Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Pianist in the Dark: Review


Based on the true story of Maria-Theresa von Paradis, the only daughter of the secretary of the empress of Austria, and her interactions with Franz Anton Mesmer, a doctor and the source of the term mesmerism, The Pianist in the Dark by Michéle Halberstadt is ultimately about the price of sight. Maria-Theresa was musical prodigy. Blind from unknown causes since she was about three, she played beautifully and with great passion before the court in Austria. She was filled with a talent that eclipsed her disability and the ability to hold her audience spellbound. She seemed to have the world at her feet. Her father, however, could never resign himself to accept her condition and subjected her to the ministrations of doctor after doctor. None of whom could identify the source of the problem or offer any solution. After giving his word to his daughter that he would stop trying to cure her, he meets Franz Anton Mesmer and manipulates events so Mesmer makes the offer to treat her himself. She is suspicious at first--she has submitted to too many "treatments" at the hands of "experts" who were only out to forward their own careers. After all, should they have succeeded, they would have won the gratitude of the Empress herself. But Maria-Theresa becomes convinced of Mesmer's sincerity and agrees to allow him to perform his "magnetic" treatments. And they work. Soon the girl who didn't, as the introduction says, "know the color of the sky or the shape of the clouds, [didn't] know the meaning of blue or red,or dark or pale" begins to see shapes and colors.

She also, through Mesmer, begins to know the meaning of love and passion. But it is a short-lived victory. The other doctors, jealous of Mesmer's apparent success, begin to ridicule his methods and to spread rumors that his relationship with is patient is unorthodox. If he did not have power over her as a lover, that she would not "see" as well as she does--that it is only his "amorous suggestion" that influences her. What began as an incredible journey towards sight and love, becomes a horrible nightmare. She learns that everything in life seems to be motivated by power and greed. Even Mesmer is ready to give her up when his reputation is at stake. As she says to him late in the book:

Cursed! I am cursed! My blindness made them suffer and my recovery has made them mad. Even you prefer me ill to cured. Life is so cruel! It allows me to discover passion and harmony, then steals it away as if it were a mirage! What good is seeing if all it does is open your eyes to the truth of human nature? Have I been through all this just to come eye to eye with cowardice, lies, and trickery?

In the end the price of seeing is too high for Maria-Theresa. She chooses to return to darkness and devotes herself once again to her music. Disappointed by her parents who could not accept her for who and what she was and disappointed by her lover who could not accept what he had helped her become, she decides for herself what her life will be.


In this short novel, Halberstadt has given us a story of awakenings and choices. The writing (or perhaps the translation) is spare and direct. There is nothing superfluous in the descriptions. And the story flows almost perfectly. My only minor quibble comes with the romantic scenes between Maria-Theresa and Mesmer. They are a bit over the top--soap opera and bodice ripperish--but the chapters are short and fortunately this portion does not last long. Otherwise, a nicely done peek into history and an interesting look at one of music's female blind prodigies. Three and a half stars.


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