The Pianist in the Dark: A New Novel About a Remarkable Woman
Imagine that you are a prodigiously gifted pianist, born into a class of privilege and opportunity. The world is yours but for two problems: you are female in an era bound up by rigid gender codes, and you are blind. In an effort to restore your vision, your parents place you in the hands of countless medical professionals and would-be healers, who subject you to all manner of medical experiments and purported treatments. One of these episodes reaches the breaking point, a crisis that plunges you into despair, threatens your musical gift, and shatters your innocence forever.
This is the story Michèle Halberstadt tells in her novel The Pianist in the Dark (Pegasus Books, $13.95), which explores a single and, as Halberstadt portrays it, life-changing episode in the life of the eighteenth-century Austrian pianist and composer Maria Theresia von Paradis. For a woman, much less a blind woman, in 1700s Vienna to be recognized in professional circles for her musical abilities as was Paradis – no less than Mozart composed one of his piano concertos for her to perform – was indeed rare. Paradis went blind at age three and discovered and developed her gift for music in total darkness, eventually winning the adulation and affection of the empress herself. As Halberstadt tells the story, Paradis’ parents were relentless in their quest to find a cure for their daughter’s blindness, to the extent that, once old enough, Paradis put her foot down: no more treatments, no more practitioners.
Save one. Paradis did allow herself to be treated by Franz Anton Mesmer, who operated on the fringes of science and made bold claims for the benefits of unconventional treatments, and whose reputation endures today as one of European history’s greatest quacks. In Halberstadt’s hands, at least, the adolescent Paradis moves into Mesmer’s home in order to receive his treatments, falls in love with him, and ends up transforming a professional relationship into an intimately personal one.
Halberstadt creates of Paradis a sympathetic character, an overindulged innocent on the precipice of womanhood and unschooled in the ways of men and society. In Halberstadt’s treatment of the story, at least, Paradis is conflicted about her liaison with Mesmer. She uses it to hide from her restrictive parents behind Mesmer, the pseudo-medical practitioner, and to enjoy in secrecy the pleasures of their romance. But she knows that Mesmer’s reputation is dubious among the professional medical community and, thus, also in the social rank her family occupies. Taking up publicly with Mesmer would, in short, mean for Paradis and her family a sort of double scandal, worsened still by the eye treatments that enable Paradis to regain a hint of her vision for a time but disorient her so much at the keyboard that her once virtuoso playing deteriorates. In the midst of the turmoil, her treatments and relations with Mesmer do have some enduring benefits: they prove to be the catalysts for Paradis’ break from the adolescent comfort of her familial cocoon and into adult independence.
The Pianist in the Dark is an interesting read about an astonishing episode in the life of a fascinating Viennese woman in the age of Mozart. If there are quibbles with the novel (really more a novella), they would be with aspects of Halberstadt’s technique. She first lets her characters speak for themselves fully 18 pages into her 140-page book. Up to that point, Halberstadt tries to take us vicariously into Maria Theresia’s life, world, and mind through narration. Halberstadt’s impulse to speak for her characters also waters down the emotional intensity of certain passages and indeed stunts the development of her characters. For example, in one passage the besotted Paradis begins to regain her eyesight after Mesmer’s treatment: “She felt like laughing and crying,” Halberstadt writes, “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.” I took Halberstadt’s word for it and bought into Paradis’ “desire to please.” But I would rather have been shown, than merely told about, Paradis’ desire to please Mesmer, which though necessitating additional pages and considerable more spinning-out of the characters’ day-to-day relationship, could have put more flesh on their bones.
After the Mesmer fiasco, Paradis lived a life guided by her muse. She again lost all of her vision but regained her skill at the keyboard, touring Europe as a concert pianist to some success. She also taught piano students and composed, and enjoyed a glittering circle of friends. These, too, are details of Paradis’ life that, thanks in part to Halberstadt, ensure that Paradis may live on in the proud light of day.