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First Person

Master Class

April 4, 2013 | by

450The packet came in the mail. My first MFA workshop would be led by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. So I did what any good writing student does: I bought and read one of her books. I remember humming along through Disturbances in the Field, deeply engaged with Lydia, a Manhattan pianist who understands her life through the lessons of the great philosophers. “Heraclitus was right,” she says. “No sooner is a position established than it erodes. The solid earth under our feet melts into water, evaporates into air, and is consumed in fire. I moved from one family to another.” The mood is heady, the details exquisite. Here, I thought, is a novel unhampered by plot: a capacious, intelligent book about the endless trouble of being smart and a woman, of being with other people and alive. A book that showed me how to write sentences, and how to live a life of the mind. Twenty-three in Brooklyn, I took constant, exuberant notes.

But then, halfway through, like a guillotine, the plot falls into place. Something irreversible occurs in Lydia’s life, something devastating. And despite the book’s description, despite the many, many narrative clues, I was shocked. Suddenly, I had in my hands an entirely different book. The armor of ideas Lydia had been forging no longer fit the shape of the world; somehow, she’d have to recast it. Schwartz was even more masterful than I’d thought.

Mildly daunted, I made my way to Bennington, where I met the author herself: a small, dignified woman who clearly didn’t suffer fools. Somehow, I managed to call her Lynne. As a teacher, she turned out to be quite compatible with her book: broad-minded yet blunt, rigorous yet humane. Unsurprisingly, she’d read everything—because, as she often insisted, the only way to become a writer was to read and live and write. Like Lydia, she could always call up just the right book for any situation.

Lynne wasn’t the first writer I’d known, but she may have been the first with whom I kept up a regular correspondence. I learned recklessly from her recommendations, and from her own books, too. In her memoir of bibliophilia, Ruined By Reading, she cautions that “the writer is born of our fantasies. Reading her book, we fashion her image, which has a sort of existence, but never in the flesh of the person bearing her name.” And yet, I really did know this person, which had to count for something. We traded childhood stories, discovered a mutual affection for Daniel Deronda and Natalia Ginzburg, shared news of births and deaths. She was known as one of the bad cops at Bennington, famous for being tough on her students. Well, if this was bad, I wouldn’t waste my time with good.

It was with this insider smugness that I picked up Lynne’s twenty-second book, Two-Part Inventions, another novel about a pianist in New York. Inspired by the real-life Joyce Hatto and her husband William Barrington-Coupe, it’s the story of a marriage in the rarefied, highly pressurized chambers of classical music—and of an artist whose greatest success is built on a foundation of lies.

Suzanne is a world-class musician—gifted hands, perfect ear—and yet her producer husband, Philip, has been splicing portions of other recordings into hers, creating more perfect compositions and earning her the critical acclaim he feels she greatly deserves. Lynne’s question is how any artist could bear such a deception in her name, a puzzle she unpacks elegantly and economically, more Colm Tóibín than Richard Powers, allowing her characters’ hyperfocused ambitions to shape the novel’s style.

Lynne has always written exceptionally well about loss—in the 9/11 novel The Writing on the Wall, in the blackly comic tale of survivor guilt Referred Pain, and of course in Disturbances in the Field—so it’s no surprise to find a few traumas here. The most obvious is Philip’s at age nine, when his parents and younger brother are killed in a car accident. The aunt and uncle who raise him do their best, but lack in optimism and warmth, and it is from this childhood that he grows into an affable but dangerously adaptable man willing to take shortcuts to achieve his goals.

Suzanne’s childhood, meanwhile, is marked by prodigy, an exhilarating gift: “It was just there, mixed in with the rest of you, the parts that were like everyone else’s, but not everyone else had this. It made you special.” Lynne herself was a talented child; in Ruined by Reading, she recalls reading aloud from the New York Times for her parents’ friends, much as the four-year-old Suzanne must entertain company at the piano. 

Yet despite her specialness, Suzanne is “troubled by the notion that she might not be real … How could you be sure you weren’t just a mind dreaming moment to moment, a mind dreaming up a mind?” With some effort she concludes that “Real was being seen, noticed, acknowledged, and later remembered. Real was people thinking about you when you weren’t in the room.”

I could relate to Suzanne as I imagined Lynne did. She begins, as we had, as a dreamy, ravenous student, awed by her powers of comprehension and expression, eager to learn and master the best pieces, and ambitious in her aspirations for her work—which only makes her eventual agon with stage fright that much more unsettling. Talent, it turns out, really sets you up for loss.

At least, it does for Suzanne. The demands of professionalism hit her hard, and at her first major adult recital, her ceiling comes crashing down: “As she entered from the wings, the lights assaulting her eyes were so bright that for an instant she saw nothing but bursts of color like fireworks, low to the ground. She paused, blinked, then moved toward the large dark object in the center of the flaring colors: the piano.”

Dear God, that piano. So alluring, so dreadful. I couldn’t help but feel Suzanne’s agony, how difficult it is for her to do the very thing at which she most excels: “Her fingers, those dutiful slaves, trained robots, were the only part that kept their facility, and she let them go as they would.” She is like an addict at the keys, the thing she has loved and needed so much utterly wearing her down. This is the terror of getting exactly what you want when what you want is to live in other people’s minds. She loses not only her specialness, but her privacy as well.

*

Of course, countless writers I’ve never met have struck similar nerves in me, and no doubt this scene strikes a nerve for the many readers who don’t know Lynne. But for me, it was especially thrilling to encounter such a perfect evocation of art’s horrors by a person who’d coached me through them, and with whom I’ve shared so many of its joys.

Lynne has said that she is interested in “the self we feel ourselves to be inside and the persona we present to the world.” Trauma, which grips the inner life even as the public life staggers on, offers some excellent terrain. But so does art, divulging the fruits of secret energies to an audience outside the self. Sometimes that audience is receptive; sometimes it can never be enough. Suzanne’s sad career is a tale of plagiarism and deceit, but it’s also a deft portrait of the artist too much enthralled with expectation.

As my fiction teacher, Lynne was among the first serious audiences I ever tried to please. She was incredibly generous about it, indulging my nerdy enthusiasm, while nudging me toward clarity and care. But she was also quick to point out that I would always be my own best judge. Or as she once told the Writer’s Chronicle, “Doing what is expected of you, by parents, by society, by institutions, by anyone and anything … can be very harmful in life, but it’s lethal in writing. Once the desire to please or to fulfill others’ wishes creeps into writing, the work becomes pointless.”

The same, I’m sure, goes for music. If only Suzanne had had such a teacher. 

 Katherine Hill lives and writes in the Northeast. Her first novel, The Violet Hour, will be published by Scribner in July

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