Kundera’s Music Teacher: Variation on a Theme,
with Two Short Texts


Several editors and publishers left us recently, among them Catharine Carver, editor of such good and varied writers as Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Richard Ellmann, William Gaddis, Flannery O’Connor; Gila Bercovitch, a splendid woman who was until recently editor in chief at the Library of America, a press which restores our literature to us as its authors meant us to read it; Kenneth McCormick, generous of spirit even in physical decline, who in the 1960s held the post of chief editor at Doubleday, then owned by the Doubleday family; and James Laughlin, founder of New Directions: the man who published the first Modernist writers Americans read, and the first serious books many of us when young bought for ourselves.

One quality these people shared was caring about books, in the sense that I grew up with: real books, the kind you kept and reread, probably in paperback. Who could afford hardbounds? Books were precious not as objects, but for what they contained: what mattered. “News that stays news,” as Pound said famously. When young no one thought about publishers, for what was their purpose if not, as Michael Bessie says elsewhere in this issue, “to serve literature”?

On the other hand, the agony of writers is always an interesting subject, is it not? The real drama of any writer’s life is unseen, however extravagant his or her public behavior might be. Talking with publishers I’ve often thought about a peculiar affliction of theirs: the rejection letter. Publishers may hope to serve literature; writers write it. Gila Bercovitch, who was forthright and minatory, used to remind me how stupid editors could be, and have been, in the history of American letters.

Perhaps the French best understand the tragicomedy of rejection, for they comprehend perfectly, as well, the grandeur of the writer’s undertaking, as shown in the following exchange between Margaret Duras and her interlocutor:

Q: What is the common trait of all literature, good and bad?

A: The fact that writing is a fierce need, a tragic need, in all writers, often more so in bad writers than in good ones. It is an undertaking that in some cases requires extraordinary moral courage. The writer sacrifices not only leisure time but also work time in order to write his novel. He is always alone, especially if he lives in the provinces, in which case he writes in order to avoid asphyxiation. Needless to say, rejection is always devastating, sometimes tragic. To reject a manuscript, especially a first manuscript, is to reject the whole man, to impugn his being.

Yet, during his simplest, most transparent hours, if he is granted them, a writer may smile at his human foolishness and return to the real work. Occasionally I reread a passage by Milan Kundera in which he recalls an incident from his youth. He writes:

When I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I used to take lessons in musical composition. Not because I was a child prodigy but because of my father’s quiet tact. It was during the war, and a friend of his, a Jewish composer, was required to wear the yellow star; people had begun to avoid him. Not knowing how to declare his solidarity, my father thought of asking him just then to give me lessons. They were confiscating Jewish apartments, and the composer kept having to move on to smaller and smaller places, ending up, just before he left for Theresienstadt, in a little flat where many people were camping, crammed, in every room. All along, he had held on to the small piano on which I would play my harmony in counterpoint exercises while strangers went about their business around us.

Of all this I retain only my admiration for him, and three or four images. Especially this one: seeing me out after a lesson, he stopped by the door and suddenly said to me: “There are many surprisingly weak passages in Beethoven. But it is the weak passages that bring out the strong ones. It’s like a lawn -- if it weren’t there, we couldn’t enjoy the beautiful tree growing on it.”

A peculiar idea. That it has stayed in my memory is even more peculiar. Maybe I felt honored at getting to hear a confidential admission from the teacher, a secret, a great trick of the trade that only the initiated are permitted to know.

Whatever it was, that brief remark from my teacher of the time has haunted me all my life. (I’ve defended it, I’ve fought it, I’ve never finished with it); without it, this text could very certainly not have been written.

But dearer to me than that remark in itself is the image of a man who, a while before his hideous journey, stood thinking aloud, in front of a child, about the problem of composing a work of art.


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Works cited:

Marguerite Duras, OUTSIDE, selected writings
Milan Kundera, “Works and Spiders,” tr. Linda Asher from TESTAMENTS BETRAYED

A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie
Vol. 1  No. 1 Endnotes
Vol. 1 No. 2  Endnotes
Vol. 1 No. 3  Endnotes




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