I FIRST HEARD ABOUT Catholic writer Paul Elie’s new book in October 2008, moments before he took the stage at Fordham University for a panel discussion about Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell’s time together at the Yaddo artists’ colony. He’d invited me, knowing I’d enjoy the discussion. O’Connor had been a subject of Elie’s first book, which I very much admired, a group portrait of mid-century America’s most significant Catholic writers; O’Connor’s 1955 story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” had provided Elie his title for that book, which was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize in 2003.
We had first met years before, when, as an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, he turned down my first book, in which I out myself as a “Catholic atheist.” Nevertheless, he was kind enough to introduce me to an editor at Harper’s who ran an excerpt from that book just in time for Christmas 2005 under the title “All That I Have Is Yours: The Scars of a Christian Inheritance.” When, a few years on, I was ready with some new project for him to consider — also a memoir, also about Christianity — Elie summoned me back to his office for what he called a “pastoral visit.” While he had no intention whatsoever of buying what I was selling, he actually seemed concerned about my continuing atheism, if not the state of my soul. He also suggested I might begin writing about something other than myself.
In the time between that pastoral visit and the Fordham panel, Elie had done some excellent writing for The Atlantic, including a long, insidery piece chronicling the accession of longtime Vatican insider Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI; and an essay endeavoring to make sense of a bizarre revival during the mid-aughts — with “the ‘war on terror’ sputtering into its fifth year” — of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous father of his friend and colleague Elizabeth Sifton. (Elie also used the opportunity of the Niebuhr essay, published in November 2007, to conclude that the war “as fought — in the misbegotten hope that Iraq, with its fractious history, could be remade in our image — has been lost.”) So when I asked that fall evening what he was working on, Elie surprised me with news that he was writing a book about Johann Sebastian Bach and his interpreters — a subject not exactly of a piece, I thought, with his other offerings over the past decade, which had placed the religious and political dramas of our own day front and center.
Reinventing Bach is that new book; it was released in September. (Ever the pastor, Elie inscribed my copy: “For Scott, Christ-haunted fellow traveler.”) Like his first book, this one is a group portrait, of Bach and several modern interpreters of his compositions, including Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Others make appearances, but these five are Elie’s main characters.) They live, and one by one, all but Ma die; in every case, the subsequent pages and remaining lives of the book are all haunted by the artists whose stories Elie has brought together. (This is also a feature of The Life You Save May Be Your...read more