Today I am writing about Charles Baxter’s short story, “Gershwin’s Second Prelude,” a beautiful example of inter-art in the form of a short story wrapped around a piece of music. Baxter, like Ann Beattie from the last post, is an American writer born in 1947.
In this story, Kate, the protagonist, is in a tenuous relationship with Wiley. Wiley borrows money from Kate and can’t keep a job. He’s unpredictable and irritating. But he’s also a brilliant, charismatic guy—a great lover and a very funny man who keeps Kate amused with his clown antics. Kate is taking piano lessons from Mme. Gutowski, an ancient Polish pianist who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and knew Ravel, Bartók, and Cocteau. The story runs like two trains on parallel tracks. We switch from Kate and Wiley to Kate and Mme. and then back to Wiley again. When Kate finds a needle in the bathroom cabinet, Wiley admits he likes doing heroin. Kate asks why he does it. “I like to feel like God,” Wiley said. “I like to have the sun explode and then spray over my face” (p. 9).
Meanwhile over on the piano train, Kate is failing miserably at Shubert and Mme. instructs her to cease: “’No more Schubert,’ she repeated irritably. ‘You play like an American. You speed up the tempo to make a climax. This is Schubert, not Las Vegas’” (p. 2). She orders her pupil to play Gershwin’s Second Prelude instead. “’Gershwin?’ Kate frowned. ‘That’s trash’” (p. 3). But Mme. disagrees. Gershwin, she argues “’requires wizard, but teaches tenderness from first bar to end. You Americans have such trouble learning tenderness, I don’t understand. Learn to relax into calm’” (p. 3). Mme. talks about dead musicians as if they were alive and accessible. She encourages Kate to get to know Gershwin, “a nice boy. You two will adore each other” (p. 3).
Here’s where you stop to listen to Gershwin’s second prelude. This is Michel Legrande’s 1994 recording of all three preludes; you can skip to number two from 1:25-3:56.
After Wiley leaves her, Kate shows up to her piano lesson drunk, and Mme. tells her a story about her lover in Paris many years ago who succumbed to opium and the delusion that you can be happy all of the time. That lover ended up committing suicide by leaping from the top of a cathedral.
Mme. describes those artists who grab at joy and happiness: “’Joy is infected. Joy for too long is infection. Cannot last’” (p. 14). Rather, it’s what appears to be mundane that has value: “’Boredom has its own tenderness, its own mercy’” (p. 15).
I cannot reduce Baxter’s complex story to one takeaway, but perhaps Madame has it right—what may seem boring, the day-to-day sitting at the piano bench (or writing desk) and working at making a connection with the composer/reader, is the key. Grabbing at happiness and trying to make joy last will make you crazy and sick.
At the end of the story, Mme. extracts a promise from Kate that she won’t keep striving to be happy and insists on a toast with imaginary champagne: “’You will become a hero. You will learn to face losses of giant size’” (p. 15). And they raise their invisible glasses to celebrate loss, boredom, and hard work.
I listened to Gershwin’s piece a few times, trying to understand what its presence meant in the story. I felt the melancholy of the persistent refrain. The minor notes seem to undercut the jaunty rhythm, and five notes repeated throughout the prelude seem to illustrate the boredom tinged with tenderness that Mme. spoke of.
This story reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s message about stubborn gladness. She writes that her “ultimate choice, then, is to always approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness” (p. 219). She just plugs away, trusting throughout losses and wins, ups and downs. Note she does not use the word happiness or the word joy; she uses gladness.
Stubborn gladness. Tender boredom.
Baxter, C. (1984). Gershwin’s second prelude. Harmony of the world. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.
Gilbert, E. (2015). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.