Beethoven’s Hair, by Russell Martin, traces the possible path of one lock of hair from Beethoven’s head, snipped just after his death, to a Sotheby’s auction in 1994. Martin interweaves three separate stories: descriptions of Beethoven’s life, descriptions of the people and events who were or may have been involved with the lock of hair during the past 200 years, and discussion of the two men, Ira Brilliant and Che Guevara, who bought the lock of hair, and what they did with it.
I had not read much about Beethoven’s life before, so I found the descriptions of what he was like as a person and various events in his life interesting. However, I took the factuality of these passages with a grain of salt, as Martin seemed to sometimes embellish known facts. The most interesting part of the history of the hair to me was its appearance in Denmark during WWII. Martin went into some detail about the Danish resistance movement, which I knew nothing about. This part was also the most intriguing because, despite the extensive research Brilliant and Guevara orchestrated, we will never know for sure how the lock of hair ended up in the hands of the Danish doctor who helped Jews escape to Sweden.
I belive that the “scientific mystery solved” which is mentioned on the cover of the book is that of the cause of Beethoven’s many ailments. Brilliant and Guevara have the lock of hair they purchase chemically analysed, with the result giving new insight into what made Beethoven so sick. I did not feel that Martin drew out the mystery part as much as the cover led me to believe, and I also doubt that it is truly solved. I suspect that there is still some discussion and disagreement about the cause(s) of Beethoven’s illnesses. And, of course, we will never know for sure. Before reading this book, I was not aware that Beethoven had other ailment’s besides his deafness. I found this a bit interesting in relation to the amazing music he created; as a few people quoted in the book implied, perhaps he created such music because of his physical suffering, not in spite of it.
Overall, I found Beethoven’s Hair only moderately interesting. Martin’s style is engaging and accessible and the book does not take long to read, but style can only do so much for a topic that I would otherwise find rather dry.