Friday 15 December 2017

Prodigy's tale comes with strings attached

Memoir: Gone, Min Kym, Viking, hdbk, 256 pages, €14.99

Sour note: Korean virtuoso Kym's violin was stolen in 2010
Sour note: Korean virtuoso Kym's violin was stolen in 2010
Gone by Min Kym

Ivan Hewett on the over-heated memoir of a violin virtuoso knocked by the theft of her Stradivarius.

The "grief memoir", now in vogue, has gone through many permutations, but this must be the first example of one in which the object of mourning is actually a violin. In 2010, Min Kym, a Korean virtuoso then in her mid-30s, took her eye off her Stradivarius (worth more than €1.4m) at London's Euston Station, distracted by her sandwich, her iPhone, her boyfriend Matt, and a quarrel about nothing much. Professional thieves took the violin without her noticing.

"I stare down, there is the floor and his cello, but it's gone. We jump up, we look, we stare, we gasp for the sheer shock of it, my heart racing, my head bewildered. Voices are shouting. They could be mine, they could be Matt's, but it's screaming in my head. It's gone! It's gone!"

It must have been a horrible moment, and at this point a purple patch in the prose is excusable. But she goes on in a way that is more than purple, and exhibits the essential strangeness of this very strange book: "Something is running out of me, something terrible, and there's a chasm yawning at my feet, without limit, and I'm teetering on its edge.

"I want to run back to the time when it was safe, when I was whole. For it's coming on me now that it's gone! It's gone! It's gone! But more than that... I've gone too." The conceit is that, with the loss of her violin, Kym ceased to exist herself. Gone, the title of her memoir, has a double meaning.

The effect on Kym was certainly catastrophic in the short term - for weeks at a time, she took to her bed, depressed. But she rallied around with the help of friends and her boyfriend. (He takes the rap for the loss of the violin and comes across in these pages as slyly manipulative, but as the book went on, I increasingly wanted to hear his side of the story.)

After three years, the hunt for the stolen Stradivarius bore fruit. In the meantime, Kym had claimed the insurance and bought a new violin - certainly inferior to the first, but still a fine and valuable instrument that many professional violinists would give their eye teeth for. But to buy back her Stradivarius, she had to pay back the insurers, and despite strenuous efforts to raise the funds, she couldn't. So, by the end of the book, the violin is truly gone, for a second time, and Kym has to face a life without it. All this would be quite a blow for anyone, but the first half of Gone explains why, for Kym, it was especially so.

Her early childhood was spent partly in England, partly in Korea, following in the wake of her father, an engineer, distant and often absent. She took up the violin at an English primary school, and immediately found that "the violin was not simply for me, it was me". Within two months, aged six, she had passed her grade four exam. Aged seven, she was admitted to the Purcell School in Hertfordshire, their youngest-ever student. She had become a child prodigy, which gave her a "peculiar sensation of feeling completely normal within yourself, but acutely aware that you are different".

When the family moved back to Korea for a few years when Kym was 11, she found the regimented, deeply traditional society alien. After a few violin lessons with a rigid disciplinarian who couldn't play herself and screamed at Kym whenever she made a mistake, she gave up. "I was resigned to fading into nothingness. Soon, I wouldn't exist at all."

When she returned to England with her mother and sister, her life as a prodigy resumed, its strange mix of privilege and loneliness now exacerbated by the sense that she was neither entirely Korean nor entirely English. Fear for the future haunted her "like a dragon sleeping across the mouth of a cave", she says in a metaphor that is typical of the book in being both melodramatic and not quite right.

She was drawn to a series of father figures. Towards the end, we discover that she became anorexic aged 14, at the Purcell School. "Everyone, but everyone, whether they knew it or not, was on anorexia's side, not mine." She only overcame it at 19, when she fell in love with "an unsuitable youth", five years older, who "only wanted me to be ordinary".

In short, Gone is as much about cultural displacement and the strangeness of being a prodigy as it is about loss. This ought to be rich material for a memoir, but Kym hasn't the self-awareness to use it well. Every event and small mishap is recounted at maximum intensity, in short, breathless sentences, often repeated like an incantation. She constantly refers to herself in the third person: "Min the Korean doll" or, after the theft, "Min the fast-emptying one". And, over and over again, "Min the violinist", "Min the prodigy".

There's a revealing moment when she describes a visit to Bologna aged 12 for a competition. She goes for a walk in the park and picks up a pine cone. That night, she wins the competition, propelling herself on to the international circuit. Next morning, she notices that the pine cone has become "more open. Just like me".

Things in Kym's world - and, one suspects, the people, too - seem only to exist in relation to her. Most significant of these things is, of course, the Stradivarius itself, which by the end of the book is no longer hers, but which she persists in thinking has some essential connection to her. She thinks it ought to be called the "Kym Stradivarius", in the tradition of naming great violins after their owners - forgetting that it must have had many owners in its lifetime. She nurtures a strange fantasy that "when it is played again, out in the open, on stage, in front of an audience, it will remember me. It will open its heart and remember me".

This is the jilted lover, hoping the ex will come to his or her senses, and one's sympathy for Kym's loss has to be mixed with a certain exasperation. Even her reduced state is one that many musicians would envy. She has her replacement violin, made by Stradivarius's teacher, Amati. She has the apartment she bought from her earnings, a circle of devoted friends and family, and her talent.

Yet there's an obsessive self-pity to her book that is not the inevitable result of being a prodigy; compare Soundscapes, the recent memoir of the violinist Paul Robertson. He suffered far worse hardships, but managed to look on them with wit and detachment - two qualities that this airless, overheated book sorely needs.

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