Bert vanC Bailey
Some reviewers have praised this book for the way its author, Benjamin Ivry, removes the fog surrounding Ravel's sexuality, apparently showing that he was gay. Yet when he is not being speculative Ivry makes his case either indirectly or by innuendo, never backing his views and quotations with references.
The biography's focus on Ravel's sex life means that all other matters scarcely get attention. Ravel's efforts to finish "Le Tombeau du Couperin" are raised, but its actual completion goes without remark. (99) When the music is considered, the focus generally fixes on those involved, rather than on the masterpiece itself, its sources of inspiration, its reception, etc. All we hear about is Marguerite Long's reluctance to play its difficult last movement. (90)
Like glossy magazines at supermarket checkouts, Ivry's claims tend to the scandalous and shaky end of the spectrum of factual. Beyond the lack of references, there's all too much character assassination. Take this, about Ravel's acquaintance Edmond Rostand, author of "Cyrano de Bergerac": he presumably "...lisped, minced, and limped his way through Paris society, resembling 'a fat woman dressed as a bellhop in a review [sic],' according to one observer." This, on p.103, fails to attribute the quotation to any book, letter or other source, and no further remark is made about the unnamed "observer." Ivry goes on: "Rostand's search for sex in public urinals ...shocked even Cocteau." (103f.) Again, no source to this astonishing claim is ever attributed. Just how, beyond insinuation, any of this about Rostand reflects on the composer is another matter entirely.
This book belongs alongside Charles Higham's books on Cary Grant (claiming he was gay), Errol Flynn (that he was a Nazi spy) and his double biography of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine (on the siblings' supposed mutual loathing). These were best-selling muckrakers that still weigh down valuable library shelf space despite having since been discredited by research and the outraged testimony of those who knew better. Higham's reliability is thoroughly debunked in Tony Thomas's book Errol Flynn: The Spy Who Never Was [see my review]. Thomas compares texts Higham cited to support his claims with passages from the real, recently-declassified documents he claimed to cite. The differences are a remarkable lesson in the dangers of dishonest journalism, especially if penned by an engaging writer.
Yet for all of Ivry's woeful scholarship, few authors are as shameless as Higham. In fact, this book does provide value with some interesting things about Ravel's life that may interest lovers of his music. This includes tidbits such as his attraction to cabaret music, his enthusiasm for some popular crooners, and just who among his pals had the best record collections. (108f.) Much is made of Maurice's strong bonds with his mother, yet it is parlayed mostly to support the book's overarching thesis, so is maybe best noted as a reference point for further reading--preferably, of well-referenced books! This one by Ivry will also not fail those who are after a feel for the times in France and some circumstances in the life of this composer and some of his associates.
Although it is far from established in this book, Ravel may, in fact, have been gay. The back cover claims that "Ivry offers here a convincing solution to the much-discussed `mystery' of Ravel's sexuality." This is publicity, and should be treated as such. Ivry's conjectural leaps fly much too far to shed light on the matter, defeating any sense of gravity about this dimension in the life of one of the most enchanting composers ever.
In any case, let's also not overlook that Ravel's sexuality has about as much bearing on his art as his favourite breakfast menu, or the colour of his eyes.