Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 05 Nov 2016

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by T.E. Carhart

“…no piano need feel duty-bound

to always sound like a piano” – Glenn Gould

In the admittedly small genre of books-about-pianos one that has become a real favourite is TE Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, published in 2000. It was recommended to me by a friend. It is one of those rare books that stands alone: there has been no follow-up, you almost never hear a word about its author, and yet once read you can’t imagine being without it.

An American, presumably retired from some well-paying job, relocates to France with his young family and settles in an unexceptional quartier on the Left Bank in Paris. His interest in the piano is reawakened – prompted perhaps by a new-found sense of freedom, perhaps even by the sensuousness of life in Paris – and he sets about trying to find a decent but inexpensive piano that the family can afford. It must fit their budget; it must fit into their modest apartment; but on a deeper level it must also fit into their lives – it must be an instrument for the whole family, a durable workhorse, not a highly-strung thoroughbred. This leads him to the atelier just a few doors away, which turns out to be a piano restorer’s workshop, a dark nineteenth century shop opening into a vast space beneath a glazed courtyard.

Initially Luc and Desforges, the partners in the business, do everything in their power to discourage Carhart. Casually dropping in to make a purchase is not the way that business is done in France. What made monsieur think he would find a piano for sale here of all places? (In this huge hidden workshop crammed with pianos.) True, every once in a great while we may sometimes have such an instrument for sale, but this happens with such immense unpredictability that surely monsieur would find it more convenient to go to one of the great piano showrooms… Clearly, this is not a  simple commercial transaction; it is an application to join a freemasonry of sorts. And so begins not just a search for a piano but a quietly intense friendship with Luc and a love affair of a kind with musical history, with the art and craft of piano manufacture and restoration, and with a hidden Paris.

I think one of the things I most like about this book is that it doesn’t conform to the usual smug Francophile memoir. It’s erudite and passionate about its subject and while it doesn’t offer any great revelatory truths about the piano or about learning the piano, it is crammed with quiet insight, with memorable passages, enjoyable incident, warmly observed characters, historical digressions and the passing life and customs of Paris.

The long, solitary labour of learning to play an instrument, like the similarly arcane labour of learning how pianos work and how they can be restored to life, are both considered to be honourable endeavours, life-enhancing, the former indeed dependent on those who can perform the latter. And a similar dedication is reflected in the prose. It reads effortlessly, artlessly, but of course is neither. It is the product one feels of immense application, a determination to do the best the author is capable of. At several points Carhart refers to being in the process of writing a book; he has to take time off to visit the atelier and audition pianos; he walks across Paris in search of a piano tutor, both for himself and his children. Is the book he refers to this one – or is this book, the one gradually growing around him, a distraction from what he should be doing? It’s a clever and perhaps even unintentional conceit, but it adds a further layer of mystery to the book.

Luc meets a woman, Mathilde, also a pianist, of course, and they seem deeply in love. The atelier now often rings to feminine laughter, even the occasional night wrapped in blankets before the antiquated stove. The climate of this musty bachelor’s lair has changed. And at this point – with discretion, a respect for privacy, a sense that secrecy can and should have a place in modern life – the books ends. Apparently, when told that he and his atelier would be the subject of a memoir Luc said: “Please don’t lead the public to my doorstep.” And Carhart told him: “I won’t.” And he hasn’t. What he has done is create a gentle, beautifully observed world that is – like all enchanted places – just out of our grasp, but which we return to again and again precisely for that reason. What a lovely book.


Alun Severn

November 2016