The Piano Man

Writing about erotic love is hard.  One has to navigate so many obstacles: romantic clichés, pornography, cynicism, and the desire to sing Barry Manilow lyrics.  Writing about ghost lovers is even harder.   Is it possible for an author of realistic literary fiction to write about a character who believes herself to be in a romantic relationship with a dead man—and to do so without mocking the character?   Louise Erdrich does so in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001).

erdrich_hs

The main character of The Last Report is Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest who serves the Ojibwe Indians on a North Dakota reservation named Little No Horse.  He has tended them faithfully for many decades and has earned their trust.  One thing his flock does not know about him, however, is that he is actually a woman named Agnes (a.k.a. Sister Cecilia). (I am not giving anything away here.  Readers know this from the beginning of the novel.)  Agnes has had a few romantic relationships in her life.  Perhaps the most passionate of them was with the spirit of Frederic Chopin.

The Last Report is a long and complex novel with many disparate strands.  Agnes’ erotic relationship to a dead composer is just one thread of this intoxicating book.  It is a strand I found compelling, though–maybe because I am learning to play the piano myself, or maybe because I find it easy to become deeply attached to a beloved author.  (I may have had an erotic dream about Chaucer when I was younger.)

As a very young woman, Agnes DeWitt becomes a nun and is called Sister Cecilia.  She takes her vows seriously and considers herself married to God.  God has some competition, though.  Her true love is music:

“She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be concentrated in her being—which was half music, half divine light, only flesh to the degree she could not admit otherwise.  At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling sound.”  (14)

Agnes empties her whole soul into her piano, especially when she plays Chopin.  It was “as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascade of notes” (14).    Put simply, “Chopin’s spirit became her lover.  His flats caressed her.  His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles.  His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue.   His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane” (15).

Her relationship with Chopin is so real to her that she feels guilty about it.  After Agnes leaves the convent and receives a marriage proposal from Berndt Vogel, she tells him “that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself soul to soul with Christ, but she had already been unfaithful—her phantom lover the Polish composer—thus already living out too grievous a destiny to become a bride” (17).  Chopin, through his music, has become more real to her than anything else in her life.

To be clear, Agnes is not psychotic.  She is not pathetic.  She has simply realized that piano music is where she can best express the essence of herself.  In a very real sense, she finds herself in communion with Chopin through the music he composed a century earlier.   When she plays his music, he comes alive for her:

“There was the scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere.  The silk of his heavy, brown hair.  A man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat.  His voice, she heard it, avid and light.  It was as though the composer himself had entered the room.  Who knows?  Surely there was no more desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s.  Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the grave.  At any rate, she played Chopin” (16).

chopin
Frederic Chopin

Because she is able to summon him through his music, Chopin the man exists as a real lover for Agnes, one who provides erotic satisfaction.  Berndt Vogel realizes this truth about Agnes as he watches her play: “and as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed Berndt had just watched the woman he loved [Agnes] make love to a dead man” (22).

I find Louise Erdrich an astonishing writer for many reasons.  One of them is her abililty to convey how the unseen world—be it the world of the spirit or the world of the imagination —is for some people more vivid and meaningful than the so-called “real world.”   I wish I could tell you in Three Easy Steps how Erdrich does it so well.  Certainly she relies on sensory detail and a varied sentence structure.  Mostly, though, I think it is her openness to the possibilities of the world.  She refuses to reduce the world to simple categories of real/not real, physical/not physical.  She sees fullness where others might see lack, magic where others see drabness.   If you have not read her books before, I recommend that you do.

 

 

Literary Pairings: Ng and Grenville

I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.

celeste ng
Celeste Ng

We learn from the first sentence of Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You that Lydia, the beloved teenage daughter of Marilyn and James, is dead.  We do not, however, know how or why she died.  In order to understand what caused her death, we need to discover not only Lydia’s history, but also the history of her parents—and grandparents, too, for that matter.  As much as we Americans might like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals who create our own identities, our own lives, Ng reminds us that it is not so easy to escape our family histories.  That is true even if we are not aware of them.

Everything+I+Never+Told+You+-+Celeste+Ng

Lydia’s father James Lee is the son of impoverished Chinese immigrants who toiled ceaselessly to provide a good education for their son.  Their efforts pay off and James earns a Harvard Ph.D. in American history.  His academic success, however, is overshadowed by his lifelong feelings of isolation; he can never escape his feelings of inadequacy at being friendless, at never fitting in.  Because of these feelings, he desperately wants his children to be popular and feels personally stung when he notes their lack of social acceptance.

Lydia’s mother Marilyn has different yearnings.  She is a lovely, blond, white woman who blends into her landscape seamlessly.  She does not want to blend in, though.  She grew up in the 1950s, when women were bred to be cheerful homemakers.  (The present-day of this novel is set in 1977.) To make matters worse for Marilyn, her mother was a home economics teacher who thought Betty Crocker was a goddess.  Lydia, however, was a brainy woman with scientific leanings.  She fervently wanted to be a medical doctor and was on track to becoming one.  Her plans changed, though, when she became pregnant her junior year of college and dropped out to marry James and raise their children.  As Lydia became older, Marilyn funneled all of her frustrated ambitions into Lydia, determined that Lydia would have the medical career she was unable to achieve herself.

Ng’s portrayal of the mostly pain these characters carry in their hearts is touching and sad.  What makes the pain even worse (from my perspective) is that they remain unspoken.  It seems that Marilyn is unaware of her husband’s profound sense of isolation and intense yearning to fit in.  Conversely, James seems unaware of how unhappy Marilyn is to be living as a housewife instead of as a doctor.  These misunderstandings baffle me to a certain extent.  Do these two people never talk to each other?

It seems significant that Ng chose to set this novel in the late 1970s instead of the present day.  I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.  Does that mean the family would be happier overall?  Or would there just be different problems?

The conflicting desires of husband and wife remind me a little bit of the married couple William and Sal Thornhill of The Secret River.  (Click here to see my previous post about it.)  The Secret River is set in the late 1700s, when England sent convicts to what is now the country of Australia.  William was one of those convicts sent to Australia and was accompanied by his wife Sal and their children.  Sal wanted to get out of Australia and back to England as soon as they possibly could and let William know that in no uncertain terms.  He agreed that they would go back in five years.  Sal literally counted off the days until their return.

In the meantime, though, William fell in love with a piece of land and saw in it the beginning of a new future for his family, one in which he could hold his head up high in society, rather than being held down by his class status.  He never wanted to return to England and secretly hoped that Sal would change her mind.  Although Sal was clear on her desires, William was more circumspect about his hopes that she would change her mind.  In the end, William got his way, and the family stayed in Australia.  Sal became resigned to her fate, but I’m not sure how happy she was about it.  I know that Grenville wrote a sequel to The Secret River, but I haven’t read it yet.  I am curious to find out the longer-term repercussions of these basic conflicts between these two strong individuals.

Overall, I loved both of these novels and recommend both of them.

Do you think the problems faced by James and Marilyn are relics of the past?  Or is this story just as likely to occur today? 

What should a couple do when the two people have such strongly divergent basic desires, such as where to live?

For more information on Celeste Ng, click here.

For more information on Kate Grenville, click here.

This is my 1960-1979 entry in my When Are You Reading? challenge.

 

 

Theo Decker Needs Cheryl Strayed

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

 I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Although the novel was published in 1992, I didn’t read it until a year or two ago.  I found it riveting, and I mentally kicked myself for not having read it earlier.  So, I was excited to read Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, who is 13 years old at the beginning of the novel.  He and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, admiring the Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch,” when bombs (planted by terrorists) exploded in the museum. Theo’s mother was killed, but Theo survived.  In the ensuing chaos, Theo grabbed “The Goldfinch” and took it home with him.  He remained obsessed with his stolen possession for the rest of the novel.  To Theo, the painting was more than a priceless masterpiece.  It represented not only his lost mother, but also the very idea of beauty, of transcendence—of beauty that transcends the grim reality of everyday existence.

The idea of this story sounds compelling, and many parts of the novel ARE compelling However, I have to admit that I found large chunks of the novel rather underwhelming.  I found the first section of the novel, when Theo lost his mother and then was taken into a wealthy friend’s home appropriately disorienting.  I felt lost, numb and emotionally adrift along with Theo as he tried to adjust to a world without his mother, a world without meaning.  Theo then moved to Las Vegas to be with his father and his father’s girlfriend.  This Las Vegas section may have been my favorite section.  I thought Tartt’s portrayal of the 21st century American West as the American nightmare was brilliant, as was her creation of the Russian character Boris, the waif–thug with a deep streak of alcohol-enhanced sentimentality.

After Theo moves back to New York, however (about half way through the 771 pages), the story loses steam for me. Theo grows up to be an adult, but is still stuck in the same numb haze he was in at age 13.  He sleepwalks through life in a haze of drugs, white-collar crime, and unrequited love.  I understand that Tartt is portraying someone who is traumatized, that his sleepwalking through life is part of her point.  But still, how many hundreds of pages can a reader want to spend with someone who is this numb?

The Goldfinch could have benefited from some serious editing.  Tartt could have cut out 300 or more pages without losing anything of importance.

Better yet, I think Theo Decker should have met up with Cheryl Strayed and gone for a hike with  her. (See my previous post on Cheryl Strayed here.)  Both Theo and Cheryl were traumatized by the untimely loss of their mother.  They were both on a downward spiral and needed something to save them.  Strayed went on a 1000 mile hike in California.  Theo took a lot of drugs and stole money from people (in a complicated, high-end kind of way).  Strayed’s plan seemed to work better.

If Tartt had come to me for advice (which for some reason she never did), I would have told her to cut out the return-to-New-York section.  Instead of leaving Las Vegas to go east, Theo should sell “The Goldfinch” and use the proceeds to buy some hiking boots and backpacking gear. He should travel slightly west to the Pacific Crest Trail, where he could meet up with Strayed.  They could hike together briefly, at least long enough to have some hot sex on a rock. After the sex is over, a goldfinch would appear on the rock.  It would land there just long enough to look at them meaningfully and sing a plaintive, yet healing song.

The Goldrinch by Fabritius
The Goldfinch by Fabritius

Thus would endeth The Goldfinch.

Blame it on Hong Kong: The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

 

“I’ve known girls like you for years.  You come over from England and don’t know what to do with yourselves.  You could be different.  You should take the opportunity to become something else.”  (55)

 

 The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee.  Viking, 2008

(quotations in this book are from the Barnes and Noble NOOK edition.)

 

Piano Teacher

 

What makes people who they are?  Is there one core self that remains immutable over time?  Or might there be several potential selves lying dormant, waiting for the opportunity to emerge?  What effect does place have on our identities, our conceptions of who we are?

Janice Y. K. Lee’s haunting 2008 novel The Piano Teacher explores these questions, among many others.  The novel is set in Hong Kong in two different periods:  the early 1940s, during the Japanese occupation, and the early 1950s, after the English are back in control of the colony.  The piano teacher of the title is Claire Pendleton, a newly married 28 year old English woman who has come to Hong Kong in the early 1950s with her husband, a man to whom she is not attracted.  She takes a job giving piano lessons to the child of Victor and Melody Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple.   Eventually, she meets the Chens’ English chauffeur, Will Truesdale, and begins an affair with him.

We learn that ten years earlier, Will Truesdale moved to Hong Kong and fell in love with Trudy Liang, a wealthy, beautiful, and charming Eurasian woman.  The novel switches back and forth in time, focusing on all three characters.  One of Lee’s major focuses is the effect of World War II and the brutal Japanese occupation on the characters.  While some characters show bravery and undying loyalty, many others descend into ugliness, into greed and betrayal.

While love and betrayal are perhaps the main themes of this novel, Lee simultaneously explores another issue:  that of the unstable self.   What happens to a person if they are unmoored from their home environment and everyone they know?   Claire Pendleton muses on this question throughout the novel and finds herself changing in ways she had never imagined possible.  She thinks at one point, “This is Hong Kong.  I am a woman, displaced.  A woman a world away from who I am supposed to be” (63).

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

When Claire first moves to Hong Kong, she is still unformed, having lived a sheltered life.  She does not like the person she has been up until this point.  She “wanted to be someone else.  The old Claire seemed provincial, ignorant” (37).   She senses that there is another Claire inside her, clamoring to come out, but this person was not able to emerge in the constraints of her English life.

“There had been times when Claire felt that she could become a different person.  She sensed it in herself, when someone made a comment at dinner, and she thought of the perfect, acerbic reply, or something even racy, and she felt her mouth opening, her lungs taking in air so that she could then push out the words, but they never came out.  She swallowed her thought, and the person she could have become sank down again, weighted by the Claire that was already too evident in the world.  She sensed it when she held a glass at a cocktail party and suddenly felt the urge to crush it in her hand.  She never did.  That hidden person had ballooned up and deflated so often, the elasticity of her possibility diminished over time.”

Transplanted to Hong Kong, though, her submerged self starts to grow, like a formerly stunted plant that thrives in the heat and humidity.

“But this was the thing:  she, herself, had changed in Hong Kong.  Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony.  Where the other Englishwomen looked as if they were about to wilt in the heat, she thrived, like a hothouse flower.”

The change goes much deeper than her looks.   Unmoored from her familiar surroundings, she does things she never dreamed she would, such as having an extramarital affair with Will. It was as if “her old English self, with its defenses and prejudices, was dissolving in the humid, fetid environment around her.”   She is strongly attracted to Will, and perhaps in love with him.  However, she knows at some level that the real love affair she is having is with her newly emerging self.

“He didn’t have an idea of what she should be like.  She was a new person—one who could have an affair, one who could be ribald, or sarcastic, or clever, and he was never surprised.  She was out of context with him.  She was a new person.  Sometimes she felt that she was more in love with that new person she could be, that this affair was an affair with a new Claire, and that Will was just the enabler.” (65)

The combined influence of Hong Kong and her affair with Will transform Claire profoundly by the end of the novel.   To be sure, she is more sophisticated and sure of herself.  More interesting, though, is the way the ridiculous prejudices and narrow view of the world she brought with her to Hong Kong have begun to disappear.  Her intellectual horizons and her view of world broaden immeasurably and she sees herself a thread in the larger web of humanity.

The Piano Teacher is about more than Claire’s transformation, of course.  For starters, Claire’s emerging self was brought about at least in part by Will, who had previously been transformed by his relationship with Trudy. Trudy, in turn, depended on Will to define herself in a way that was not self-destructive.  I know that I am not doing justice to the complexity of this novel in this brief discussion.  The main point I want to make here is that it seems to me that Janice Lee is emphasizing in this novel not only the malleability of our selves, of who we are, but also the way our identities are created through our relationships with others and with our environments.

In case it wasn’t clear, I loved this book and would highly recommend it.  The portrayal of the English people in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion was fascinating to me.  So, too, were the complicated characters and their relationships with each other.  Trudy Liang is a particularly interesting character.  If you decide to read the book, don’t give up if you find the beginning less than compelling.   The characters and themes at first seemed shallow to me, but the war reveals all of the complexity beneath the surface.

What do you think about the issue of the self?  Do you think you would be essentially the same person no matter what circumstances you find yourself in?  Or do we, as Janice Lee suggests, have a number of competing selves inside us, waiting for the right opportunity to emerge?

 

 

Hong Kong
Hong Kong