By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 3, 2011
I spent much time on learning how to write, and subjected myself to a very tiresome training…to improve my style. But these efforts I abandoned when my plays began to be produced, and when I started to write again it was with a different aim. I no longer sought a jeweled prose and a rich texture…. I sought on the contrary plainness and simplicity. With so much that I wanted to say…I could not waste words, and I set out now with the notion of using only such as were necessary to make my meaning clear. I had no space for ornament.
That was Somerset Maugham, writing about his return to fiction after an unbroken run of hits in the theater. Clearly, his unadorned, story-first approach had some appeal --- he very quickly became the most popular, highest paid writer in the world. Granted, that was a century ago. Tastes change. But we still read Maupassant and Chekhov, his models, and we --- well, some of us --- still read Maugham.
I quote Maugham because I have just read Michèle Halberstadt’s novel, “The Pianist in the Dark,” which is true to his code and runs just 140 pages. It is all story --- not a wasted word. I cannot tell you how much enjoyment I took in that alone.
One of the reasons I review so few American novels is because they are like meals in restaurants outside of our major cities --- there’s too much on the plate. Unnecessary characters. Overwritten scenes. Adjectives for miles. More description of rooms than you find in Architectural Digest. I pick these novels up, I read a page, and suddenly all I want is to take a nap.
Sometimes I get agitated enough to write an editor or agent to offer my services --- for a modest fee, I’ll cut 75 pages out of a manuscript. And I make a guarantee: No reader will miss a word I cut. So far, no takers. I conclude that either publishers have identified a cadre of readers who like to get their money’s worth at the bookstore or that publishing really does have a death wish.
“The Pianist in the Dark” is a book that confirms my prejudice in favor of short books. It starts like this:
She doesn’t know the color of the sky or the shape of the clouds, doesn’t know the meaning of blue or red, of dark or pale. She lives in blackness.
There you have what Orwell called “prose like a windowpane.” Thirty words, and we’re in the world of a blind girl. We'll quickly learn that she’s not just any blind girl --- she’s Maria-Theresia von Paradis, she lives in Vienna, and she is the only child of the Imperial Secretary to the Empress. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Maria-Theresia played piano before she went blind. She was said to have been a child prodigy; now, at 17, she is a virtuoso, and the Empress has given her an annuity of 200 ducats. But her genius at the keyboard is eclipsed by the mystery that surrounds her. Something made her go blind overnight --- what was it? In fact, she knows. But she won’t say. Her reason:
She felt that being blind was the only power she had over them [her parents]. She was the object of their obsession, the subject of their confrontations, but without her, her blindness, they would have nothing to discuss. Her handicap freed her from her parents and at the same time enabled the three of them to remain a family.
The next chapter brings us Franz Anton Mesmer, low-born and ambitious, married to a rich woman, a friend of Mozart. He gives a concert on an instrument of glass bowls filled with water. Marie-Theresia attends. They meet. It turns out that he has had some success as a healer. He volunteers his services.
What can Mesmer offer a young, beautiful, virginal, talented blind woman? Sight? Acceptance as a woman? Love? A clear understanding of the way the world works?
These are the questions this novel asks. And one more: What’s the price of vision?
These are not small questions. Here, they are answered swiftly, dramatically, memorably. And in the hour it takes for you to be entertained, you can also be enlightened – there really was a woman named Maria-Theresia Paradis. She lived from 1759 to 1824, she was blind, was taken up by the Empress, did know Mozart, did take a cure with Mesmer. In her later years, she was known as a composer. How strange to read a story about her --- about her inner life, her private life --- and then hear this: