Recensie: Moeiteloos door het Europa van 1900

17 september 2018
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Als boekverkoper heb je het voorrecht om boeken te lezen voordat ze verschijnen, zoals de ongecorrigeerde drukproef van Love Is Blind, de nieuwe roman van multitalent William Boyd. Ik had net zijn verhalenbundel The Dreams Of Bethany Mellmoth uit en die smaakte naar meer. Love Is Blind is het soepel geschreven relaas van Brodie Moncur, een jonge Schotse musicus met jampotbril en een begenadigd pianostemmer die in het kielzog van de drankzuchtige concertpianist John Kilbarron en zijn gevolg het Europa van rond 1900 doorkruist. Van de opzettelijke stroefheid in sommige verhalen uit The Dreams Of Bethany Mellmoth is in Love Is Blind geen sprake. Moeiteloos reis je zonder vliegtuig of telefoon door een wereld waar men weliswaar onder het genot van een sigaretje met de dokter de status van zijn TBC bespreekt, maar waar de liefde geruststellend blind is.

Deze tekst schreef Caroline Reeders, de directeur van Athenaeum Boekhandel, voor de Paroolrubriek 'Naar bed met'. Hier vullen we hem aan met een fragment uit het boek.

 

Prologue

Port Blair
Andaman Islands
Indian Empire

11 March 1906

Dear Amelia,

There was an attempt to escape from the jail last night and a small riot ensued. Most unusual. Three of the prisoners were killed but a number managed to flee. Consequently we have a twenty- four- hour curfew imposed on the town so here I am in my house at luncheon writing this long- overdue missive.
All is well, my leg is much better (Dr Klein is very pleased, he says, though I’m walking with a stick – very elegant) and the new tribe we’ve found is slowly becoming accommodating. Colonel Ticknell, the British superintendent here, is most helpful. ‘Your every need, Miss Arbogast, is mine. Please don’t hesitate, the merest trifle, etc., etc.’ And I don’t hesitate (you know me). Transport, bearers, diplomatic postal facilities – even a firearm – have been supplied. I think Col Ticknell has a soft spot for me and he imagines diligent concern will win my heart. No harm in thinking, I suppose. You will call me a calculating minx, but needs must out here.
And, mirabile dictu, the advertisement I placed in the local newspaper and that I personally affixed to the wall in the post office has been answered. I have a new assistant – finally!
A policeman is knocking on the door. The curfew is over, I suspect. I will write again, later.

In the meantime, with my love as always, your sister, Page

PS. By the way my new assistant is a tall young Scotchman, about thirty- five years old, called Brodie Moncur.

 

Part I
Edinburgh
1894

1

Brodie Moncur stood in the main window of Channon & Co. and looked out at the hurrying pedestrians, the cabs, carriages and labouring drays of George Street. It was raining – a steady soft rain driven slant from time to time by the occasional fierce gust of wind – and, under the ponderous pewter light, the sooty facades of the buildings opposite had darkened with the water to a near- black. Like velvet, Brodie thought, or moleskin. He took off his spectacles and wiped the lenses clean on his handkerchief. Looking out of the window again, spectacle- less, he saw that rainy Edinburgh had now gone utterly aqueous. The buildings opposite were a cliff of black suede.
He replaced his spectacles – hooking the wire sides behind his ears – and the world returned to normal. He slipped his watch from his waistcoat pocket. Nearly nine o’ clock – better start. He opened up the glossy new grand piano that was on the display dais, propping up the curved lid with its inlaid mirror (only for display purposes – his idea) the better to present the intricate machinery – the ‘action’ – inside a Channon grand. He removed the fall from over the keys and undid the key- block screws. He checked that no hammers were up and then drew the whole action forward by the flange rail under the front. As it was a new piano it drew out perfectly. Already a passer- by had stopped and was peering in. Drawing out the action always compelled attention. Everyone had seen a grand piano with the lid up but having the action on display somehow altered every easy assumption. The piano no longer seemed familiar. Now all the moving parts were visible beyond the black and white keys – the hammers, the rockers, the jacks, the whippens, the dampers – its innards were exposed like a clock with its back off or a railway engine dismantled in a repair shed. Mysteries – music, time, movement – were reduced to complex, elaborate mechanisms. People tended to be fascinated.
He untied his leather roll of tools, selected the tuning lever and pretended to tune the piano, tightening a few strings here and there, testing them and resetting them. The piano was perfectly tuned – he had tuned it himself when it had emerged, pristine, from the factory two weeks ago. He tuned F a modicum on the sharp side then knocked it in – back into tune – with a few brisk taps on the key. He supported a hammer- head and needled- up the felt a little with his three- pronged voicing tool and returned it to its position. This pantomime of tuning a piano was meant to lure the customers in. He had suggested, at one of the rare staff meetings, that they should have someone actually playing the piano – an accomplished pianist – as they did in showrooms in Germany, and as the Erard and Pleyel piano manufacturers had done in Paris in the 1830s and drawn huge crowds. It was hardly an innovation – but an impromptu recital in a shop window would surely be more enticing than listening to the mannered repetitions of a piano being tuned. Donk! Ding! Donk! Donk! Donk! Ding! He had been overruled – an accomplished pianist would cost money – and instead he was given this job of display- tuning: an hour in the morning and an hour after luncheon. In fact he did attract spectators, although he had been the single beneficiary – he wasn’t sure if the firm had sold one more piano as a result of his demonstrations, but many people and not a few institutions (schools, church halls, public houses) had slipped into the shop, pressed a calling card on him, and offered him out- of- hours piano tuning. He had earned a good few pounds.
So, he played A above middle C several times, to ‘get the pitch’, pointedly listening to the tone with a cocked head. Then played a few octaves. He stood, slipped some felt mutes between strings, took out his tuning lever, set it over a wrest pin at random and gave it some tiny turns, just to deliver torque, then eased the pin slightly to ‘set the pin’ and hit the note hard, to deliver a cast- iron tuning, feeling it in the hand through the lever. Then he sat down and played a few chords, listening to the Channon’s particular voice. Big and strongly resonant – the precision thinness of the sounding board (made from Scottish spruce) under the strings was the special Channon trademark, its trade secret. A Channon could rival a Steinway or a Bösendorfer when it came to breaking through an orchestra. Where the spruce forests were in Scotland that Channon used, what trees were selected – the straighter the tree, the straighter the grain – and what sawmills prepared the timber, were facts known only to a handful of people in the firm. Channon claimed that it was the quality of the Scottish wood they used that made their pianos’ distinct, unique tone.
Brodie’s feigning over, he sat down and started to play ‘The Skye Boat Song’ and saw that the single spectator had now been joined by three others. If he played for half an hour he knew there would be a crowd of twenty looking on. It was a good idea, the Continental idea. Perhaps, out of that twenty, two might enquire about the price of a baby grand or an upright. He stopped playing, took out his plectrum, reached into the piano and twanged a few strings, listening intently. What would that look like to anyone? A man with a plectrum playing a grand piano like a guitar. All very mysterious—
‘Brodie!’
He looked round. Emmeline Grant, Mr Channon’s secretary, stood at the window’s framing edge, beckoning at him. She was a small burly woman who tried to disguise how fond she was of him.
‘I’m in full tune, Mrs Grant.’
‘Mr Channon wants to see you. Right away. Come along now.’
‘I’m coming, I’m coming.’
He stood, thought about closing the piano down but decided against it. He’d be back in ten minutes. He gave a deep bow to his small audience and followed Mrs Grant through the showroom, with its parked, glossy pianos, and into the main hall of the Channon building. Austere unsmiling portraits of previous generations of Channons hung on olive and charcoal- grey striped wallpaper. Another mistake, Brodie thought: it was like a provincial art gallery or a funeral parlour.
‘Give me two minutes, Mrs G. I have to wash my hands.’
‘Hurry along. I’ll see you upstairs. It’s important.’
Brodie went through the back, through a leather, brass- studded door into the warehouse area where the workshop was located. It was a cross between a carpentry shop and an office, he always thought, the air seasoned with the smell of wood shavings, glue and resin. He pushed open the door and found his number two, Lachlan Hood, at work replacing the centre pins on a baby grand – a long job, there were hundreds of them.
Lachlan glanced at him as he came in.
‘What's going on, Brodie? Should you no be in the window?’
‘I’m wanted. Mr Channon.’
He slid up his roll- top desk and opened the drawer where he kept his tin of tobacco. ‘Margarita’ was the brand name: an American blend of Virginia, Turkish and perique tobacco, made by a tobacconist called Blakely in New York City and to be found in only one retailer in Edinburgh – Hoskings, in the Grassmarket. He took one of the three cigarettes he had already rolled and lit it, inhaling deeply.
‘What’s he want you for?’ Lachlan asked.
‘I don’t know. Darling Emmeline says it’s “important”.’
‘Well, it was nice knowing youse. I suppose I’ll get your job, the now.’
Lachlan was from Dundee and had a strong Dundonian accent. Brodie made the sign of the evil eye at him, took two more puffs, stubbed out his cigarette and headed for Ainsley Channon’s office.

[...]

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