Today is Eugene Stickland‘s Birthday! So in honour of the special occasion I’m posting the link to this review of The Piano Teacher from Hubert O’Hearn.
And Congratuations! go out to Eugene as well on being awarded
The City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize!
The Piano Teacher
by Eugene Stickland
Published by BHouse Publications 2015, Trade Paperback, 251 pages
Purchase copies here
As a general rule (named for one of our country’s finest military leaders) I like to ignore the author’s biographical details when reviewing a piece of imaginative fiction. Knowing where a writer went to school, who he had lunch with in 1974, or the circumstances behind the sort of divorce that sells extra copies of The Daily Mail adds nothing but trivia to a reader’s experience with the work itself. If it adds depth, well then he should have bloody well included it in the first place. I have enough trouble remembering where I left the keys to the lock on the garden gate without having to go searching about for clues to a novel’s intent.
There are however exceptions to the general rule (as he found when his troops mutinied after the disastrous Battle of Bar Coasters) and The Piano Teacher presents one of them. Eugene Stickland is best-known as a Canadian playwright and a teaching writer-in-residence. Those experiences are funneled through his imagination in the creation of this occasionally spiky yet generally sentimentally loving first novel.
The book is in three sections, each corresponding to the entries made in three notebooks given to the unnamed narrator by his equally unnamed niece. As Stickland has not chosen to name the narrator I’m going to do it for him as it will seem rather Victorian to spend the next few hundred words writing about ‘our main character’ like Our Mutual Friend or Our Miss Brooks. I’m going to call him Bob. So there.
Bob has never written anything like a diary or a journal before and so he decides to do just that with these notebooks, addressing the entries to his niece. She is a student of creative writing which in turn makes Bob feel more than a bit self-conscious and apologetic regarding his word choice and over-reliance on parenthetical comments (something I know absolutely nothing about).
Although we are told nothing else about the niece other than what is mentioned above, her existence as unseen audience was a cunning choice by Stickland. You see, Bob is one of those all too familiar artists – in this case an aging concert pianist and occasional composer – who is fantastically expressive within his chosen medium yet emotionally stunted, almost mute, when it comes to emotional engagement with other people in real life situations. In other words, Bob is a romantic trapped inside a bachelor. Because he is writing about himself to a real person, one who might someday read his words, Bob pulls back slightly from a full revelation of his feelings. Were his diary addressed solely to himself or to God (two of the three conventional ‘audiences’ to whom an actor can choose to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy; the third is the present audience) there would be no need for the filter. Bob would just blurt it all out, refrain from any secrecy, and we readers would lose the gentle unwrapping of his character that gives The Piano Teacher structure and emotional narrative.
Because Stickland is a playwright whose best-known work is probably Queen Lear (described as ‘two-hand with cello’) he has a phenomenally excellent ear for dialogue and pace. That is vital. When one is going to spend 250 pages or so internally listening to one voice talk, that voice itself had better well be a pleasant one. While Bob may be a bit of a priss and a borderline snob, he also mixes in his withering comments with self-deprecation and melancholy, like a Jake Arrieta or before him Greg Maddux working three pitches to keep the hitter guessing.
That baseball metaphor wasn’t chosen on whim. When Bob was a boy, baseball was to him what Rosebud was to Charles Foster Kane. Bob wanted to be a baseball player, but when his talent at the piano was recognized and encouraged by his teacher and mentor Alfred, well so much for balls, bats and the seventh-inning stretch.
Bob too becomes a teacher, out of sympathy for his building manager and her daughter. The manager is undergoing cancer treatment as is Olga Lipinski, a piano teacher herself who came closest to breaking Bob out of his emotional turtle shell. So he takes on the seven year-old as his first and only pupil which allows Stickland to write quite beautifully about the confusion, the frustration, and the little victories all teachers know so well.
Alfred was probably the only one who could have endured my tempestuous nature as a boy and guided my playing (and me) to the very highest level. There’s no real template for a good teacher, is there, dear niece? We find, somehow, if we are lucky, the people we are meant to learn from and the others just drift past us. Some may become friends and even lovers, but very few will ever earn the right to be known as our teacher. It’s true, in his fashion, in his time, Alfred touched my life in a profound way. Olga Lipinski has clearly touched the lives of many. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to say the same about myself.
The Piano Teacher could easily have been a play. Indeed it might have been a memorable one with several musical interludes built-in; rather as if the one-man show about Truman Capote, Tru was played by the late Victor Borge. However, we should be glad that it is instead a novel. The confined space of three little notebooks and action that is nearly ninety percent set within Bob’s condominium open up the shyness, the ego, that oil and water forced into the same jar, that is the life of an artist. The Piano Teacher is a fine and funny book. Humour written in a minor key.
Be seeing you.
(This review is reposted here with permission and appeared here previously.)