The Pianoplayers is the second Anthony Burgess novel I’ve read this year (you can read my review of Nothing Like the Sun here), which, if you know anything about my obsession with the man, is not surprising. While The Pianoplayers is in many ways a deeply flawed book (more on that later), it certainly verifies the preternatural versatility and mad genius of its author.
The novel, published in 1986, tells the story (in an impressive first-person narration) of Ellen Henshaw, a retired prostitute who reflects back on her troubled childhood, where she was raised by her musician father who was not appreciated in his own time. Most of the book details her father’s days playing in sleazy pubs and movie houses, often pulling 20-hour musical sessions while Ellen is left alone to discover her own sexuality and the path that would lead her to a life of selling her body to men. The novel has a thesis as it were: the connection between being able to play a musical instrument and to please a woman sexually, and this is a metaphor that Ellen carries with her for the duration of her story.
Despite the use of a female protagonist, this is one of Burgess’ most autobiographical novels: like Ellen, he too lost his mother and an older sibling to the Spanish Flu of 1918; and like Ellen’s dad, Burgess’ own father was a two-bit piano player working in pubs of dubious reputation in Manchester. After reading The Pianoplayers, I now have to wonder if Burgess wasn’t also sexually compromised as a young teenager by an older person, as this is the second of his protagonists that this has happened to. (The other instance I’m thinking of is with Kenneth Toomey, his homosexual lead character in Earthly Powers, who is seduced by an older man – oddly enough, on the same day in history that James Joyce’s Ulysses is set.)
There are some real flourishes of narrative brilliance in The Pianoplayers, but they’re ultimately undone by the book’s many structural flaws. Burgess sets up a frame for the novel – Ellen is actually telling her story to a wayward writer she meets in Paris, since she herself is not all that literary or articulate – but it’s a frame he never follows through on. Once the sections about Ellen’s dad have run their course, the novel inexplicably shifts gears and focuses on a second-hand tale about Ellen’s son, who is on a disastrous continental holiday with his wife and mother-in-law. The mother-in-law kicks it halfway through their road trip, and the story deteriorates from there into a kind of prototype for Weekend at Bernie’s. At no point is Burgess able to lace together this bizarre narrative tangent about Ellen’s son with the great storytelling about her dad from earlier in the book, and then the novel suddenly ends with no clear conclusion or sense of meaning. It’s almost like he had two short novels that he decided to mash into one.
Having said all that, The Pianoplayers exhibits the many hallmarks of Burgess’ best writing: the obsession with music, the obsession with both high and low culture, the endlessly twisting word play, and the theme that became the cornerstone of his life’s work – that connection between creative impulse and the impulse for violence/destruction.
The Pianoplayers is one of the weaker members of the Burgess canon but it was definitely a fun read. If you were coming to the man’s books cold and had no sense of what he was truly capable of (think Earthly Powers, think A Clockwork Orange, think Enderby’s End), then The Pianoplayers would be an adequate primer to the man’s literary capabilities and life-long fascinations.