The Stories in My Life: Amid changing times, a tale about a music teacher's commitment to perfection, by Alice Munro
Every year, Miss Marsalles has a party — an annual recital presented by her little students — which is a tiresome and tedious affair for her invitees, for she is a relic of a vanished era. But this time, one performance changes how her invitees perceive her work | Neelam Saran Gour writes in this edition of The Stories in My Life
Every year Miss Marsalles has a party which is a tiresome and tedious affair for her invitees.
She calls it a party but it is really an annual recital presented by her little students.
Those who continue to turn up come in a mood of exasperated resignation because many of them pity her and some feel a vague connection with something that has faded out of their lives.
There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every second Saturday of the month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.
Every year Miss Marsalles has a party which is a tiresome and tedious affair for her invitees. But Miss Marsalles is childlike in her enthusiasm and does not realise what a severe ordeal she inflicts on her guests. She calls it a party but it is really an annual recital presented by her little students. For Miss Marsalles is a doddering old piano teacher.
What is it about ancient musicians that is so attractive to a writer like me? Is it the absolute commitment to a cause of perfection, that state of near-oblivion or living in a parallel universe that defies the often trying circumstances of their lives? Miss Marsalles is one such. Growing steadily poorer, changing houses as she comes down in the world, often losing students to the attractions of a new world order which has scant regard for the exacting disciplines of classical music, she is a strange creature, both an examplar and a relic of other, vanished times. To many, in fact to most people, she appears comic, pathetic, crazy. She lives in her innocent world of aspirational aesthetics that seems not only pointless but profitless to the normal, profit-driven people around her.
Her life is one of genteel poverty, but she spares neither expense nor effort in organising her annual party. Her students are the children of her older students and their numbers are steadily dwindling. As is the number of her regular guests. Those who continue to turn up come in a mood of exasperated resignation because many of them pity her and some feel a vague connection with something that has faded out of their lives.
Miss Marsalles’ party is like a bad composition now – trying too hard, too grotesquely, to measure up to some idea of fineness, the caricature of a kind of culture that seems irrelevant and even irritating to others for whom the world has moved on. As time passes the strain increases. She is old and forgetful. Her older sister, also an elderly spinster who has been a possible contributor to the meager coffers, has a stroke, loses her speech, lapses into incontinence and lies helpless in bed in an upper bedroom of the humble half-house to which they have moved. The kitchen help has had to be dispensed with. The number of tuitions has come down. Still, Miss Marsalles dresses up in a formal floor-length dress, the same dress she wears on every annual recital, does her hair in an ornate coiffeur, and receives her visitors with a festive joy. Her cramped living room holds the same antique pictures that her guests have seen from the time they were her piano students. Everything has the ceremony of a precious personal ritual. She serves sandwiches, ice-cream and sherbet with style, and the quality has previously been unfailingly excellent. Even the flowers in the vase above the piano are carefully arranged in the same arrangement every year. At the end of each evening she has a gift for each child. And it is something the children are no longer interested in – old fashioned books, prints of old paintings, indoor games. She buys them from second-hand bookstores and they are always brand new, unread, unused and probably destined to remain so. Everywhere the same gentle care for detail and dogged perseverance is visible.
Only this year, in her anxiety to be punctual and perfect and struggling with her preparations alone, she has put out the sandwiches too early and they have lost their freshness. There are flies on the cakes and the fruit punch has gone flat. Her guests are secretly repelled, waiting for the evening to be quickly over and done with, as each child plays her piece without talent or distinction but is effusively applauded by her smiling teacher. But other than the reduced numbers and the dried-up sandwiches, there is something else that is different. A bunch of late arrivals, new pupils who come wearing some sort of uniform and shepherded by a trained handler. They have a strange, unfocussed look about them. It doesn’t take long for the other guests to understand that they are children from a school for the mentally challenged. Unlike others, these children seem to love Miss Marsalles and draw confidence from her as their halting fingers tap out classical melodies on the keys.
And then comes the final wonder. A girl, otherwise disoriented and blank-faced, starts to play and the sheer stupendous, supernormal virtuosity of this differently-abled child shocks and subdues everyone. The music she plays is ‘fragile, courtly, and gay, that carries with it the freedom of a great, unemotional happiness.’ The child is obviously a genius and that transcendent music can be experienced by everyone in the room. They realise that Miss Marsalles has made that happen, that she has at last found the best pupil of her life, but that it was music for its own sake, that it could not be for gain or vanity since the little pianist was mentally challenged and possibly without a future. And this leaves them confused. Suddenly they have glimmerings of an unaltered world of purity and excellence that is Miss Marsalles’ psychological habitat, a world temporarily accessed through the straining effort of an old woman to embody a glimpsed grace and far beyond the tense frontiers of their own carping, calculating, judging, bargaining smallness.
Nobody can pity Miss Marsalles any more for they realise that she is in contact with something that they don’t have. The music that lies in immortal souls despite the muddy vesture of decay. Alice Munro’s story ‘The Dance Of The Happy Shades’, first published in 1968, unscrolls a continuity of deepening insights about changing times and unchanging verities, values and art and is well worth re-reading every few years. Definitely one of the unforgettable stories in my life. For stories, like authors, can be friends for life. As Munro is to me.
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