- Title: The Pianist in the Dark
- Author: Michele Halberstadt
- Genre(s): Historical
- Publisher: Pegasus Books, July 2011
- Source: Purchased*
- Length: 150 pages
- Trope(s): Musician, Physician, Disability, Overbearing Aristocratic Parents, Good and Faithful Servant
- Quick blurb: Celebrity physician attempts to cure virtuoso pianist of blindness.
- Quick review: So much potential, so much disappointment.
- Grade: D+
It was imperative that, upon being introduced to her, he be seized by sudden inspiration.
The Pianist in the Dark is based on the true story of 17-year-old virtuoso Maria Theresia von Paradis, the only child of a high-ranking Austrian diplomat. Maria Theresia has been blind since the age of three, and while she’s made a name for herself as a musician in music-mad 1770s Vienna, her father has subjected her to endless painful and humiliating treatments to restore her sight.
When famed physician Franz Mesmer — he of the “magnetism cure” for anxieties, neuroses, epilepsy and other “nervous disorders” — offers his services, Maria Theresia’s father agrees and send her off to live at Mesmer’s house/hospital.
Mesmer quickly lives up to his soon-to-be-verbified name, enthralling his young patient not only with his charisma and sincerity, but even more so with his respect for her as an autonomous young woman rather than her father’s puppet.
She knew what would cure her, even if he didn’t. It wasn’t her desire to see. It was her desire to please him. This energy he felt was the love he’d inspired in her.
As you might imagine, their relationship becomes intimate…
The punches became caresses, and the screams sighs and shouts.
…but only after her vision remarkably improves. Maria Theresia seemingly flourishes under his care, in and out of the bedroom, until her father insists on allowing Mesmer’s medical rivals to examine his daughter. Terrified to reveal that gaining sight has ruined her abilities at the keyboard, and knowing that Mesmer will sacrifice her to save his career, she is unable to convince the sceptics and is forced to return to her parents’ home.
“I am lost, don’t you see? You’ve destroyed something and replaced it with nothing. I’m not blind, but I cannot see. I’m living in a muddled limbo where I can’t see much of anything and struggle to learn things that a three-year-old understands. I am no longer myself, but I haven’t become someone else.”
Eventually, with the help of a loyal servant, Maria Theresia establishes her own household and gains back her musical abilities — but only after deliberately ruining her eyesight permanently.
“Girls who love Christ become nuns. I love music so much that I will dedicate my life to it. Sight impaired my playing. I give it up with no regrets. It has brought me pipe dreams, no more.”
An amazing true-life story, and a perfect inspiration for angsty, romantic historical fiction, right?
It could have been.
Unfortunately, the glaringly uneven storytelling left me both cringing at the prose and craving this story told by a different author. Book blurbs call Halberstadt a “renowned French writer and film producer,” but unless something went dreadfully wrong in translation, I’m not feeling the love for her fiction writing at all.
In the opening chapters, the mix of present and past tense, combined with very strange and abrupt switches in narrative voice, immediately set me on edge. Based on the opening paragraph…
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. This is the word they have given to what she describes. She can make out light by its heat, its smell, sometimes even its sound: the flickering of a candle, the crackling of fire. She knows that daytime throbs with agitation and that silence awaits nightfall to be heard. Luckily for her, listening is what she does best.
…I thought, “Oh GAWD, present-tense pretentiousness, but maybe I can live with it.”
Then, in chapter two, we get a completely different narrator:
So while music teachers instructed Maria Theresia in song and harmony, men of science turned her into their guinea pig, alternating bloodletting with purges and cauteries, putting leeches on her eyelids, confining her head to cataplasms for days on end, and even trying a new discovery: electrical seizure induction. So painful were the treatments that new symptoms soon appeared: nervous trembling, attacks of panic, uncontrollable sobbing at dusk—and the blindness never diminished. By the time Joseph Anton admitted that the various procedures to which his daughter was submitted only made her worse, he had succeeded in weakening both her health and her nerves.
In the very next paragraph, we get both:
At seventeen, Mademoiselle Paradis, born a child prodigy and blind soon after, passionate and docile, had grown into a graceful young adult with sophisticated manners—a reputed virtuoso pianist who, behind her beautiful and smooth face, hides the violent torments of a troubled, melancholic temperament. She knows she is misunderstood, feels unloved, and trusts no one.
And at the end of chapter two, we return to the Documentary Voice-Over:
She felt that being blind was the only power she had over them. 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.
And so it goes. Chapter nine opens with three paragraphs in present tense, then switches to past tense. Chapter twelve is the opposite. For the love God, PICK ONE AND STAY WITH IT. Or maybe that’s a French thing?
While the verb tense issues were merely distracting and annoying, the inconsistent narrative voice was so discordant (a musical metaphor, HA!) that I came close to DNFing this short book several times. Rather than allow the compelling character of Maria Theresia to share her own story, Halberstadt veers between Wikipeida-lite historical factoids…
Since advancing his thesis on celestial bodies, Mesmer had become convinced that a mutual influence existed among the stars, the earth, and human beings. According to him, this influence was transmitted via a fluid that restored the nerves to health.
In 1772, following in the footsteps of Father Hell, a Jesuit astrology professor who prided himself on curing people with magnets, Mesmer adapted his procedure of magnetic healing but soon clashed with the priest. He then pretended to have discovered the method himself and accused Hell of plagiarism.
The following year, when he met a Swiss priest, Father Gassner, who practiced exorcism, Mesmer decided to give up magnets and apply his own hands instead. The former water diviner/healer determined that his body itself was a conduit of the curative fluid, of the energy that relieved the pain engendered by nervous ills.
…and loooong, soul-baring monologues:
“Yes, Nina, here I have learned cynicism and bitterness, two feelings that were foreign to me. For a long time my blindness protected me from a reality that is not pretty to behold. What I have discovered scares me much more than the shadows that surrounded me. I have opened my eyes to a world that I knew nothing of, and it grows more and more disappointing every day. There is no room in it for simple, naïve souls who think that happiness is all about loving others. You can’t get by on love, or art. Ambition is the force that drives this world. People care more about clawing their way to fame and manipulating others than they do about what makes a concerto work.”
She took Nina’s hands in her own.
“I can admit it to you: I am having difficulty playing the piano because I have to learn to stop staring at the keyboard. But this is not the only reason. I have lost the faith I had in music. I used to think it would help me express emotions that an audience could share with me. During a concert the listeners and I would engage in a sort of conversation. There was an exchange between what I gave them and the way they received it. Their listening returned to me my emotion a hundredfold. Well, I no longer believe that. People listen and they are probably moved, but their attention is distracted by what’s running through their minds, and now I fear that they send back to me nothing other than their own vanity. They have no time to be affected by the music, even though music alone has the power to raise their hearts and ease their minds. They cannot be bothered. This is what preoccupies me now when I play. I analyze the world coldly. I no longer idealize it. As I’ve lost my conviction in my talent, I can’t convince anyone with my talent. This is what I’ve become, Nina. A girl without illusions. Music has ceased being my dream world. Now that I see the real world, I live with nightmares.”
For the LOVE OF GOD, don’t TELL us, SHOW us. Or maybe that’s a French thing too?
A few truly affecting scenes, including a confrontation with an jealous opposing physician and brief moment during a Paris concert at the end of the book, redeemed this story slightly, but these glimpses only left me wanting more character-driven emotional subtlety and a lot less info- and angst-dumping.
My first instinct was a C- grade, but after looking over my own grading criteria, I had to go with a D+ for the Big Disappointment and something I really can’t recommend to anyone.
*I purchased my Kindle version in November (Black Friday) when it was on sale for only $1.88. This 150-page book is now $9.39 on Amazon and $11.19 on Barnes & Noble, which is why I’m not providing any buy links.
The digital list price is $13.99. For 150 pages. Idiots.