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Bartók’s Monster


More than anything he looked like a man grimly in need of a transfusion. Béla Bartók had the pallor of a garlic clove. A wan, sometimes acrid personality to match. As obsessed as he was with tempo, you could have spent half an afternoon frisking his skinny little frame before you found a pulse. One of his closest friends would describe his voice as “gray and monotonous,” though he didn’t really have friends. His colleagues at the Academy of Music, in Budapest, found him bland: one of those almost offensively mild persons. He was sullen, puritanical, anemic, timid, like some mute and slippered monk shuffling the catacombs.

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is the author, most recently, of Kingdom Under Glass (Picador). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Shining Path,” appeared in the June 2013 issue.

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