Beethoven's Mask

Winter 2005 CSANews Issue 57  |  Posted date : May 25, 2007.Back to list

George Jonas's brilliant memoir, Beethoven's Mask, is more a dazzling kaleidoscope of the period between 1935 and 2001 than a formal chronological autobiography. It's subtitled, "Notes on My Life and Times." In this book, Jonas literally flits from humorous anecdotes and wise parables to pedagogical essays on the rise and fall of nations.

Jonas has made his home in Canada since 1956, but he was born into a cultured, upper-class Hungarian family. With that rich heritage, he writes with the detached view of the erudite European.

Canada was not actually Jonas's first choice when he fled from Hungary as a young freedom fighter. He chose America, but the queues were too long for the U. S. and non-existent for Canada, so he chose Canada.

In his first Canadian job at Toronto's Granite Club, Jonas's duty was "to wait for members at the main entrance, then take their cars and park them in the club's garage." What he was really accomplishing, though, was a mastery of the English language, aided by his boss, a Scottish devolutionist, and his co-workers, talkative Irish drivers.

One of the Granite Club members, confused by his accent, dubbed him the Martian – the ultimate outsider. It's amazing and ironic that this young Hungarian freedom fighter became one of the best English writers in Canada. Jonas now communicates with the lucent prose and bemused eye of an outsider.

In a self-deprecating way, Jonas describes himself as a "professional butterfly" or "Jack of all trades, master of none." Granted, he has flitted from medium to medium. He has been not only a poet and novelist (14 published books), but he has also written, produced and published more than 200 docudramas for the CBC, for both radio and television. Jonas has won prestigious awards in all categories, so he can't exactly be considered a dilettante.

Born in 1935 to a non-observant Jewish family, Jonas spent the first 10 years of his life in Nazi-occupied Europe. He had led a sheltered life, but he realizes that he and his immediate family survived the war by hiding. It helped to have a cousin who could forge clever, new identification documents. His appearance was also an asset. A gentile friend approvingly concluded that, "George could never be taken for a Jew...he looks like a heifer" (a gentile).

While Jonas's book is rich with family lore, he shares very little of his own personal romantic life. Of his first wife, Sylvia, we learn only that they married in New York during a hurricane. There is no indication of when, or how long the marriage lasted. It's only later in the book that he writes reflectively about their son, Alex. Sylvia had been married previously to a Manhattan doctor and when they separated, she explained to a reporter, "Marry a gynecologist, and you'll appreciate poetry. If you want to appreciate money, marry a poet."

Jonas has been with his third wife, Maya, for almost 20 years. We learn little about Maya except a tender story of how Jonas's mother loved his "little China doll."

There are significantly more stories of Barbara Amiel, George's second wife. Jonas met her when he started his association with the CBC. The marriage lasted for only five years. Their natures were "all too similar." However, the friendship with Lady Black remains close.

Tales of Jonas's CBC years are wonderful, and very relevant in these days of corporate lockout. His views on CBC executives: "Being mindless and pompous at the same time was a challenge, but CBC programmers responded admirably." Mind you, Jonas admits that he reacted, "like a White Russian nobleman in exile," communicating with the nouveau riche. The wonder was that this tumultuous relationship lasted for 35 years before the CBC ended it.

Politically, Jonas considers himself a classical liberal, a creed that he says is inaccurately labelled as neo-conservatism. Personally, he describes himself as a "true cosmopolitan – not exactly antisocial, not exactly friendless...only profoundly alien – a Martian".

Jonas describes the vicious 9/11 attack in New York, with people of the Arab world dancing in the street after watching news clips of airliners slamming into the Twin Towers. It seems simplistic, but Jonas asserts that the big terrorist problem is, "people who think that it is all right to blow up people they dislike." He recognizes that while it's impossible to teach people not to be prejudiced, it is possible to teach them not to murder.

Beethoven's Mask is a thought-provoking book.