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[374] The Piano Shop on the Left Bank – Thaddeus Carhart

” I didn’t know what the game was, but I sensed that this was not the time to ask a direct question. He had made it as clear as possible that he could not be clear, that an unguessable exchange had to be played out in this oblique and baffling way . . . For the next few weeks, whenever I had dealings in the quartier, I made a point of asking as offhandedly as possible if anyone had done business with the piano repair shop on our street. ” (1:9)

Paris is romantic and beautiful, almost like a dream to the world. Yet in this memoir, which Carhart reflects on his experience of re-entering the world of the piano as an adult, he reveals a Paris that is more than Champs-Élysées and the Louvre but no less seductive. Back in 1989, he relocated to Paris for a corporate communications job. He stumbled upon an unassuming store of which the front window had a strange array of piano repair tools in his quartier while walking his two young children to school. Deprived of a plausible reason, he has put off going inside the atelier until he could no longer stifle his curiosity—but only to be barred by the shop’s imperious owner, who would not sell a used piano to someone who hasn’t come recommended. Then, he met Luc, the piano master in the shop.

Gradually I absorbed his philosophy by listening to what he had to say about the various pianos that arrived and soon left again. Eventually it was a way of getting to know the man, perhaps the best way since our discussions, even when far-ranging, almost always had as their common point of departure and of return our shared interest in these instruments. Things moved slowly, but that was in keeping with the essential guardedness, even formality, of the initial stages of getting to know someone in France. (5:53)

Not only does Luc, who is actually in process of buying Desforges, finds the perfect piano for Carhart, he has become an indispensable guide to the history and art of piano. Most rewarding is a friendship forged that welcomes Carhart, le Americain de quartier, into the inner circle of Parisian community, which operates on a network of local and long-term relationships bound by trust and obligation.

I enjoyed the slow unfolding of a friendship where, beyond our conversations about the pianos in the shop, certain things were tacitly understood. Luc and I virtually never asked about each other’s personal lives, although details occasionally came out as we talked. This was understood as respect rather than lack of interest, a sometimes surprising notion for an American used to the rapid divulging of facts and the urgent expectation of intimacy in new relationships. The pace was different in the atelier and I learned to give things time. (8:84)

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is part memoir and part cultural history. Intertwined with the story of a musical friendship are reflections on the mechanics of pianos, the instrument’s evolution, its dominant role social lubricant before the advent of diversions, and relationship between pianos and some of the greatest composers. Carhart’s sensuous writing, fused with his passion for music, truly captures the ambience of friendship, enthusiasm, music, and French humor that he has become part of. Once Carhart has an introduction from an existing client, he is trusted, and allowed into the hallowed inner sanctum of Luc’s atelier, a goldmine of gorgeous old pianos in every state of disassembly: Erards, Pleyels, Steinways, Bösendorfers. He begins to drop by regularly: Luc explains to him the arcane workings of the instrument, enthuses over beautiful new arrivals, mourns pianos that have seen their last working days. This book is also a hymn to a vanishing age of artisanship. This delightful book is an amateur work, both in that it is written out of love, and also in that it is content to stroke the lacquered surface of its subject without delving too deeply into it.

268 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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17 Responses

  1. I loved this book. It made me miss Paris so very much, a city I haven’t been to in almost ten years. Too long! It struck two chords (sorry!) with me: not only my passion for Paris, but my passion for music. I was once a music major in a piano conservatory…before I had to give way to a more marketable degree. Anyway, love seeing this reviewed on your blog; I can’t remember anyone else who’s read it but us!

    • A friend of mine who is a pianist recommends this book to me after he learned that I’ll be going to Paris. This is such a delightful book to read and I like how it doesn’t delve completely into the depth of the piano’s history and mechanics. Just enough for me to digest.

  2. p.s. I see in your sidebar that you are reading A Death in The Family. That is such a poignant book to me, so moving from the son’s perspective. We’ll talk when you finish it, should you post about it. But, isn’t it lovely? In a sad way?

    • The description of the book sounds very poignant. I have always wanted to read Agee, who actually won a posthumous Pulitzer for this novel.

  3. I loved this book, and not just because I am a pianist by profession or because I love books about Paris. This one has a certain poetic, wondrous quality of discovery to it; it spoke to a certain part of my soul and my personality that loves to explore possibility. So glad you reviewed it!

    • This is an incredible passion book, full of personal anecdotes and passion for piano. I like how it shows us the different side of Paris.

  4. I love passion books. That is to say, books written by those in love with their craft(s). Musicians, artists, chefs, all seem to fall into this category for me. They all seem to be fabulous cross over artists, in one way or another, as their passion seems to turnout just fabulous writing in the process of being so exuberant. Thanks for the review; I’ll keep an eye out for this for sure.

    • I’m reading another one called That Time Was Soft: A Paris Sojourn to Shakespeare & Co. A crime reporter in Canada ended up working at the bookstore. I’m very drawn into these books as well especially the ones set in my vacation destinations. 🙂

  5. I love this book. It is one of my all time favorites.

  6. I will absolutely have to read this one – thank you so much for reviewing it 🙂

  7. Your post makes me long to go to Paris and also makes me long for my piano that I had to sell when I moved and I miss it so much! The book sounds delightful.

    • I’m reading Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris and That Time Was Soft: A Paris Sojourn to Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer. These books will become my travel guide when I get to Paris.

  8. […] The City-Lit Cafe’s list of recommended books on Paris, Stuck in a Book’s review, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook’s review, A Traveller’s Library’s […]

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