In his 29th novel, The Pianoplayers, Anthony Burgess presents the fictional memoirs of an exuberant old British prostitute, Ellen Henshaw, who is enjoying a well-earned retirement in the south of France. But it is also a thinly veiled excuse for the author to indulge, through Ellen’s memory, in reminiscences of his impoverished boyhood in 1920s England. Whole paragraphs of the book are given over to lists of popular songs of the time, including “Never Be Cruel to a Vegitubel” and “Beer Beer Glorious Beer.” There is even a nostalgic evocation of the foods that poor people ate—mostly chips, white bread and HP sauce. Those details impart richness to a novel that needs all the help it can get: The Pianoplayers starts off wonderfully but eventually loses its sense of direction. It takes all of Burgess’s considerable storytelling skills to hold his readers to the confusing end.
The novel opens with Ellen’s long
recollection of her widowered father, Billy—the most absorbing part of The Pianoplayers and one of the most engaging portraits Burgess has ever drawn. A pianist in a Manchester silent-movie house, Billy is, in his way, a devoted artist who gives more than is demanded of him. He has concocted an array of sound effects, including a biscuit tin filled with dried peas that he shakes to simulate the sound of rain. But he is also capable of real mischief if he feels underappreciated. On one occasion, when a butcher’s ad appears on the screen, he breaks irreverently into the “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) from the Roman Catholic mass.
Billy’s struggle to survive is pathetic because it is so obviously doomed. He quarrels with his employers, drinks too much ale and falls in love with a heartless woman. But he is devoted to his young daughter, giving her lessons at the piano, which Burgess’s wit turns into pure fun. Burgess also uses Ellen’s loyalty to her father to build a scene of heartrending comedy. When Billy, having wolfed down seven unripe bananas, is too sick to work, Ellen takes his place in the cinema. But Billy has taught her chords instead of melodies, and she is forced to improvise. She survives the ordeal, only to realize that she does not know how to play “God Save the King” at the end of the show. Ellen solves her dilemma by pretending to faint.
About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Billy dies of cardiac arrest during a marathon piano-playing contest. With his death, the novel loses a warmth and momentum that Burgess never recovers. The orphaned Ellen, although only 14, goes to work for a European prostitution ring catering to rich clients. Burgess’s attempt to romanticize her new profession rings false, as do his tortured efforts to link it thematically to the rest of the novel. Women are like instruments, Ellen explains at one point, and must be played during the sex act with all the skill that a piano requires.
The author seems to recognize that he has stumbled into unproductive territory, because he soon shifts from Ellen’s career to the story of a car trip her son, Robert, takes to Italy in 1964 with his wife and mother-in-law. Although extremely amusing, the account has little, if anything, to do with the rest of the book. In fact, The Pianoplayers reads as though it were made up of salvaged pieces from a larger, failed novel. It is a measure of Burgess’s skill that even his misfirings are more entertaining than many other authors’ successes.
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