Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis

One piece of luck: I didn’t explain to the pianist how to play the piano, it was touch and go, I told myself later in the plane, it was a close-run thing, I could very well have done it, I’m perfectly capable, I know I’m capable of explaining the art of the well-tempered keyboard to a pianist as if I myself were a virtuoso. I don’t know anything about music, I’m sitting in front of a virtuoso pianist and explaining exactly how your fingers should rest on the keys, see what I’m capable of. I’m explaining to him how to do it, as if the virtuoso pianist were just waiting for me all along to show him the best way to go about it at last, as if he was going to be filled with wonder at all the little pianistic techniques that I would generously furnish him with so he could improve his playing and become even more virtuosic thanks to me. I truly am capable of leading a masterclass for a great pianist of worldwide renown. Of explaining (I can just see myself) how one ought to tackle the second movement of Beethoven’s Concerto in C major, for example, the opening attack, the crisp yet simultaneously resonant C chord and, in sweeping overview, on the generosity – I could hear myself in full flow – discoursing upon the generosity in Beethoven as if this were possible, and then upon the detail, a marginally lighter touch here, a little more colour there; I would quite have expected the pianist ultimately to modify his interpretation of the second movement and to follow these little tips freely given by me, who cannot play the piano and know nothing about Beethoven. A piece of luck I narrowly squeaked out of that.

Two days later, leaving the Kaiser Café where I had once again all but spelled out to the virtuoso pianist how to handle his piano, a stroke of luck that I’d stopped myself just in time, I uttered my notorious Ich habe zu viel gesprochen for it was true, I had said too much, so much too much that I had to proclaim this brand-new truth the very moment it occurred to me; my noble pianist: no, not at all, it’s quite all right, he sweetly replied, warmly replied, even though it wasn’t fine, not only not fine but catastrophic, so catastrophic as to be irreparable, besides I didn’t repair anything but on the contrary promptly went and dug myself in deeper: of course I had to interrupt again, when I had only just said Ich habe zu viel gesprochen, I didn’t pause and count to ten, not to ten nor to any lesser number, I didn’t count at all; I just had to go on and on in the underground car park when he, our poor pianist, was already and indeed for some time had been, broken, kaput, as they say, in fact just five minutes after stepping inside the Kaiser Café he’d already begun to yawn, ten minutes in was out of commission and quite kaput, and yet here we are in the underground car park and I’m picking on his car, I have to make some comment about his car being unworthy of a world-class pianist, as if all that I’d said before in the Kaiser Café hadn’t been appalling, about music in general and the pianist’s playing in particular even though I haven’t the first notion about music in general, and as for the pianist’s playing in particular here I go even now critiquing it from every angle, not only the music performed by the pianist but also that composed by the composer, the pianist being both pianist and composer, I am a pianist first and foremost and yet foremost and first of all I am a composer, the pianist said one day to all within earshot, indeed the pianist did have a talent for composing that not every pianist is blessed with – and the composer a pianistic virtuosity to which few composers may lay claim, both gifts united in a single person, in the perfect bodily and spiritual harmony that alone could justify the general and nevertheless exceptional title of musician; I am, above all a musician, the pianist said, it isn’t my profession but my condition, yet in spite of his condition I held back a mere hair’s breadth away from explaining to the pianist how to play the piano and to the composer how to compose. In the car park right now, I’m inspecting his vehicle, inside and out, the state of the bodywork, the ergonometry of the seats, I’ve estimated its resale value and underestimated all other values, sat in there ready to ride shotgun though minus the gun, broadcasting my observations about his car, unworthy as it was of a world-class pianist, it’s no good, however clearly I see it coming I always end up slagging off anyone and everyone precisely when tête à tête with a very particular someone, I brazenly sabotage all chance of a future as if I didn’t know that what’s said is said, retraction is out of the question, it is definitively too late.

It’s the same every time. Every time I vow I won’t let it happen again and every time it happens. If I was the pianist, I’m sure I would have got on my nerves, a girl who has just apologised for talking too much and then motormouths slap into another clanger: my car, to boot. You can’t know what kind of bond unites a driver and his car, impossible at first sighting to grasp the often complex and very personal rapport between driver and car; the nature of the car says something about its driver and the driver likewise about the car, any car salesman will recognise the highly sensitive nature of this complex relationship but I in my bulletproof girlhood, unsullied by all mechanical considerations and without regard for the mechanic’s expertise, boldly I attack, no quarter given, the subject of his car upon which it turns out that the pianist attaches immense importance to the old banger and loves it truly and feels that he and it are only whole when they’re together. He drives his car on ex-GDR roads, on these roads of the former republic that are still complete chaos, he crosses the still deeply sorrowful countryside, this once-upon-a-time republic still effectively lying fallow and as good as medieval, a pure pleasure, super-real elation, oh the deep, deep joy of the driver driving free, independent, wealthy with all the possibilities, why should he give a damn about notions of relativity and me telling him without the least respect for his perhaps terribly personal and intimate relationship with his dreadful old banger that God alone knows one can’t go round in a such an old rust-bucket when one is a pianist and a world-class one at that. He’s obliged to accept it, the appellation world-class pianist, simply forced to swallow the irony in that title and to face the fact that for me, Miss Bulletproof herself, knowing nothing of the dynamics of pleasure, a car like his must be the object of jocularity, even ridicule, while for him nothing of the sort, reigning Miss Immortal, I trample anti-commercial values without restraint and deny the possibility of any attachment so deep, so powerful, so authentic, to this car and no other, as to be practically in the pianist’s DNA, when the same pianist was just the other week driving this very banger (though world-class in his eyes) through the fields and copses of that erstwhile republic, heading for Neuhardenberg Castle, in other words, he was touring about the open country, joyously driving in the sub-sublime and frozen landscape of the Brandenburg backwoods, at the far edge of reunited Germany and a mere ten unlucky kilometres from Poland, a Brandenburg castle then a Prussian one then Nazi then Communist and then returned to its heirs and state-subsidised into a space of high unified German culture, the superbly restored castle of Neuhardenberg as described in the leaflet, the hallowed place to which the pianist was driving at the wheel of that altogether world-class car the company of which alone could make him whole, to see the exhibition ‘Music and the Third Reich’.

Invited to the private view, he was clean-shaven and his hair brushed but not over-brushed, the nonchalance of his hairstyle a style but nonetheless not an affectation, knowing as the pianist did the difference between style and affectation not only in the artistry of his playing, in particular, but also in his art of life, in general, the art of living with hair at ease and the art of playing with moderate pedal-usage, was driving on those still-chaotic roads and through the relatively medieval countryside, that smooth, masterful driving, not overusing the pedals, as the driver so the pianist, both gauging their pedalling just right, I gauge admirably the pianist was thinking traversing fields and woods, gauging away, driving towards the cultural castle, he was not going to the private view for private viewing but intending to see the show without ulterior motive, had heard about the exhibition long before receiving the invitation, had received the invitation but long before receiving it already decided to visit the Brandenburgian castle of Neuhardenberg, was regardless of the invitation au fait with the music of the Third Reich, had practically no expectations of the private view, expected neither primary nor secondary benefits, had never expected more of private views than that he would not linger over them but he did have expectations of the exhibition; from the private view of course he would gain nothing more than the grease of hands shaken and presentations on autopilot but from the exhibition something, an affirmation, why not even a discovery, had indeed discovered Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait, seen the majority of Schoenberg’s paintings, got to know the musician and also the painter. Most composers know nothing of Schoenberg’s approach to painting nor do most painters know much about his style of composition. The pianist had seen most of the self-portraits, yet had never before seen the Blue Self-Portrait, so stopped before that blue, felt the anxiety and chill, the awareness of time and negative space folding into itself, sought some affirmation that he knew would be pointless, bent over the case that held Schoenberg’s letter. He had peered at the letter and read it three or four times from the bottom up, starting with the signature which he knew and recognised, it was a humdrum letter to the Reich’s culture minister, Schoenberg pleading with the culture minister to recognise his music’s value to the nation, imploring one last time but too late, had in reality already said fuck off to the Nazis, fuck off face-to-face, Scheisse! Schoenberg’s face versus the Nazis’ face – that Schoenberg had balls the pianist reflected as indeed he did every time he thought about Schoenberg, thought to himself while standing there facing the Blue Self-Portrait, to have balls or not to have them, the blue’s affront to the radiant sky and its chortling countryside, Scheisse to the Nazis long before they were marching through Munich. Look at that look, thought the pianist, anti-Nazi the look and anti-Nazi the portrait’s blue, Schoenberg’s expression promised nothing positive for the art of the future, conveyed an anxiety for the future, looked far beyond any definition of the work of art or of the future; the pianist weighed Schoenberg’s solitude and Schoenberg’s solitary conscience flaunted in advance: an insult to the national-socialist ethic, and it was with the pure, burning joy of having deepened his conscience, as pianist both composer and musician, thanks to this proof of Schoenberg’s courage as a painter displayed in the Neuhardenberg castle, that the pianist got in his car and drove back to Berlin, his heart punching his ribs, that he found, perhaps precisely in his own little car, puttering along the zoned-out roads of the Brandenburg countryside, a sparkling new, completely original and perfectly formed line of music, shaping there at the wheel and in anticipation the perfection of man in his time and man in the idea. The idea is indeed beautiful but it’s nothing without time and time is nothing without the idea; as a musician he had a sense of time as tempo, driving around in the pre-Polish countryside, the sense of this musical idea in time, dazzled by his insight, perceived the limits of his idea outside time, had to stop the car in order to get his brand-new melody down on paper, sitting in his car pulled over on the hard shoulder, right there he wrote down the melody. Thinking back to the pianist’s car made me feel sick, my knees went weak and my head was burning, I could have passed it off as airsickness but really it was shame, plain and simple, and by association of shames I recalled driving the pianist-composer-driver right round the bend by making him go up and down Neue Kanstrasse three times because I could no longer find the entrance to my Polish hostel, and my shameometer measured a new record with that devastating memory, my soles were damp, my temples throbbing and my eyes squeezed shut in aged penitent-nun style – which comes straight from my education – remembering the pianist’s exasperation after the third of our three back-and-forths, his deep sigh, his ever more visible and ever less restrained impatience for us to be done, um Gottes Willen, by the grace of God Schluss! Will this never end! I heard him, the irritation in his gritted teeth, I burned with shame as I pictured once more the pianist’s hands clamped rigid on the wheel, the pianist’s exasperation you had to see his clenched jaw, the pianist was wondering given apparent circumstances and who could blame him when this interminable evening would be over and at what hour he might finally go home to bed not to dream but to sleep that peaceful, silent, restorative sleep without visions that would allow him to hope for a new day just like all the other new days required for the equilibrium of a pianist-composer, a new day shaped by the essential practice that the pianist relied on to play the piano and the composer to compose.

 

 

The above is an excerpt from Blue Self-Portrait, published in English by Les Fugitives, and available for order now.

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