disastrous failures came in the Seven Days around Richmond; Stuart's dash led him to fail Lee when he was needed most, at Gettysburg.

And Gettysburg was also the place where Lee's personal weakness was exposed, for he was counseled against Pickett's disastrous charge, and in the aftermath it was only Union General Meade's reluctance to act that allowed Lee to escape with his army intact.

On the offensive, Lee was a commander without a definable goal, and so he failed -- miserably, spectacularly, and unnecessarily.

But Grant did not fail; even massive setbacks did not faze him. Lee knew it; when Grant came on the scene, at last he was facing an opponent who could not be broken, and Lee's maneuvering was not for victory but for survival.

Grant was at his most brilliant in precisely the area where Lee was weakest: On the offensive, he never lost track of his goals and he never relented in the pursuit of them.

Oddly enough, however, it is not in dealing with Grant's military campaigns that H.W. Brands does his best work in his new biography The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.

I had just read Shelby Foote's massive Civil War history, and I grew up on Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac. Brands simply didn't have the pages to do Grant justice as a commander, though he gives a decent overview of Grant's military achievements.

There are times when it almost seems as if Brands finds Sherman more interesting than Grant, though the time spent on Sherman is not inappropriate, because the friendship and partnership between Grant and Sherman was a key component of the Union victory, and one of Grant's greatest strengths was his unsentimental and accurate assessment of the commanders who served over, beside, and under him.

Nevertheless, the real reward of reading The Man Who Saved the Union is in his depiction of Grant's presidency.

First, it's easy for us to forget that Ulysses Grant was the dominant man of his age. With Lincoln dead, it was Grant who emerged from the Civil War with even more public support, acclaim, and love Roosevelt after the Depression or Eisenhower after World War II.

And Grant's presidency was a heroic one -- for precisely the reasons that the coalition of Southern politicians and Northern businessmen wanted to erase from memory.

Grant had to deal with Southern racists' efforts to undo the results of the Civil War. He repeatedly sent in federal troops to put down what amounted to continuing rebellions.

The rebellions were not directed against federal troops; they were directed against helpless black citizens and against Republican voters and officeholders.

The lynchings of the Jim Crow era do not compare with the wholesale massacres committed by the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups.

Grant's determination to protect and defend the rights of American blacks began during the Civil War itself.

Grant had not been an Abolitionist; he had other things on his mind. He even married a woman from a slave-owning family.

But during the war, he saw very quickly that black soldiers fought every bit as well as white soldiers with similar training, and he welcomed them into his army.

When Confederates made it clear that they were going to slaughter defeated black Union soldiers rather than take them prisoner, Grant wrestled with ways to make his enemies treat these soldiers according to the rules of war.

Eventually he realized that retaliation didn't work; that what would save these soldiers was to not lose battles.

But because the black soldiers who were captured were not treated as prisoners of war, but were rather returned to slavery, Grant put a stop to the exchange of prisoners.

He even wrote a letter to Lee explaining that since the Confederacy was violating the prisoner-of-war status of a whole class of Union soldiers, Grant was no longer going to allow any Confederates to return home.

This decision is usually depicted as a ploy to force the Confederacy to keep feeding Union prisoners while not getting back Confederates who would then be returned to the front lines to fight.

Until this biography, I had never heard of Grant's having the motive of marking his anger at the Southern treatment of black soldiers.

During Grant's presidency, one of his constant themes -- indeed, the dominant project of his presidency -- was to enforce the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, protecting the civil rights of blacks in the South and the North.

After Grant, it was not until Lyndon Johnson that we had a President who even tried to match Grant's record on Civil Rights.

The fact that the Republican Party lost its soul after Grant does not change the fact that during his presidency, he made sure that the fight for Civil Rights was relentless.

Readers of this column know by now what a fan of Winston Churchill I am. Yet I found myself admiring and loving Grant to a similar degree -- though Grant was the opposite of Churchill in nearly every way.

Churchill was an aristocrat, Grant of very common origins. Churchill lived by his pen and his oratory, supporting himself with his high earnings from both; Grant hated public speaking and only took up his pen when he was dying of cancer, in the hope that his autobiography would make enough money to provide for his widow and pay off the debts that had resulted from having invested heavily in his son's partnership with a man who turned out to be a crook.

Churchill sought opportunities for personal heroics, and his life was ruled by his ambition. Grant had no particular ambition. He was something only Washington matched: a reluctant president.

Grant's determination led him to a victory in the Civil War that had eluded every other commander. And during his presidency, he bravely and effectively held the line on Civil Rights; he can hardly be blamed for his successors' abandonment of America's blacks.

As for the alleged "corruption" of his administration, the opposite is true. Corruption was uncovered only because Grant authorized and encouraged investigators to follow wherever the evidence led. And even with that, most of the "scandals" charged against him weren't in his administration; his administration caught the corruption of others.

Here is the real proof: Grant emerged from the White House with very little money. That's how scrupulously he avoided profiting from his office.

Compare him to Lyndon Johnson, whose only two jobs were schoolteacher and politician and yet who somehow managed to become a millionaire. Or Bill Clinton. Or Barack Obama. Somehow politics made them rich (oh, yeah; Hillary's cattle futures; sales of books Obama "wrote"). But not Grant.

Grant's only real financial success came when Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) stepped in at the end of Grant's life and became his publisher, giving him a far better deal through his subscription model of publication -- 75 percent of receipts -- than the immoral ten percent royalties that the standard publishers offered.

Yes, Mark Twain also made money from Grant's autobiography, but his steadfast support of Ulysses Grant during his last months of life make Twain a great man as well as a great writer, in my opinion.

Isn't it a shame that today, when Grant should be hailed as one of the great Civil Rights champions in American history, he is still ignored and treated as a second-rate president?

But that was certainly not the case in his own time. No living American was more famous and more beloved than Ulysses Grant. Had he actively sought it, he could have serve three or four terms as president.

And when he died, all of America mourned as we have never mourned for a president who did not die in office. Out of office, he was remembered and loved; and he deserved it.

Especially he was revered by black Americans; they knew that with Lincoln gone, he was their last and greatest friend.

The book is not a great biography; in fact, it's so short that one has to think of it as more of an extended biographical summary.

But it's a good summary of Grant's life and work, and a good reminder of a quintessentially American life that should serve as a model of both extraordinary achievement and genuine humility.

Grant was a good man and a great leader; we should not have forgotten him.

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