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The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, T. E. Carhart

Posted by dlandgren on 2008-10-20

Pem sent me this book some time back, and I finally got around to reading it.

It’s the story of an American writer living in Paris, who learnt to play the piano as a child and after a long hiatus decides to take it up again. That means acquiring a piano for his Parisian apartment and taking up lessons again.

The tale begins a bit wonkily, with a barely credible story of a store keeper who didn’t want his custom because the he lacked the secret handshake. The premise is that you need to be introduced in order to do business in France. It might be the case of this particular shop, but it definitely isn’t the rule. No matter where you are in the world, les affaires sont les affaires, and you can’t pick and choose who you care to do business with, especially when trying to earn a living selling pianos in a city whose dwellings aren’t really designed to cope with them.

I suspect Carhart was more a victim of a aging Le Pen sympathiser suspicious of un étranger, américain de surcroît, than lacking a suitable introduction that would let him into the back of the shop. I have a feeling that the owner would not give a French person the same amount of grief if they walked in off the street. Things take a turn for the better when Luc, who takes over the business is willing to take a chance with Carhart and allows him in.

The story then hits its stride, with a series of vignettes and recollections relating to buying, playing and tuning pianos. I kept hoping he would hold a lens up to French society and look at it as deeply as he did to pianos, but regretfully that side of the story never really moves out of the background. Despite this minor flaw it’s an enjoyable read.

For a detailed account of contemporary French society, Théodore Zeldin’s The French is a good book to dig into, even if it was written in the 1980s.


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