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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]