Eva Hoffman, Appassionata. It seemed at first like a quiet novel, but lovely and honest, about a concert pianist beginning a tour. All the music she plays is old music (the standard piano repertoire), and all the feelings she has about it seem inward-turning, emotions not strongly connected to the world outside. Of course that’s one of the things I don’t like about classical music now, but still I was drawn to the book, because, as I said, it’s so honest. And the honesty is both emotional and musical. This is one of the few novels I’ve read that — in its scenes of concert life, in its account of what the pianist thinks when she’s playing, and in its scenes from the pianist’s long-ago student life — really convey how classical music works. Hoffman herself was a pianist, and she’s both observant and wonderfully sensitive.
But then the story grows in a new direction. For those who don’t want any spoilers, I’ll simply say that the outside world starts to press in on the pianist. Classical music doesn’t seem adequate, any more, though this point is in no way underlined. It’s just something we can assume, from how the pianist reacts. In the end, she has to find an accommodation, and she does, in a small but serious way that I greatly admire.
But for those who don’t mind spoilers, or want to know more, here’s what happens. (Mild spoilers first, than more serious ones.) The pianist — whose life is in some ways empty — starts an affair with a man who goes to her concerts in Europe, and who turns out to be a Chechen political activist, someone in contact with Chechens who might be terrorists, and who might be a terrorist himself.
Now she’s caught up in discussions of what really matters in life. Classical music, by implication (nothing in this book is heavily done, or in any way obvious), is part of a culture that seems weak to the Chechen (though still he loves it; life, as Hoffman knows, is rarely simple).
And then — more serious spoilers coming — there’s a terrorist bomb that touches the pianist almost directly. Her lover disappears. Maybe he’s responsible. It’s too much for the pianist. She has a quiet, undramatic breakdown, cancels her concerts, disappears. In the end, she pulls herself together, and here’s how she does it, how she crosses the gulf between classical music and the rest of life: She starts to compose. And her first composition, Hoffman says, draws on both Liszt and Jimi Hendrix.
I can’t stress enough how quiet this is. Hoffman never draws a moral, never says, or even comes close to saying, “See, by bringing together rock and classical music…” She’s far too good for that (which means that in many ways she’s better than I am). She simply shows her pianist starting to make a new life, and this is one part of it. We never hear more about the music, never see it premiered, never see a new audience show up, ready to bring classical music into their larger world. The book is too honest for that. Maybe (this is me talking here, not Hoffman) these grand things could happen, but Hoffman hasn’t seen them. She writes what she knows. And so this small step toward a future seems all the more real because it’s not underlined. Appassionata is an honest book, and well worth reading.