From Self-Portrait with Russian Piano, a novel, which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Translated from the German.
You ask me whether I still keep up with my piano playing. I’ll tell you, I don’t, not anymore, not for many years now, and it’s not just the piano I’ve stopped keeping up with. Life isn’t easy. My hands are bored, my heart’s worn out, to say nothing about how my legs feel. When I go to the kitchen to make myself some coffee, I forget that I’ve gone to the kitchen to make myself some coffee. But by that time I’m already standing in the kitchen, which hasn’t smelled very pleasant for quite some time now. At my age nothing smells very pleasant anymore. My bed. I’m ashamed to sleep in this bed, but at night I get tired. What am I supposed to do if not lie down in this bed to sleep? It is a joy, a small one, to get out of my clothes, which have the smell on them of long, arduous days, of entire weeks. Even if I’ve made it through the day not in a bad mood, my pants smell of despair, my shirt smells like my socks, like the hallway where the smell starts and then pours out into the other rooms, and the kitchen as well, of course. So long as I’m here there’s little use in opening the windows. If the sun is shining, the warm air just pushes the smell back throughthe window into the apartment. If it’s raining, I get to hope that things will be made fresh again. Or I tell myself I do. Rain washes the world clean, that’s what they said in the villages where I grew up. Even the old would pour themselves a glass when the sky turned dark and the wind and the rain started in. We were all quiet, because that’s how it always was. Everyone listened, even me, even the boys. No one would have dared say a single word.
A holy silence, which I only ever found again in music—later, much later, when I began to love music. I won’t say when I began to understand music. Even today I don’t think I have any idea what music is. I sit at the piano, I play, I love what I’m playing, but I understand nothing. After midnight, when I’d had enough to drink, I sometimes played like someone who’d been allowed to trick himself into believing he understood what he was doing. I was at my best at these times. I liked to drink. We all liked to drink. All musicians drank. Even if we had wanted to sober up, we couldn’t stop drinking. These rare hours, they were what mattered. The hours before sunrise, when I was alone with my hands on the piano and the music that I played. I don’t know whether I was happy. I was concerned with more important things than being happy. Even today I have no interest in the answer to that question. Sometimes I think the whole of a person’s happiness rests on his wanting neither to seek nor to find it. Still happier the person who doesn’t make a fuss about it, whether happy or unhappy. Not questioning whatever judgment is imposed upon us. Showing the same equanimity in remembering and in forgetting. I’ve told myself for a long time: nothing can happen to you, whatever God might do. I hear His angels in the apartment. I hear them listening when I sit at the piano. I hear the quiet of their presence. Maybe that’s what I wanted when I played: to make angels sing, to make their invisibility, their silence, ring out. Angels are a good audience, the best a musician can ask for. The young and old women who bathed me as a child believed in all that. None of them played an instrument. When I started playing, they felt guilty. A piano in a village. A child who doesn’t sleep. What had they done, where had they gone wrong with this child who didn’t stare up at the sky or into the pots in the kitchen or at the books that were lying around, but at his hands, at how they fluttered when he moved his fingers, how they galloped? Was this their handiwork? Artists only existed in cheap novels, so easy to pass from hand to hand, wherever you were in the world. That far away from Moscow, artists were a figment of the imagination. The horse that drew the plow was not, neither was poverty, nor the ground in which so little grew. What was supposed to happen? I kept still, if only outwardly, when in the parlor the old people, the whole family, sat around the table, silent, eyes closed. I did not have to risk much for my pleasure, I stuck my hands in my pants pockets and moved my fingers in secret. I still think of all those people who pray in silence when I think of music. When I listen to music, I still hear the rain in every note. And so, depending on how you look at it, I never really left my village, not in London, not in Paris or Vienna. And I never took my hands out of my pockets. I played like I practiced. Even onstage I had the feeling that what I did, I did in secret. I was at home. I was in my childhood. How long ago that was. Too long to try to trick myself about it.
Nowadays I’ll say that, where I’m concerned, playing the piano no longer makes sense. I lack the necessary strength. The strength of the night, the burning clarity in my head, there only in the deepest exhaustion. Today I’m a smelly old person in a dark apartment, which now that my wife is dead is far too big. I live on a diet of medication—very expensive medication. I don’t have a choice. I am old. I am trapped in a body, without hope. Even if I haven’t managed to get rid of you, I don’t receive visitors anymore. Well, with the exception of a young violinist who whenever she comes to my door I ask inside, a violinist who despite her youth has had a lot of success all over the world, whose father was a friend of mine and whose mother in her youth was considered one of the most beautiful but also one of the most stubborn women in all of Moldavia, an object of temptation for every one of us. Everything you need to make music on a violin the daughter inherited from her mother, plus her temperament and her beauty, which she considers a nuisance. She’s hard on herself, which I like. I don’t hold back either. It’s not about beating your rivals. And careful, don’t burn yourself up before the first note. You’re not going for a record! Everything develops slowly. Play the dead like they’re your contemporaries, and play your contemporaries like classics. She listens, doe-eyed. The audience isn’t in charge, especially not the lords and ladies in the orchestra seats. Don’t look at them! And don’t let them love you! We speak in our language. I serve tap water. A way of passing the time. I enjoy it, but I feel myself getting tired. I can’t keep up the concentration the young thing demands of me for long, and soon I’m no longer even capable of thanking her for the compliments she pays me, and for the gift of a diversion, a change of pace, which she has given me with her excitement for music and her innate recklessness, at least where her conception of the violin and a career without compromises are concerned. I can’t even prevent her from taking me in her arms when she says goodbye. This is always embarrassing for me. Doesn’t she smell it? Doesn’t she see the pile of unwashed dishes in the sink, the dust on the letters that are lying around everywhere? No, she doesn’t—or she acts like she doesn’t. She wants to save me, to get me back onstage, wants to appear alongside me, the old man and the girl, she says, and laughs. It’d make me happy, she says, I want to. You’ve still got it, even now. There’s no one who plays like you. You’ll get yourself back into shape. I trust you. Do it, she begs, do it for me. We’ll make it happen. We’ll travel together. My God, she’s about to burst into tears. Somehow we both keep standing there like that for a while, both ashamed, both helpless, but, we know, lost to each other. It’s better if you go now, I say. Well before midnight I’m finished as a human being and fall into bed.
At what would be the right time for making music, I’m snoring. I miss those hours, oh how I miss them! The hours that decided every truth, the hours that were good to me, that brought order to my mind. Brought the requisite disorder, to put it better. Or better still, a kind of higher order. The late Schumann. The Russian alcoholics. Czechs who didn’t sleep at night. This time was everything, the time of hyperactive weariness. Even for Sibelius, who tormented himself with his music and with alcohol. Who, driven to despair by loneliness and isolation, listened to the night. No, said Suvorin, with the photograph of his wife on the wall over the table, whatever is played before midnight sounds like nothing. Even in the concerts that I myself played, it sounded like nothing. But who would dare take the risk of allowing a concert to begin after midnight? Even with free admission it wouldn’t work. Oh night, sing the poets, and it’s not just the romantics among them who are singing. There are good arguments to be made against sobriety. The soul opens up in darkness. It is capricious, as we know. It is an owl. It hides in the light. And, like me, it wants to be alone.
I didn’t notice that she was still standing there. And only now, after these last words, which I had spoken to myself, did she go.