Before becoming a novelist, Eva Hoffman studied the piano in her native Poland and dreamed of becoming a professional musician. Here she explores the complex relationship between music and literature - and how they have both shaped her life.
When I was about seven, growing up in Krakow, Poland, I was taken to my first piano lesson. I no longer know what impelled my mother to do so. It was the kind of thing that aspiring middle-class parents did for their children, as a way to assure proper cultivation, and perhaps some upward mobility. But for me, it was instant enchantment. There was the piano itself - a polished baby grand, and undoubtedly the most beautiful object I'd seen in anyone's house, in a materially bleak postwar Poland (my Jewish parents had survived the Holocaust by hiding in Ukraine). But it was when the rather unprepossessing woman who was to teach me sat down to play that I suddenly felt I was in the presence of magic. The sounds emanating from under her fingers had the loveliness, and liveliness, of a quick-flowing mountain brook. Then there was the precision, the sheer control she was exercising to produce that pearly stream of sound. Even as a child, I could see that there was a kind of mastery in that, a personal authority.
"All art aspires towards the condition of music," Walter Pater famously pronounced, and many artists and writers have testified to the potent impact of music on their work: as an art that can touch on the deepest sensations of which we are capable; an aesthetic ideal in which form perfectly coincides with content; a subject or stimulus for specific work; and sometimes, a concrete aid to creativity.
Certainly, for me, a musical education has been one of the formative experiences of my life. For various reasons, it got complexly inter-braided with writing and literature, so that I no longer know which came first, or what would have happened if; or which exercised a greater fascination. I was always a word-besotted child, and as soon as I could read myself, especially the kinds of books which came from Krakow's old lending libraries, and sometimes had yellowed pages, I plunged into the tales between the covers as if into three-dimensional reality.
Then came that music lesson, and, when I was deemed prepared enough, admission to the Krakow Music School, which was considered a grooming ground for future professional musicians. There, I discovered that music revealed worlds of emotional expressiveness, formal richness and technical challenge that were as vivid, as utterly compelling, as anything I had known. I did not have anything like perfect pitch, and balked at practising for hours; but for some reason, every shift of mood or tonal modulation in the pieces I played affected me as though they were conveying the keenest, most piercing messages. I never wondered what - or what kind of thing - a Bach Invention, or a Tarantella by a no-longer-remembered composer, said. That was perhaps unwittingly right of me, for music rarely "says" anything. But music speaks; and to me, as a child and young adolescent, it seemed to speak all beauty and human passion.
When I started playing some of the more accessible pieces of Mozart, or Chopin or Beethoven, I seemed to summon a palette of feelings - tenderness, fury, robust joy, gentle melancholy - distilled to their most intense, their somehow absolute form. This was undoubtedly an illusion, for I had not yet experienced anything that would warrant such knowledge. But it is the mysterious power of music that it can evoke, through its lucid vocabulary of melody and harmony, discord or counterpoint, a range of sensation, intimation and emotion, with an immediacy that made me feel as though I was myself participating in its large and subtle drama.
I'm afraid that, as I grew into adolescence, I sometimes indulged in fantasies of standing on stages in beautiful silk dresses. But while being trained as potential musicians in that warm, old-fashioned school, we students were given to understand that we were being inducted into a high and serious calling. Music, in postwar Poland, had enormous status and significance. For one thing, in a climate in which so much was forbidden, classical music was a permitted form of expression (the story on such western forms as rock'n'roll was more complicated). In an important way, music stood outside the sphere of political slogans and prevailing political falsehoods. And, in a country that produced Chopin and Paderewski, and which prided itself on its romantic spirit, the sheer love of music often reached a pitch of almost spiritual fervour. When the Chopin competition restarted in 1955, it quickly became a national event, with much of the country's citizenry glued to their radios, listening to the young performers, and parsing the opinions of the jury for political mendacity or prejudice.
The Polish cult of music - particularly of romantic pianism - reached one of its peak moments in 1958, when Arthur Rubinstein made his first visit to Poland since the war. Rubinstein was an iconic figure: a native son who had achieved worldwide fame, who had now decided to return, and who was first and foremost known for his ravishing interpretations of Chopin. Indeed, to many, he seemed to be practically channelling Chopin, with a stunning immediacy, intimacy, elegance and grandeur.
Rubinstein's concert in Krakow during that visit was one of the most memorable experiences of my early life. The concert hall was so overcrowded, and so heated with excitement, that at least one person fainted and had to be carried out. After the announced programme, members of the audience began shouting out requests for encores - culminating with Chopin's Polonaise in A major, which had been played over Warsaw's megaphones during the brief and hopeless moment of resistance against the Nazi invasion in 1939. At the end, the audience broke as one into a birthday song that says "may you live a hundred years," and which basically meant, "we love you". Somehow, political, historical and musical meanings came together in that concert hall, making for a moment of collective transport that has since then been matched only by the Beatles or Bob Dylan.
For me, shortly after that concert came emigration, to Canada and the US, and all the attendant dislocations, changes of direction, disorientation. In a radically changed environment, I continued for a while to study music; give student recitals, and even to play with orchestras on a few occasions - an experience that, it must be said, can spoil you for a while for the more mundane occasions of life. I also learned to thrill to other kinds of music, including some of those wicked, western ones.
For a while, my piano teachers continued to be among the most important figures in my young life, as they had been in Poland. Music teaching is a true form of mentoring. It happens through an exact, close-up, hands-on process - sometimes literally so. I had one teacher of the Russian school, who guided my responses to the music through movements of his hand on mine. But in guiding your hand, the music teacher, to some extent, guides your self; and I learned all kinds of extra-musical lessons from this process: about the necessity of reining in my impatient excitement, if I wanted to give musical phrases their right breath; about how strict discipline frees up spontaneity; about the combination of effort and receptivity needed to learn about something, or perhaps even someone, outside yourself. In his book, The Craftsman, Richard Sennett notes that in playing an instrument, one needs to "release" the finger on a string or a valve; and that the idea of release, which travels from the physical to the mental, "is also full of ethical implication, as when we surrender control - our grip - over others". But then, it is one of the deep pleasures of learning music that it encompasses and calls upon all aspects of the self: physical, cognitive, affective.
I did not, in the end, go on to become a professional pianist; I slowly started turning towards writing instead. How that happened is a story involving a few twists and turns, immigrant circumstances and youthful conflict. Perhaps I felt uncertain, especially after the upheavals of emigration, whether I could achieve the peerless brilliance of Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel or Mitsuko Uchida. But there was also, as I went on to college and graduate school, my newly reawakened love of literature and ideas; and, just as saliently, the need to deal with my new, tense romance with language: the English language. It was one of the powerful lessons of emigration that language is not only something you use, but something that lives within you, that shapes your perceptions, and constructs your very self. Without it, I lost my conduit to my own subjectivity. And so, I wanted badly to recreate in my second language the relationship I had to my first. In a sense, I wanted English to become a fully expressive instrument; and for that, I needed to learn not only its vocabulary and grammar, but its inflections and rhythms, its specific music.
That took a long time. But when I started writing, I found that music had become embedded in my mind, or cells, as a sort of template, a psychic paradigm for what I wanted, however presumptuously, to achieve in my new medium. There was the music of the language itself, which I wanted to mould, and which mattered to me perhaps all the more because it took me a while to become attuned to it. But there were also other, sometimes elusive qualities, which I wanted to transfer from music to words: a certain smooth fluency, whereby each note elides into the next with apparent seamlessness; the sense that a verbal, no less than a musical composition, needs to find its voice, its tonal register, which corresponds to some subtle pitch of mind, a perspective, or atmosphere; and that each work should strive for a form which arises from its thematic content, and gives it a fitting shape.
Of course, as Pater knew, most forms of expression rarely attain the felt form, the condensed meaningfulness of music. Writing, especially in the extended medium of prose, almost necessarily deploys the materials of explicit narrative. It talks of specific situations or events, of "what happens", and sometimes what will happen next. Music also unfolds in time, and contains development, reiterations, turns of theme. But it rarely makes an argument, or "tells a story." Its meanings are built through a self-referential, inner logic. Writing is made of discrete particles of perception; music can sometimes say everything at once, can express both grief and joy in the same chord.
It is such disparities that make it famously difficult to write about music. And yet, eventually, I wanted to do just that; to try to translate into words the fantastic force I feel within music, and also, the all-absorbing experience of playing, of stepping right into the universes of Schubert, Bartok or Chopin. I have found it a great pleasure, as well as a great challenge, to attempt this. I don't think the utterly sensuous, and utterly impalpable nature of music can be described directly. But in writing about a pianist, I wanted to follow her from within, as she moves through the tensions and resolutions of the compositions she plays, their trajectories of mood and movement, their alternations between turbulence and serenity; and as she falls into states of mental and bodily concentration in which she almost becomes the thing she plays, and achieves moments of what can be only called transcendence.
But I also wanted to explore the Janus face of romanticism, the way that the quest for transcendent meanings can lead to the drive for violence, as well as for sublimity. In my novel Illuminations, these two polarities meet - and eventually, terribly collide - in an encounter between Isabel Merton, the protagonist, and her increasingly fanatical nationalist lover. Because music adumbrates meanings rather than ideas, it is rarely ideological; but its intensities have appealed to extremist ideologues of all stripes. Lenin apparently loved Beethoven's Appassionata. But in another sense, music is the opposite of extremism, or the simplistic reductiveness of violence; a great composition can include anger and even rage, but it contains these within complex and multi-layered form; and almost always, the music we love works its way through the darker emotions to a more reconciled acceptance.
Still, playing, and performing, can be heady stuff. For about a year after I made the decision to give up music professionally, I could hardly touch the piano, for fear that it would remind me of lost plenitude. Then I started playing again, less methodically, but with great enjoyment. And since then, I have found that writing, for all its arduousness, can also take you up whole. On a personal level, it has allowed me to explore new corners of the world; and also, aspects of memory and history, moral problems and social issues which have mattered to me intensely. It is the stretching demand of the linguistic medium that it allows you, indeed, calls on you, to apprehend experience in many dimensions, and in many kinds of ways: through discursive ideas as well as lyrical compression, from a critical distance as well as through empathy, by trying to grasp the realities of the external world, as well as the interior riddles of individual subjectivity.
Luckily, there is no incompatibility between the two. Writing is something I now struggle with every day (well, almost every day). But music continues to be a source of pleasure, and sometimes profound meaning. Its origins seem to go back far into our evolutionary development, and its patterns seem to be deeply encoded in our neurological and biological substance. In his book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks, a physician and neurotherapist, hazards the guess that this form of love is akin to "biophilia"; that we have a natural affinity for music, as we have for organic life. Music, in his poignant case studies, heals the worst symptoms of dementia; it helps post-encephalitic patients to organise their movements; in cases of severe memory loss, it often remains after everything else is gone. It is as if music has the power to shape and bring into focus our neurological systems, to pattern, through its structured motion, the patterns and dynamics of our interior lives.
I cannot listen to music when I write; it funnels me too completely into itself. But I would find it difficult to live without a piano. However, the piano is there, providing reassurance that music is one of the infinite resources, of which there never need be a shortage; there to draw on for contemplation, consolation, release, and even inner health.