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Novel's Main Character Has Four Strings And Lots Of Glamour


Elena Delbanco's first novel is called "The Silver Swan." The swan of the title is of 300-year-old cello, Stradivarius, made by the legendary Italian luthier - that's a word I don't think I've ever said before - a maker of stringed instruments is what a luthier is. The Silver Swan is an instrument precious for its history, its beauty and its beautiful sound. In the novel, the cello had been owned by Alexander Feldman, a concert superstar who has died at the age of 90. His daughter Mariana and a circle of characters who were close to Feldman now appear to revolve around the master's cello, the Silver Swan. Elena Delbanco joins us from our New York Bureau. Thank you very much for coming in.

ELENA DELBANCO: Thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, much of the plot of your book is centered on the Swan itself. It's a character in the novel. It has its own glamorous name and reputation. People love it. They want to have a relationship with it. What about that part of the story? Is that true to life?

DELBANCO: Well, it was true to my life. My father owned a very, very great Stradivarius. And the Stradivarius was really part of our family. It was a person in our life. It traveled with us. We had to be very careful about it. We understood that we were all asked to make a sacrifice to own it and that it was the love of my father's life.

WERTHEIMER: Now, your father was Bernard Greenhouse.


WERTHEIMER: Did you ever consider concertizing, which is another word I'm just looking for an opportunity to say?

DELBANCO: I studied the cello through college, and I really wanted to be a singer. But I did play the cello. I think my father was interested in having me play the cello. And I knew almost instantly that I didn't want to be a performer and have the life of a concert artist.

WERTHEIMER: A lot of the details of this novel, can we assume are autobiographical?

DELBANCO: The emotional content is very much autobiographical. And the portrait of artists and what it takes to be a musician insofar as I observed it is autobiographical. But the story itself, the plot is purely fiction.

WERTHEIMER: I want to just offer a very brief glimpse of what the fictional cellist in your book was like. The narrator of the book is his daughter Mariana. All of the characters in the book are people who basically are more related to him than to her.


WERTHEIMER: Could you just sort of set up this portion from the prologue and then read it to us?

DELBANCO: Yes. It's about when Mariana was a child, and she is practicing in her room. And she knows that her father is overhearing her. And sometimes when he's overhearing her, he calls out and he says you're flat or you're sharp. And he's very irascible. At this point in the book, he comes into her room where she's practicing to help her position her hand on the strings properly.

(Reading) She watches her father's long, strong fingers as he turns the wooden pegs. When he has fished tuning, he puts the gleaming Swan between her knees and kneels beside her on the carpet. He strokes her cheek. She is transfixed. All right, my angel, play, play beautifully for your Papa. He stands again. One day, we'll rent Carnegie Hall, and we'll choose the same date as my debut there in 1945. That happens to have been your birthday, he reminds her. Twenty-seven years later, you arrived on that exact date; a day I could never forget, he says, my debut. That is how I remember your birthday.

WERTHEIMER: Now, have you had to spend much time telling people like me that your own papa was nothing like this Papa Feldman?

DELBANCO: No. A lot of people that I know knew him and could perhaps make the distinctions. But there was a certain degree of truth to this. He was a brilliant, brilliant musician and a very self-involved man. So I feel that there's a certain emotional reality to his character that is much exaggerated, but maybe the kernel of truth at the center is not a graduated.

WERTHEIMER: Elena Delbanco. Her book is called "The Silver Swan." Thank you very much.

DELBANCO: Thank you so much, Linda. It's been a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 31, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous Web introduction to this story, we incorrectly referred to the author as Eleanor.