Authors: Michéle Halberstadt
To Laurent Bonelli
my little prince
But the fool on the hill
Feels the sun coming down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round
HE DOESN’T KNOW THE COLOR OF THE SKY OR THE
shape of the clouds, doesn’t know the meaning of blue or red, of dark or pale. She lives in blackness. This is the word they have given to what she describes. She can make out light by its heat, its smell, sometimes even its sound: the flickering of a candle, the crackling of fire. She knows that daytime throbs with agitation and that silence awaits nightfall to be heard. Luckily for her, listening is what she does best.
She discerns sounds to which no one lends an ear: the greenhouse pane shuddering in its frame when the west wind blows; the cat’s tongue scraping its coat as it licks itself clean. She has never mistaken a sharp for a flat, a wood pigeon for a turtledove. What stirs her blood are the nuances—the spectrum of sounds, the scale of emotions. She can differentiate between alarm and fear, between a gust and a breeze, between courtesy and sincerity, between allegro and allegretto. She feels, she quivers. She vibrates, trembles, shivers.
She blushes as well.
She hopes she is pretty but is not reassured by the sympathies she elicits from her visitors. How can they be trusted? They are blinded by the pity she inspires. A young woman sitting before her musical instrument makes for a fetching image. She imagines it, composes it behind her eyelids. It could be the name of a painting. “Young Woman at the Piano.” But for the painting to work, the woman in question must be attractive.
She remembers when her father overheard her timidly asking Nina, the chambermaid, “Would you say I’m pretty?”—how he rushed out from the drawing room, placed his daughter’s hands around Nina’s ample hips, then around her own, and murmured: “You’re so delicate, your hands almost fit around your waist.” The pride she felt just then rippled through her body like a wave of heat.
So, she is delicate. With a pleasant figure. She has long, thick hair that Nina confines in a silk net to keep it out of her face. It stays hidden behind her neck, the low bun growing heavier as the day wears on. Her cheeks seem soft to the touch, her straight nose a bit long, her mouth full, lips chapped because she nibbles at them then tries in vain to relieve the burning with a flick of the tongue.
She is proud of her slender fingers, the nails, cut short, which she polishes every day before feeling for the flowers engraved around the lock on the piano lid, the key to which never leaves her pocket.
It is her piano, hers and hers alone.
She has locked her world inside it. Seven notes that can segue into infinity for those who take the pains to master them. For her it was not about pain, but suffering. She should hate that instrument, symbol of a world that abruptly turned its back on her. Still, she plays tirelessly, her eyes open like two crystals that no longer reflect a thing, neither curves nor colors. Her gaze has been blank, like a window with its shutters closed, since that wooly morning she woke up blind.
Can anyone remember anything from the age of three? Her first memory is of loss, fear.
She wakes up and does not recognize anything. The world around her is a dark blur. When she reaches out her hand, the candle flame burns it. She lets out a piercing scream, but not of pain. Her terror is absolute. She senses the candle but cannot see it. She knows she should be able to discern its flickering glow, yet nothing emerges from the obscurity that has engulfed her. She turns around, gropes in her bed, finds the piece of bluish satin that she rolls around her thumb to fall asleep. The cloth has lost its shimmer. It is just another ominous element in the blackness that has erased everything from her room. She screams.
People come rushing in. She recognizes them only by their voices, their scents. Her father’s hoarse, quivering pitch; the starch that perfumes Nina’s apron and the freshness of her soothing hands; her mother’s hysterical wails and warm tears that dampen the piece of satin she sucks on as she rocks to a nursery rhyme only she can hear. Trying to soothe the fear, to tame the darkness that has swallowed her since she woke.
Topsy-turvy. Everyone around her is thrust into an emotional vortex. They try to escape, they flail about, they run in circles. Frenzied footsteps, doors slamming shut, servants scurrying about, windows bursting open, shouts to have the carriage prepared; then hoofs banging on the cobblestone, whips snapping at manes, horses galloping a few streets away to fetch Herr Stolz, the family doctor—his heavy, muffled footsteps in her bedroom, the clanking of cold instruments he removes from his bag, the warm compresses he instructs Nina to hold against her eyelids till they burn, the steam baths, the salves, the ointments. Nothing works. Neither silence nor noise. Neither cold nor heat. Nor prayers, nor tears, nor science, nor medicine. Neither her mother’s pleading nor Nina’s hands.
Eight days later, the news had made its way around Vienna. Maria Theresia von Paradis, the only child of the Imperial Secretary to the Empress, has lost her sight.
HE PLAYED THE PIANO BEFORE. OR RATHER, SHE
loved to put her fingers on the keys that seemed disproportionately large beneath her tiny hands. Especially the long black ones, higher than the white ones, slimmer, more mysterious as well. Though a black key alone is of little interest, it can transform the sonority of a white one: accentuate its lightness, underscore its melancholy.
The wooden piano in the parlor had always been her refuge, her favorite toy. She considers that she had mastered music before language. As a matter of fact, she sang her first word. She hated it when the cat would sit on the edge of the piano lid. She would tell him to “Get down!” “
” she would say. But he scared her a bit, so she softened the imperative, finessing it into two notes—D, E. “Runter” became the nickname of poor Hanz, who at the age of twelve had to get used to this new appellation.
Her days are now invariably spent behind a piano. When she practices or gives a concert, it is on the stately grand piano that proudly dominates the large drawing room. But when she can get away and play for herself, when she wants to improvise, compose, rant and rave, confide in herself, assuage the vehemence she keeps bottled up, it is on the piano that Runter no longer dares approach. She has the only key that opens it, but she knows that it is in fact the piano which holds the key to her dreams, her turmoil. It is a diary full of feelings she refuses to share with anyone, feelings she smothers by keeping them to herself. Only the piano of her childhood knows her secrets.
The yellow of the candle, the blue of the satin, the off-white of the milk that left the yummy mustache on her upper lip—these are the only colors etched in her memory. She knows that the sun looks like the candle, the sky like the cloth, the piano keys like the color of milk. She has forgotten all the others. Red, green, orange, purple—they mean nothing to her. They are words devoid of meaning. So she has turned them into notes. Red is vivid, thus G-sharp. Green is a soft shade: F. Orange is conspicuous: E. Purple is more discreet: C-flat. And to the color of the wood framing her piano she has given her favorite note: C.
She is no longer frustrated to have lost a sense the appeal of which she has forgotten. What is sight, exactly? To know what everyday objects look like? A table, a chair, a mirror? But she knows better than anyone, in her own way, and this way suits her. Her father, who puts her piano stool in its place every morning, for example, has no idea that the front left leg squeaks each time she leans forward to hit one of the pedals. Has Nina, who cleans the large chest of drawers in her room every day, ever noticed that the paint is flaking from under the ledge and that the unvarnished wood is visible? No one really knows at what they look. Yet she, with her ear that attends the slightest quivering of the air, her fingers that question every object they touch, her sense of smell that is so keenly developed she can predict what the weather will be in three days—she knows she is nobody’s fool.
With time, she has persuaded herself that sight is an illusion that leads the other senses astray, renders them ineffective. Whereas hers are always alert. Blind? What’s the fuss? She lives in another world and she likes it there.
Alas, this is something her father cannot accept.
Joseph Anton, secretary to Their Majesties, expressed his gratitude to the Empress by naming his daughter after her, and the excessive love he bore his child would make his wife jealous her whole life long. He who exclaimed upon discovering his new-born: “The fairies of beauty and talent have blessed this child!”, he, the influential diplomat whose advice is sought by the members of the Court, who is privileged to see Their Majesties every day, for whom nothing is more important than social status, whose comely wife gave him a daughter of unmistakable beauty—he who has been refused nothing cannot admit that fate has played such a nasty trick on him.
His daughter must be cured. It is his wish.
So while music teachers instructed Maria Theresia in song and harmony, men of science turned her into their guinea pig, alternating bloodletting with purges and cauteries, putting leeches on her eyelids, confining her head to cataplasms for days on end, and even trying a new discovery: electrical seizure induction. So painful were the treatments that new symptoms soon appeared: nervous trembling, attacks of panic, uncontrollable sobbing at dusk—and the blindness never diminished. By the time Joseph Anton admitted that the various procedures to which his daughter was submitted only made her worse, he had succeeded in weakening both her health and her nerves.
At seventeen, Mademoiselle Paradis, born a child prodigy and blind soon after, passionate and docile, had grown into a graceful young adult with sophisticated manners—a reputed virtuoso pianist who, behind her beautiful and smooth face, hides the violent torments of a troubled, melancholic temperament. She knows she is misunderstood, feels unloved, and trusts no one.
The Empress made Maria Theresia her protégée because she appreciated her father and sympathized with his misfortune. And even if she was not her godmother, she felt responsible for this child who bore her name—all the more because of her remarkable musical talent. To confirm her own persuasion in that regard, the Empress entrusted the child at age five to Georg Christoph Wagenseil, her personal musical counselor and the official composer to the Court. This famous pianist taught harpsichord to a handful of pupils from Viennese high society. Struck by her talent, he recommended her to Herr Kotzeluck to work on piano and to Abbot Vogler, an expert in composition, so she might write her own music. Proud not to have been mistaken about the girl’s potential, the Empress decided to bequeath her an annuity of 200 gold ducats. A small fortune managed by Joseph Anton, whose lifestyle flourished proportionately.