by Arnold Goldman

So long labored over, Concert Pitch exhibits both steady authorial attention, and the airlessness of its intensity. It is like a machine, but one that comes to a halt. This is partly an effect of prose which is very much its first-person narrator’s, its character being perhaps too precisely his: his self-cancelling, self-defeating narrative - and therefore the novel’s - lacks a saving roughness. Paul’s narrator-protagonist Ernest Hallowell lacks the ability not to weigh matters too closely, not to be self-critical to the last degree. He is, suggests his wife, "the most exigent man alive." Two literary models hover over Concert Pitch: Henry James’s "The Beast in the Jungle," whose Basil March holds himself aloof for a singular fate only to discover too late that it was to have nothing ever happen to him - in Concert Pitch, "Nothing ever happens... to me, I said" - and James Joyce’s "The Dead," whose Gabriel Conroy has humiliatingly to concede pre-eminence in passion to his wife’s memory of another man. And in the background there is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The Artist of the Beautiful," who had to have a perfect wife, and can’t bear her or a relationship with her on any other terms. Beyond everything, Hallowell may simply lack affect for others, and his governing need may be self-destruction.1

Hallowell, in his forties, lives in Paris "some years after the War." A Bostonian by birth and a former soldier, a legacy has permitted him to follow his interests. He is a music critic, reviewer and scholar, the author of a small volume "on the early English composers." He is surprised one day to find himself invited to the annual party given by "the dean of the Paris music critics," Lucien Piot. Hallowell admires even as he is repelled by Piot’s "energy and perseverance," so different to his own fatigability, even in the appreciation of music.2

Among Piot’s guests are Elizabeth Maura, née Peabody, like Hallowell a Bostonian by birth, widow of the Spanish violinist Ignacio Maura and mother of Robert, a young pianist and hopeful composer. She questions Hallowell about his published view that the piano is becoming obsolete, a "doomed" instrument - "The composers let it drop long ago." He is uncomfortable at reasserting what had earlier depressed them. In the course of the evening Piot showily rejects his present musical protegé for Robert. Raoul Evrard, poet in "a group which has succeeded the Dadaists without inheriting the latter’s spirit of play," makes a scene; unlike the narrator, but like Piot, Evrard is a committed man, if to artistic destruction - "‘Christ, how I hate music.’" Though he senses his sympathy for Evrard, Hallowell cannot bring himself to such flamboyant negativity. Evrard further annoys him by suggesting that Piot’s apparent sexual interest in Robert is very likely reciprocated. Hallowell doubts the latter and becomes concerned for Elizabeth, should the story circulate. In any case, Piot’s admiration for Robert’s musicianship seems genuine, and Hallowell finds himself surprised to share it. He is also surprised to find himself drawn to Elizabeth: "my hopes of relief from futility and boredom had begun to center around her timid loveliness and the spiritual stamina her chronic self-effacement could not hide." But he has a critical view of his own interest, even as he takes it: "It was not a mere love affair I was craving, but salvation."3

As Piot schemes for Robert Maura’s success - which will of course sustain his own position as a patron - Hallowell angles, in his more restrained and self-inhibiting way, to win Elizabeth. He believes that she has sacrificed her career as a harpsichord player for her son and imagines he wishes her to regain "her independent existence." Concurrently he sees his offers to assist her as calculating and selfish - "the idea of getting rid of the boy had taken possession of me." Specifically, if Piot will take Robert off for a recital tour of American cities, he can have Elizabeth to himself: "It was not only a hunger for her person which distorted my motives and actions, but also a wish to possess all her thoughts, to come between her and the exigent young son... to cut her off from the past I could not share." When Elizabeth admits to being unable to tell Robert that she cannot afford to finance him much longer, Hallowell offers to break the news; in doing to, he colors the picture to ensure Robert will accept Piot’s tour. For his part, Robert exhibits depths of "emotional rage" beyond the austere pianism that Piot promotes (though Piot wishes him more romantic) - "I should like to... compose one piece which would exhaust the possibilities of aural sensations" - but he is a dutiful son, and appreciates what Piot is doing for his career. At this point, it is unclear what Robert senses about Piot’s emotional attachment, and Hallowell does not raise the matter. Appreciating the result of Hallowell’s intervention, Piot declares he is "very understanding." One step forward, one back: more of Hallowell’s inhibition is exhibited when he denies himself the advantage of his new position, lest Elizabeth think his "liberties... were in the nature of a reward." Nevertheless he takes new rooms, and installs a harpsichord, where he may entertain her.4

Piot arranges a recital for Robert in the Salle Gaveau in order that he may tour America with established European repute. He turns to Elizabeth Maura’s friend the American Mrs Barnes for surreptitious financial support. (Photographs make the "robust and straightforward-looking young American" look "effeminate and melodramatically soulful.") Robert’s former piano teacher, the Spanish Madame Vallejo, returns to Paris for the occasion, complicating matters. Hallowell suspect that just as Piot may be sexually interested in Robert, Vallejo has designs on Elizabeth. The concert is, however a success.5

With Robert away in America, also covertly financed by Eleanor Barnes, giving him increased access to Elizabeth, her acceptance of his timid overtures is countered by his growing conviction of his "selfishness... dishonest and malignant." While "All the remained was to act, to cross the fatal borderline and possess her," he tells himself that "Elizabeth would be chilled by [his] impatience." At the same time he regards his hesitation as "essential cowardice." From the safety of subsequent narration, he concludes, "In truth, I suppose I was fettered by a horror of unavoidable details, or the fear of the consequences of her possible disappointment." At length he brings her to see his harpsichord and induces her to practice on it.6

When they settle to a companionable routine, he is torn between letting matters lie and perversely provoking change. When Elizabeth omits to mention Robert, Hallowell does, then agonises about her concern: "I wanted to oppose her, just then, even to hurt her, to punish her for her lapse."

He contrasts Evrard’s revolutionary gesture - his group is joining the Communist Party - with his own private intentions:

Why could I not find some satisfactory course of action, some channel into which to turn my thoughts and energies, some vista into the days that were to come?
Or was Evrard, tormented by his own violent nature, over-balanced with ideas of grandeur? And I, in turning once more from full contact with the world, pursuing the only sensible aim, a woman’s love and personal seclusion.

But even this is not what he is doing wholeheartedly, "afraid of being over-cautious, in the guise of considerateness - of letting matters drift which required an initiative." When Elizabeth makes him realise that Robert had protected her from other men, and confesses her own weakness and feelings of failure ("I’m afraid... that something other women have was left out of me"), it is the cue for Hallowell to change his mind about Robert’s influence and to declare his affection, but it also sows the seed of later dissention.7

When Elizabeth explains that she had unfairly induced Maura to elope with her, so she could get away from her stifling Boston family, Hallowell becomes suspicious: "Could Elizabeth be hiding by a partial disclosure of her difficulties with her husband an affair of which she could not convincingly deny the significance?" Having execrated Maura as a beast, he finds he is "taking sides" with him against Elizabeth. She turns more and more to Hallowell, and he does propose and is accepted. They keep their marriage secret from all but Eleanor Barnes, until Robert can be told. On the wedding night, despite endearments, he seems unable to become aroused, and while "simply stunned," he appears to determine on a "white marriage," awaiting the right moment for its physical consummation.8

While they entertain the Barnses, Hallowell’s maid Madame Berthe sees Robert outdoors, his face "’like a dead man’s.’" Robert has returned unexpectly from America and he sends for Hallowell; he has discovered Piot’s true interest in him, struck him, and abandoned the tour. To Hallowell’s relief he doesn’t want his mother to know he has returned. His innocence having blinded him to reality, he has determined to take a mistress, "to find out" about women. Hallowell helps him to find somewhere and finds him work editing music scores, Mrs Barnes again paying. He tells Elizabeth about Robert’s return, but convinces her that he should be left alone. Nevertheless he does bring Robert to her, and gradually a routine is established. As for the marriage, "I had come to the conclusion that the perfection of our physical love would result from a steady accumulation of mutual happiness and tranquillity." There is little to accumulate.9

For once taking action on a wider front, Hallowell arranges for a Paris performance of the "statophone" symphony of the Jewish American composer Gurevitsch, in which both he and Robert will perform. Gurevitch is another uninhibited alter ego, wholly dedicated to his genius, willing to sacrifice anything in its cause. The night before the concert, the two activists Gurevitsch and Evrard tangle over the Communists’ rejection of Evrard’s post-Dadaist group. When the concert begins with a piece by Robert, Hallowell realises with chagrin that Robert has unconsciously plagiarised the early composer whose works he had been editing. Paul draws upon the 1926 premiere of Antheil’s "Ballet Méchanique" at the Theatre des Champs-Élysées, including runaway airplane propellor, for a bizarre episode which, in the prevailing strained atmosphere of Concert Pitch, has rather less spirit that most memoirs of the occasion. Evrard’s baffled group determines to smash the concert hall up, after which the poet takes his life in the toilet of a nearby bar. Hallowell’s public musical efforts have brought disaster on all but Gurevitch, who moves on to Moscow to arrange another performance.

Robert is in despair at realising what his composing has amounted to. He refuses to see his mother, and Hallowell is not sorry:

There had not been a moment since I had known her when I had longed so desperately to comfort her; still the urge to hurt her was uppermost. It sickened me to realize how far I had sunk beneath the level of ideal courtesy and tenderness which I had believed would beautify our life together.

Elizabeth moves out. Hallowell is drawn more and more to Piot, whose unswerving purpose to regain Robert’s affection strengthens him. Vallejo tells Hallowell of her own unrequited love for Ignacio Maura, and the complexities of having been his son Robert’s teacher. When Elizabeth’s father dies, making her and Robert his heirs, Hallowell spitefully reveals to Robert that his teacher had been in love with his father, and he severs his contact: "A single conciliating word would have brought us together; still I was burning with an instinct to punish myself as well as him by cutting another tie." Imagining Elizabeth will be pining for him, he is cast down by seeing her in apparent health; it makes him doubt their past relationship. He enters and taunts her with her new wealth. His life is slowing to a standstill, as is Robert’s, and on this they build a non-relating relationship. Late into each night at a bar, together in Hell, Hallowell and Robert drink, commiserate and accuse one another:

"I’m glad my mother left you," he said.
"She didn’t leave. I asked her to go....
"You knew all the time about Piot," he said.
"I knew and I didn’t case," I said.

As they row, other customers remark on the "sales Américains." The novel ends in devastating aridity, the permanent hell of other people – and themselves.10

There is little joy of life in Concert Pitch – none at all by the end - whose subject is precisely the salt which has lost its savor. As a reflection on an American Paris gone bad, while the novel hardly ranks with Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night or even "Babylon Revisited," it did reinstate Paul as a novelist and set him up for more home-grown effort.


1 Elliot Paul, Concert Pitch (New York: Random House, 1938), 211, 157 (Paul’s ellipsis).
2 Ibid., 3, 11, 6.
3 Ibid., 18, 21, 23, 33, 34.
4 Ibid., 91, 69, 70, 67, 113, 83.
5 Ibid., 103.
6 Ibid., 137-38, 141, 142.
7 Ibid., 161, 154, 157, 164.
8 Ibid., 180, 183.
9 Ibid., 231, 240, 264.
10 Ibid., 342, 382, 413.

This analysis of Concert Pitch is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.

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