Among the many tributes Eugene Istomin received on his 75th birthday celebration, several referred to his passion for literature. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, wrote: “He is a modern humanist with a library that includes the elegant prose of the late Victorian, the great French and Russian epic novels, Homer and Plato, Kierkegaard and Freud, Mark Twain and Erle Stanley Gardner”. Henry Raimont reminded: “Remarkably, you have never confined your attention to music. You are a voracious reader with a refined taste for contemporary literature and art. Wendy and I will never forget the evening you dazzled our daughter Sarah, a budding writer, with your keen knowledge of the works of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Paul Bowles, and your collection of letters and first editions”.
Reading was for Istomin an inexhaustible pleasure. It was the necessary compensation for his frequent insomnia, increased by jet lag. One could not help wondering if he really tried to sleep, or if he was mainly looking for an excuse for pursuing his reading without objection!
In his reading, the desire to discover new horizons coexisted with a will to go as deeply as he could in the work of some writers or in domains with which he was already familiar. He had the same attitude in Music and Art. Istomin developed a particular interest in authors whose personality and ideas were different from his, and even in those conflicting with his ideals. He needed to understand the “other”, this person who does not think and act like him. His biggest fascinations were for two writers whose ideas he disapproved: Ezra Pound and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. This fascination was so intense that his library included about one hundred and fifty books by and about Pound.
Reading was for him a way to get to know humanity, the world, and God. His permanently awakened curiosity was directed to varied directions, where poetry, in English and in French, occupied an important place. Paying attention to contemporary literature (with a special fondness for Milan Kundera), he returned constantly to his best-loved writers, Flaubert, Proust, and above all Montaigne who brought him egotism, inner freedom, tolerance, open-minded skepticism, cult of friendship and loyalty.
Strangely enough, Istomin was not tempted to get in touch with writers, unlike painters. The only exception was Samuel Beckett, to whom he was introduced by his close friend Avigdor Arikha. Nevertheless, Istomin’s affection and admiration for Beckett were more for the person than for the writer whom, either way, was very secretive about his work.
Philosophy and sciences constituted a significant part of Istomin’s readings. He had no scientific education, but had always been fascinated by mathematical and physical theories. Ned Rorem remembered him immersed in the Principia Mathematica by Whitehead and Russell when he was still a teenager. Later, he embarked on treatises on nuclear physics or astronomy. He read them as if they were poetic evocations of the origin of the world. In Istomin, there was always a confrontation between a temptation of nihilism and an aspiration for a divine presence.
Istomin’s library reflected the tremendous diversity of his readings. It included more than eight thousand volumes. The University of Maryland, to which he bequeathed the collection, estimated its value at more than three million dollars. It contained nearly a thousand first editions, facsimile editions or manuscripts.
Istomin needed to live among his books and his works of art. He was a real bibliophile. He delighted in visiting a bookshop, in buying and possessing a book, even in touching the binding and the paper. Original editions were invaluable to him, books with a rich history, that had passed with care and attention from hands to hands over time. One of his greatest satisfactions as a book lover was his role as special advisor of William Jovanovitch, the president of HBJ. Among other projects, he supervised the facsimile reprinting of some original historic editions, including the complete works of Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy.
The quality of linguistic style was an essential component of pleasure for Istomin, regardless of the language. English and American literature held first place for him, followed closely by French literature. Russian was his native language, which he spoke before he learned English. The Russian people with whom he talked were often surprised, even amazed, by his easiness and finesse. He also liked to read Russian literature, but he felt he did not master the language enough to be able to make the most of the great prose and poetry. His knowledge of Italian (assimilated during his many tours in this country) and of Greek (a language he began to learn and that he would have loved to master) was not sufficient to allow him to read Dante and Plato in their original language. It was a frustration for him, even if he had got several translations of their works.
Istomin also had a remarkable ability for writing, finding the right tone, formula, or word. Marta often relied on his expertise for the touchiest texts she had to write when she managed the Kennedy Center and the Manhattan School of Music. He was also capable of doing this in French as demonstrated when he wrote the speech he had to pronounce when being awarded the Légion d’Honneur.
This love for languages led him to also learn slang and to take an interest in particular expressions, used only in certain regions, for example in the southern United States.
When he was weakened by illness and no longer able to read for long periods of time, Istomin listened to the complete recording of a few great books. He enjoyed hearing Flaubert’s Education sentimentale and his beloved Essais by Montaigne. They were, despite the span of three centuries, two uncompromising looks at the human condition, with a clear and elegant style, which goes directly to the essentials. The ideal of his entire life!