More about That Piano Student

Earlier this month I edited three sentences from a wonderful short story by William Trevor. I invited visitors to this blog to offer feedback and edits of their own. One particularly impressive response came from my friend Margaret Swanson. I asked Margaret to write a guest post about the story, and I’m very pleased that she agreed:

A Good Muse is Hard to Find
R.I.P. William Trevor                                                       by Margaret Swanson

The Piano Teacher’s Pupil was found on William Trevor’s desk after his death in 2016. It’s his “swan song,” his final work of art, and can be seen as a review of his life through the eyes of Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, the piano teacher. Trevor probably considered it finished.  As the story’s last line says, “it is enough.”

The title has a double meaning: pupil=student and pupil=the eye. The minimal action is confined to the room where “all of her life, she often thought,” had been. We are inside Nightingale’s head. With the arrival of her new pupil, she starts to view things from a new perspective. She reassesses her relationships – with her father, her lover, her student. Her contemplation is triggered by the “genius” of her flawed new pupil, “the boy.”

When the boy plays for her the first time, she is stunned, managing only a gentle, innocuous critique. She sizes him up, slowly, thoroughly: “His dark hair, not too short, was in a fringe….” The sentence is awkward, slowing us down in sync with her thoughts. She goes on for a paragraph appraising him. He waits, smiling. He knows she’s impressed. And he knows he’s going to steal from her, as he has from previous teachers. No doubt they praised his prowess, but didn’t value it enough to put up with him. When she later discovers his theft, Nightingale agonizes, but decides to overlook it.  She leads him to the front door after each lesson, her back turned, while he slips something into his bag.

At last she has a worthy pupil. Nightingale sits, surrounded by her lifetime of treasures, inventoried as she sips her sherry on the April evening after the boy’s lesson. “Daffodils in vases were on the sofa table and on the corner shelf near the door.” It goes without saying that they’re beautiful, just as it goes without saying that the boy’s playing is inspired. Nightingale decides “She would say nothing to the mother if the mother telephoned to ask how the boy was getting on.” Repeating “the mother” emphasizes Nightingale’s contempt for the “foolish” woman who “rattled on.” The “if” shows doubt that she will even ask. The mother is also a bird, a long-beaked one, feeding her young on the emblem – ugly in Nightingale’s opinion – repeated on the boy’s school uniform.

Is Nightingale a muse? In poetry, nightingales represent art, beauty, creativity, yearning, and sometimes the Muses, the Greek goddesses of the arts. Nightingales sing their sweetest where the Muses buried Orpheus. In psychological terms, the muse is the female, creative part of the mind. Nightingale’s beauty is deepening even in her fifties. She’s unmarried, like the Muses; their “children” are artists, like Orpheus. Nightingale was the inspiration for her father’s chocolates; she evoked her lover’s passion; she motivates the boy. She never teaches or praises him. The only way “the boy” (Trevor?) knows she approves of his work is that she doesn’t throw him out for stealing. As an artist, he has to settle for that.

The boy’s thefts cause Nightingale to doubt her prior relationships and question whether she has deluded herself. She muses: Did her father use her? Did her lover deceive her? Has she been gullible? (Is Trevor also the unnamed father and lover?) In the years after the boy’s lessons end, time “quieted her unease.” She becomes again content with her memories, but something still nags.

When the boy returns to play for her, she sees that the mystery of life’s pleasures is all that counts. She can’t bemoan the price paid or question origins. How beauty comes via a rough, coarse, ungainly adolescent thief cannot be fathomed. “The mystery there was in the music was in his smile when he finished, while he sat waiting for her approval.”

She is silent. Her appreciation of his art was a “secret… to be taken for granted between them, not to be gone on about.” William Trevor ‘gets it;’ hence the story. “There was a balance struck.” But he’s never satisfied with his work. At heart he’s still the ungainly adolescent craving praise from his muse.

Margaret Swanson says she had fun getting her bachelor’s degree in English Literature. Now, retired from community planning, she can spend all the time she wants reading.

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