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The Pianist in the Dark

Michèle Halberstadt

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 03, 2011
Category: Fiction

“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.