Thursday, August 18, 2016
Threw it all away: Love lost in an excellent Charles Baxter story
Re-read one of old friend Charles (Charlie) Baxter's early short stories, and one of his best, rightly collected in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories as selection from the 1980s: The Harmony of the World. The story is learned, almost pedantic in its presentation of information about classical music - but the pedantry is not CB showing off but is integrated into the fabric of the story. The narrator is the pedant - a man with talent but with limited capacity for feeling, empathy, and love. The narrator tells us the story of his life, and of love lost: he was a piano prodigy in childhood, but his childhood was in a small town in Ohio and he quickly learns when he goes off to a conservatory that the world is filled with small-town prodigies (athletes find this out, too, when they turn pro at 18). He leaves music school when his very cruel and insensitive teacher tells him he has technical skill and no passion and he will be a failure as a performer - perhaps prescient advice, but delivered with malice. The narrator leaves the conservatory and becomes a music critic at a small upstate NY newspaper (in those days small papers had music critics; now, big papers don't). Earning a little on the side as an accompanist, he meets a delightful if fragile young woman who hires him to accompany her voice recitals: she pays for these herself and basically entertains her 40 friends. What's more, she's a poor singer - Baxter has the narrator describe her weaknesses in very learned terms - and the narrator eventually tells her so (much as his mentor once told him), leading to the breakup of their relationship and, we suspect, the end of his one chance at love and happiness. This sad story is paralleled by a piece the narrator is writing for his paper about Hindemith, a composer largely forgotten, the composer of the eponymous opera The Harmony of the World, based on the life of Kepler, a long-suffering man with the odd theory that the rotation of the spheres in the solar system caused harmonic waves and our musical scale. This theory is an example of thinking rather than feeling, or passion, as evidenced by the dry and boring performance of the opera (or its score) in the narrator's small town. The mean mentor was right: art, and life, are about passion, not ideas, not technical skill. He had love but threw it all away.