New Fiction in Translation: From “The Life of Elves”

By Muriel Barbery & Alison Anderson

The practice room of Maestro Gustavo Acciavatti was located on the top floor of a fine building, with high casement windows that let the sun transform the parquet floor into a lake of liquid light. The man seated at the keyboard seemed both very young and very old, and when she met his gaze Clara thought of a tree she used to go to when she felt sad. Its roots reached deep into the earth but its boughs were as vigorous as young branches, and it seemed vigilant, which allowed it both to observe and to radiate all around, and it listened, although Clara did not need to speak. She could have described the shape of every stone along her walks, and drawn from memory every branch of every tree. Faces, on the other hand, passed her by as if in a dream before they melted into a universal confusion. Yet this man who was gazing at her in silence was as present and alive to her as her trees, and she could discern the texture of his skin and the iridescence of his eyes, so dazzling it almost hurt. She stood before him. I know you, but I don’t know how. The revelation that he knew who she was flashed through her consciousness then vanished instantly. Suddenly she noticed a form slumped on a chair in the corner of the room. Her eye had detected a movement and she thought she saw a short man who, as far as she could tell, had a little round belly. He had ginger hair and he was snoring, with his head on his shoulder. But as no one paid him any mind, she ignored him, too.

Then the Maestro spoke.

“Who taught you your music?”

“Alessandro,” she answered.

“He says that you learned all on your own. But no one can learn in a day. Was it the priest who gave you lessons?”

She shook her head.

“Someone else in the village?”

“I’m not lying,” she said.

“Adults lie,” he said, “and children believe them.”

“So then you can lie, too.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“The Maestro.”

“What do you want to play?”

“I don’t know.”

He motioned to her to take her place, adjusted the stool, sat down next to her and opened the score that was on the stand.

“Come now, play, play, I’ll turn the pages.”

Clara’s gaze swept quickly and intensely over the two open pages of the score—she blinked, once, twice, three times—and an inscrutable expression settled briefly over the Maestro’s face. Then she played. She played so slowly, so sorrowfully, so perfectly, she played with such infinite slowness, such infinite softness and perfection, that no one could say a word. When she stopped, no one could speak. They knew of no adult who could play the prelude in this way, because this child was playing with a child’s sadness and pain, but with the slowness and perfection of a mature adult, when no adult knows any longer how to attain the enchantment of that which is young and old at the same time.

After a long silence, the Maestro asked her to let him sit in her place, and he played the first movement of a sonata. At the end he introduced a tiny change. She was staring at a blind spot, far beyond any vision. He asked her to play again what she had heard. She did as he asked. He went to fetch the score. She followed what was written there, and did not introduce the change, but as she was about to play that bar she raised her head and looked at him. Then they brought an entire stack of scores which they spread out before her. She opened them, one after the other, blinked once, twice, three times, and they all died and were reborn with each blink of her eyelids, as if in a down pouring of snowflakes from a forgotten dream. Finally, everything seemed transfixed in a heavy, tremulous silence.

One single blink and Clara was staring at the pages of a worn red score, trembling, until each of them was trembling and an abyss opened inside them. She went over to the grand piano and played the Russian sonata which had gripped her with the elation of heights; and they knew that this was how mankind must live and love, in this fury, this peace, with this intensity and rage, in a world swept with the colors of earth and storm, in a world washed blue at dawn and darkened by rain.

A moment went by. I know you but I don’t know how.

There came a discreet knock at the door.

“Yes?” said the Maestro.

“Governor Santangelo,” came the reply.

Clara sat on alone in the room in the company of the fat little ginger-haired man, who had not moved and gave no sign of waking. They brought her some tea, and some unfamiliar fruit with a velvety orange skin, and they gave her still more scores, while insisting that the Maestro had said she was to play only one. The first one seemed like a desecration to her and she immediately closed it, repelled by all the staves—they were like the bombastic effusions of those funeral dirges for the organ. No other score had the same lugubrious effect on her, but she opened a great many of them and did not find what it was that had so enthralled her about the Russian sonata and, in Santo Stefano, about the last piece that Sandro had placed before her in the church. Finally she came to a thin booklet. The first page whirled a new type of arabesque into the air. There were curved lines that took flight like feathers, and that had the same texture as the velvety skin on the lovely fruit. Before, when she had played the Russian sonata, there had been a splendor of trees with silvery leaves, mingled with vast dry prairies where rivers ran and, at the very end, she had the vision of a rushing wind in a wheat field where the stalks were flattened by gusts before springing back up in an animal roar. But this new music brought something amiable to the equation of landscapes, with the sparkle of Alessandro’s stories, and she felt that for such lightness to be possible, there must be deep roots. She wondered if she would ever know the smiling canopies where this amiability was born; at least now she knew that there were places where beauty was born of gentleness, whereas she had only ever known harshness and grandeur, and she loved this, tasting the unfamiliar fruit that told of the land where it was grown through her encounter with music. When she had finished playing the piece, she sat for a moment dreaming of foreign continents, and she began to smile in the noontime solitude.

An hour had gone by in this luminous reverie when muffled sounds reached her from the room next door. There was some agitation, and among the voices she recognized the Maestro’s, accompanying the visitor to the door, then she heard a stranger’s voice in reply and, although his words were inaudible, Clara stood up, her heart pounding, because it was a voice of death, sending warnings she heard as a death knell—and no matter where she turned in the tumult of what she was hearing, she felt an icy chill as she watched a shadow, like a screen, over an expanse of terror and chaos. Finally, the voice was doubly terrifying because it was beautiful as well, a beauty that stemmed from a former energy, now depraved. I know you but I do not know how.

“You’re no lazybones, that’s for sure,” said a voice behind her.

The ginger-haired man had gotten to his feet, with some difficulty, apparently, because he was staggering as he came over, running his hand unsteadily through his hair. He had a round face, a double chin that gave him a childish look, and lively, sparkling eyes, somewhat cross-eyed at present.

“My name is Petrus,” he said, bowing to her, and immediately collapsing to the floor.

She looked at him, stunned, while he struggled to his feet and repeated his greeting.

“The Maestro’s no easy man, but that scoundrel is evil,” he said when he had steadied himself.

She understood that he was referring to the voice of death.

“Do you know the Governor?” she asked.

“Everyone knows the Governor,” he replied, puzzled.

Then, with a smile: “I’m sorry I’m not very presentable. Our sort doesn’t do well with alcohol, it’s a question of constitution. But the moscato after dinner was divine.”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Ah, it’s true,” he said, “we haven’t been introduced.”

And he bowed for the third time.

“Petrus, at your service. I act as a sort of secretary for the Maestro. But as of this morning I am above all your chaperone.”

Then, smiling contritely, “I’ll grant you, a hangover does not augur well for our first meeting. But I’ll do my best to make myself pleasant, especially as you really do play very well.”

And this was how Clara’s first days in Rome were spent. She did not forget the voice of death, although she was working relentlessly, with no thought for the outside world. Acciavatti had told her she should come to the deserted studio early in the morning, so that no one would know about the little prodigy he had taken on as his pupil.

“Rome is fond of monsters,” he had said, “and I don’t want her to turn you into one.”

Every day at dawn Petrus came to fetch her from her room and led her through the silent streets. Then he departed again for the Villa Volpe, where she joined him at lunch; after that he left her in the room on the patio where there was a piano for practice, and she worked there until dinner, which she ate with him and with Pietro. Sometimes the Maestro joined them afterwards, and they worked a while longer, until Clara’s bedtime. She was surprised by how indulgent Acciavatti and Pietro were toward Petrus. They greeted him warmly and paid no attention to his strange behavior. It could not be said, however, that his conduct was at all becoming; when he came to wake her in the morning, he was out of breath, his hair disheveled and his gaze unfocused; she no longer believed that the moscato of that first day was an exception, because he was forever stumbling on the carpet, and while she was practicing he would collapse in an armchair and sleep, drooling; he let out intermittent, unintelligible grunts; when he awoke, he seemed surprised to be there. Then he tried to set the world to rights by tugging with conviction on his jacket or his trousers, but he generally did not manage anything conclusive and eventually gave up, sheepishly bowing his head. Finally, by the time he remembered she was there and sought to speak to her, he had to start over more than once because what initially came out of his mouth contained no vowels. And yet she did like him for all that, without really knowing what he was doing there in her company. But her new life as a pianist absorbed so much of her energy that she had little left over for other aspects of her life in Rome.


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