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À mon chevet: 'Never Mind'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

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After hanging Patrick from his ears and watching him escape from the library, David shrugged, sat down at the piano, and started to improvise a fugue. His rheumatic hands protested at every key he touched. A glass of pastis, like a trapped cloud, stood on top of the piano. His body ached all day long and the pain woke him at night every time he shifted position. Nightmares often woke him as well and made him whimper and scream so loudly that his insomnia overflowed into neighbouring bedrooms. His lungs, also, were shot away and when his asthma flared up he wheezed and rattled, his face swollen by the cortisone he used to appease his constricted chest. Gasping, he would pause at the top of the stairs, unable to speak, his eyes roaming over the ground, as if he were searching for the air he desperately needed.

At the age of fifteen his musical talent had attracted the interest of the great piano teacher Shapiro, who took on only one pupil at a time. Unfortunately, within a week, David had contracted rheumatic fever and spent the next six months in bed with hands too stiff and clumsy to practice on the piano. The illness wiped out his chance of becoming a serious pianist and, although pregnant with musical ideas, from then on he claimed to be bored by composition and those 'hordes of little tadpoles' one had to use to record music on paper. Instead, he had hordes of admirers who pleaded with him to play after dinner. They always clamored for the tune they had heard last time, which he could not remember, until they heard the one he played now, which he soon forgot. His compulsion to amuse others and the arrogance with which he displayed his talent combined to disperse the musical ideas he had once guarded so closely and secretly.

Even while he drank in the flattery he knew that underneath this flamboyant frittering away of his talent he had never overcome his reliance on pastiche, his fear of mediocrity, and the rankling suspicion that the first attack of fever was somehow self-induced. This insight was useless to him; to know the causes of his failure did not diminish the failure, but it did make his self-hatred a little more convoluted and a little more lucid than it would have been in a state of plain ignorance.

As the fugue developed, David attacked its main theme with frustrated repetitions, burying the initial melody under a mudslide of rumbling bass notes, and spoiling its progress with violent bursts of dissonance. At the piano he could sometimes abandon the ironic tactics which saturated his speech, and visitors whom he had bullied and teased to the point of exasperation found themselves moved by the piercing sadness of the music in the library. On the other hand, he could turn the piano on them like a machine gun and concentrate a hostility into his music that made them long for the more conventional unkindness of his conversation. Even then, his playing would haunt the people who most wanted to resist his influence.

David stopped playing abruptly and closed the lid over the keyboard. He took a gulp of pastis and started to massage his left palm with his right thumb. This massage made the pain a little worse, but gave him the same psychological pleasure as tearing at scabs, probing abscesses and mouth ulcers with his tongue, and fingering bruises.

-- Edward St. Aubyn, Never Mind, pp. 59-61
New Yorker critic James Wood put me on to the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn. I am still reading, but they are every bit as caustic and horrifying as Wood described them, a portrait of the vicious underbelly of the moneyed and landed class idealized in Downton Abbey, for example. "Perhaps because [St. Aubyn] is much more of an aristocratic insider than Wilde or Waugh (the first St. Aubyn baronetcy was created in 1671), he retains no arriviste enamoredness of the upper classes he is supposedly satirizing," Wood puts it. "On the contrary, his fiction reads like a shriek of filial hatred; most of the posh English who people his novels are virulently repellent." Patrick Melrose's life, that is, is based at least in part on Edward St. Aubyn's, including the abusive and odious portrait of his father in David Melrose, who delights in tormenting his son and everyone else around him -- making his wife, who seems to relish the abuse, eat food off the ground like an animal. Naturally, as shown in the passage excerpted here, David is a failed classical musician.

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