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October 18, 2013

Book Notes - Andrew Steinmetz "This Great Escape"

This Great Escape

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Though Andrew Steinmetz's This Great Escape is ostensibly a biography of actor Michael Paryla, this book is much more. Paryla's 57 seconds of screen time in 1963's The Great Escape offer insight into the making of that classic film, and Steinmetz also elegantly melds personal memoir into the fascinating life story of this actor.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Fascinating reading … elliptical and often intense … This book will appeal to readers who have seen The Great Escape, are interested in film history and/or acting, or have an interest in World War II and its effects on survivors."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes.


In his own words, here is Andrew Steinmetz's Book Notes music playlist for his book, This Great Escape:

I listen to music pretty much non-stop while writing. I'm a songwriter myself, having recorded four records in the late 1980s and early 90s, playing with Montreal bands Weather Permitting and Good Cookies. These days I listen to music as much to accompany my henpeck typing as to raise my spirits, and sometimes to drown out the internal voices that creep in now and then and tell me what I am writing is nonsense or crap, and I that should stop at once. The music, alas, often says otherwise. The music says ‘Lighten up'. The music says ‘Try this!' The music says ‘Don't worry nobody wins at this game'. The music says ‘Fuck it.' The music leads me off and brings me in close.

A bit of background: This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla is the record of my almost ten year obsession to tell the story of my second cousin, Michael Paryla, an actor with Jewish roots who had a bit part in the 1963 movie The Great Escape, alongside a star-studded cast that included Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Garner. The movie is based on a true story: the March 1944 escape of 76 POWS from an escape-proof POW camp in Germany called Stalag Luft III. Shortly after filming, Michael Paryla died in Hamburg of an overdose, a mixture of alcohol and barbiturates.

So, Michael Paryla: 57 seconds in the movie: seen by millions, never noticed, eclipsed by that Hollywood firmament of stars. And he was un-credited for the role.

I grew up knowing two things about him. One; that he played a Gestapo agent -- on the train -- in the movie. Two; that not long after appearing in the movie, he died from an overdose. As an adolescent, I was intrigued that someone in my family had been in a famous movie and that this someone had had a tragic end -- possibly his death was accidental, possibly it was a suicide – either way a tragedy. From the beginning, in my mind, I felt there was some kind of association between these two facts; that he had appeared in the movie; that he had died from an overdose. Perhaps my obsession with telling his story started after making the unconscious assumption that his death was caused by his part in the movie. His family was partly Jewish and had fled Nazi Germany and he goes ahead and plays a handsome blond Gestapo agent in a big movie, in order, maybe, to fast-track his career? Had he made some kind of Faustian decision, a deal with the devil, to play this Gestapo agent ... and then he couldn't live with himself?

"Different Trains. Part I, II, III." Composed by Steve Reich. Performed by Kronos Quartet & Pat Metheny. In a book concerned about an actor playing a Gestapo agent on a train in a famous movie, Different Trains was good accompaniment to process. I played the record all the time in the early days – that was about ten to eight years ago. The texture and motion of these pieces set me down on the tracks, so to speak, and got me moving.

"It Never Entered My Mind". Miles Davis Quintet. The first track on Workin' is lazy and melodic and is a nice way to wake up to the blank page and get started (I mean, get workin'). I played a lot of Miles Davis while writing the book. I'm not an aficionado, but I know what I like. There is an earthy texture to the composition and performance on Workin' (same for Kind of Blue). "So What" and " All Blues" deserve equal credit, for helping me tunnel through the darkness.

"I Won't Be Found." The Tallest Man on Earth. Somewhere along the line I began to identify pretty strongly with my subject, the figure of Michael Paryla. The more I found out about him, the more I came to feel this man was a mystery, and unknowable: not really German, not really Canadian, not really Jewish, a displaced person from birth, son of divorced parents, both actors, who overshadowed him, perhaps, for longer than was necessary or healthy. He was buried south of Munich. I went to his gravesite. There, I imagined him singing that line, "Hell, I wont be found."

"Blood Bank". Bon Iver. This song and most others by Bon Iver make me shiver. I listen to Bon Iver whenever I WANT TO FEEL. When Justin Vernon sings, ‘That secret that we know but we don't know how to tell' – I'm sorry, but it cuts very close. I found out tons about Michael Paryla while working on the book, but information is just information: sometimes you need a key, something emotional, that unlocks you and them, and let's you bring all that information and detail into a human focus.

"Nocturne #1 in B flat minor." Composed by F. Chopin and performed by D. Barenboim. I received my first cassette recording of Barenboim playing the Nocturnes when I turned fifteen. This has always been comfort music for me. The melancholia suits many parts of the book, especially perhaps the chapter called The Seagull, wherein friends of Michael from high school recount their memories of him, from their first impressions of him as a fourteen year old boy arriving in Northern Ontario from Germany in 1948, to the version which they had heard told about Michael's death in Hamburg in 1967.

"Gogol". Gonzales, from his record Solo Piano. Piano music like this embodies some kind of profound and true fusion between performer and instrument. I can swear you can hear the piano thinking its way through the emotional landscape of past experiences. I use music like this quite a lot to maintain a level of concentration and contemplative energy.

"Thinkin Bout You." Frank Ocean. Well, literally, the book is a record of my obsession of thinking about him, a distant cousin I never met. However melancholic, there is plenty of humor and playfulness in the book (I hope). Sometimes, you need to change gears, change the energy, float, mix things up, and Frank Ocean does that. I got a kick of thinking here is some music Michael Paryla would not have heard in his lifetime, but here I am listening to "Super Rich Kids" or "Pyramids" and writing about him, and probably this music is coloring my words somehow.

"Simple Song." The Shins. At one point, after coming near to the end of the book, after so many convoluted chapters, I decided I wanted to sum up the life of Michael Paryla in one straight-forward burst of prose. I wrote the chapter, and called it Simple Song. Later, I detonated it, and spred the fragments from those pages throughout the book. That one line in the song, it still gets me, and whenever I hear it now I think of Michael: ‘I know that things can really get tough, when you go it alone." On the other hand, the layered and crazy whizzing guitars during the verses, they crack me up every time I hear them.

"Drive By" The Necks. One hour and seventeen seconds. I'd put this on at the end of a work day and slide into a trance. This track says ‘Keep moving, an hour longer'. It puts to sleep voices of self-criticism, in favor of the detached but aware self that you take on a road trip.

"The Great Escape." Patrick Watson. An eerie, delicate song from a songwriter from Montreal, my birth city and the city where Michael Paryla lived in 1956. During his time at McGill University, Michael landed his first theatre role, playing the part Trepliov in Chekhov's The Seagull. At the end of the play, Trepliov commits suicide. In the book, I wonder aloud if Michael's death from a mixture of barbiturates and alcohol can be seen not as a deliberate attempt to end his life, but as an attempt to escape his life. And I question, whether there is legitimate difference? Escape has many meanings and takes different forms, but this song captures something fundamental about that desire most of us alive people have to sometimes drastically or subtly change ourselves or our reality, for better or worse.


Andrew Steinmetz and This Great Escape links:

the author's blog
excerpt from the book

Library Journal review
Ottawa Citizen review
Publishers Weekly review
Toronto Star review

CBC Books interview with the author
Open Book Toronto interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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