Conrad Williams's new novel examines in devastating detail the inner life of a concert pianist undergoing an existential crisis. At 52, Philip Morahan is a top-flight international artist. He is about to sign a new record deal, be the subject of a big BBC TV documentary, and perform an important concert series at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. At the first recital, he bolts dramatically from the stage without playing a note. Only later is he diagnosed with cancer, suggesting an unconscious interplay between mental and bodily breakdown.
|The Concert Pianist
The mysterious relationship between the psychological and the physical at the root of musical performance resonates throughout the novel. How do the virtuoso muscular acts of great instrumentalists translate into emotional meaning? Does the ability to create emotion in the concert hall require the sacrifice of a personal emotional life? Deeper questions haunt the hero, whose artistic self-doubt - triggered by a bad review which claims his playing has lost its spontaneity and become aridly intellectual - is deeply bound up with his feelings of human inadequacy. Unmarried, childless and seemingly incapable of a stable relationship, he believes he has sacrificed what is truly valuable for the sake of his "mistress", the piano.
As the novel opens, Philip visits an old girlfriend, now happily married and a mother, who, he has discovered, aborted their child soon after their relationship ended. His sense of lost opportunity merges with his memories of another tragedy, that of Peter, a close friend from student days who died with his wife and children in a fire. Unlike Philip, Peter had abandoned music, trained as a solicitor, and embraced conventional family life. One of the novel's central questions is whether or not it is possible to combine such normality with the perfectionism and itinerant lifestyle needed to attain the technical and emotional highs achieved by great musicians. No, says, Philip's protégé, the young Russian pianist Vadim, who neglects his wife and baby to enjoy the dubious pleasures of Spearmint Rhino: "You cannot play this volcanic repertoire and live like a petit bourgeois. We don't belong with nappies in our hand. We do what we have to do. Anything else is a lie."
Philip's craving for domesticity, and his sexual idealising of the domestic woman, have found a vicarious outlet in the marriages of others, while he himself has treated girlfriends with callous commitment-phobia. Hints as to Philip's own family background suggest both his need for and fear of the nurturing woman: the illegitimate child of a nurse, he was adopted at birth and never really bonded with his new parents. These circumstances make it clear that his lifelong struggle to replace human love with music has indeed been his "destiny", and the novel, in the end, supports the premise that concert virtuosi (and their families) are often, at some level, sacrificial victims. Philip eventually regains a sense of spiritual fulfilment, and of transcending his own mortality through music, but one is left with a feeling as much of loss as of gain.
This thoughtful novel hits few false notes in its presentation of the classical music business. Unlike many fictional treatments of this world, it manages to eschew melodrama, despite its dramatically heightened plot. Intellectually engaged with the aesthetics of music, and humanly engaged in its protagonist's story, it transforms its material into a remarkably well-made narrative.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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