review by Ro Bennett on recorded bookshow 6th June
Bernice Rubens (1929-2004) was born in Cardiff, Wales in July 1928. She began writing at the age of 35, when her children started nursery school., Madame Sousatzka is her second novel and was published in 1962,
The story deals with the relationship between a devoted, eccentric, autocratic piano teacher, the Madame Sousatzka of the title, and an aspiring young talented pianist, eleven year old Marcus Crominski. Madame Sousatzka specialises in child prodigies, and in order to help him become the musical genius she believes him to be, she insists he spends weekends being coached at her dilapidated London home where three other colourful characters also live - an ancient countess, a gay osteopath and a sweet and gentle girl who is a ‘woman of the evening’.
Madame Sousatzka is fiercely protective of Marcus and refuses to let him play in public until his debut.. The book shows Madame as a frustrated underperforming artist living through her more gifted student and reluctant to relinquish control of him. He must not be allowed to perform in public until he is ready. Unfortunately, Madame is never prepared to admit he is ready. This inevitably leads to conflict and Marcus also finds himself caught in an emotional tug-of-war between his mother and Madame Sousatzka.
The book is based on the experiences of Bernice Ruben’s brother, Harold Rubens, the child prodigy pianist. At the age of seven having, according to his sister, “exhausted all the local teachers”, Harold began traveling to London to study with Madame Maria Levinskaya. Born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1918, by the age of 10, Harold was winning prizes for piano and performing with, for example, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Madame Maria Levinskaya was to form the character of “Madame Souzatzka” in the novel which was made into a film in 1988 by John Schlesinger, with Shirley MacLaine in the leading role. In the film however the boy is called Manek, son of Bengali-speaking parents who have relocated from India to London. I don’t know why the film makers felt they had to make so many changes, the film was totally different to the book which I found irritating.