The unnamed narrator, a young musicologist, meets and befriends the famous blind music critic Marius van Vlooten. Their first encounter is on an airplane en route to a master class in Bordeaux, where the narrator introduces Marius to Suzanna, the pretty first violinist of a string quartet there to perform Janácek’s Kreutzer Sonata. From this chance meeting, a passionate love affair soon develops between Marius and Suzanna. They become engaged and marry.
A series of subsequent conversations between Marius and the narrator reveals the truth behind Marius’s blindness: when he was a young student, he had fallen madly in love with a girl who spurned him. Despairing, he tried to commit suicide, but succeeded only in blinding himself. Now, ten years later, Marius is prey to another terrible dilemma: he loves Suzanna desperately, but, strongly suspecting she has a lover, becomes insanely jealous. His suspicions and his past draw himand the readerinto a dramatic and tense Hitchcockian vertigo, where the tragedy plays itself out.
This subtly constructed novel evokes powerful emotions through what the characters see and don’t see, but mostly through what they hearthe language of music.
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Ten years later I met the blind music critic once again, the patrician-born Marius van Vlooten, who as a student had been so tormented by love that he put a bullet through his head. He was last in line at one of the check-in counters at Schiphol Airport, and I recognized him immediately by the aura of rage clinging to his tall, bent frame. His head gleamed. Wearing a navy blue raincoat despite the fine summer weather, he shuffled forward with the rest of the line, tapping his white cane. I remembered being surprised the last time at how awkwardly he explored the ground with his cane, as if in the initial phase of his blindness, in its infancy, he had neglected to train this special sense and learn the correct habits. I stepped in line behind him. As I assumed that he was also on his way to the Salzburg Festival, I decided to make myself known.
I coughed. "Mr. van Vlooten ..." I briefly laid my fingers on his forearm. I hadn't forgotten that a voice and a touch are all a blind person needs to conjure up a figure from the distant past.
I told him my name. "You may not remember me, but we met —"
Turning abruptly in my direction, he silenced me with a wave of his hand. I looked straight into his face. With a shock, I saw how much it had changed and could hardly believe that time alone had done such damage. There were dark circles under his eyes, and a powerful muscle was tugging at the corner of his mouth. I was already familiar with the pitted scar the bullet had left above his ear, so instead of startling me, it merely evoked fleeting memories of summer evenings, of exquisite chandelier-lit meals, of the short canon for violin and cello with its C#–D–C#–B–C#–F#–D–C #–B motif: the circumstances of our first meeting.
"Of course I remember you!" he said, interrupting my aural vision, and I recognized his hoarse, haughty voice. "You're the young man who once kept me company on a flight to Bordeaux."
"That's right," I immediately agreed. "We had a long stopover in Brussels."
He stuck out his chin.
"Do I remember you — you and your kind!" His face turned red. "Intelligent, interested in too many things at once, and thus lacking in true passion. Graduate of the Institute of Musicology at the University of Amsterdam. Scholarship, part-time job, no money from home, a master's thesis on Schoenberg."
I nodded in spite of myself.
"A couple of short-lived affairs that you people refer to as 'relationships,' with women you refer to as 'girlfriends.' You eventually marry one of them, after having reasonably and logically explained to yourself why she's the perfect mate, then you take out a mortgage in both names. Just let me ask you this: What in God's name is the point of it all?"
The anger in his voice had risen to shameless heights. The people in line swiveled around to look. The irritation, the air of seething discontent, which I had noticed before and had unhesitatingly, compassionately, attributed to his youthful folly, had evidently turned to rage. I stared at him in silence until he turned away with a clearly audible growl. Without the slightest transition, as if I were engrossed in a book, I thought: What counts is not the deed itself, but how you deal with its consequences.
It was five-thirty in the afternoon. The August sun was streaming in through the windows of the departure lounge. The line slowly inched forward. Passengers were checking in not only for Salzburg but also for Bucharest, which meant long and hard negotiations about the oddest types of baggage. I had plenty of time to think about the drama that he, van Vlooten, had referred to ten years ago as his "lovesick act of stupidity," the facts of which he had related to me in detail, without a trace of self-pity when we had been stranded at the airport in Brussels.
It had been summer then as well. Summer is the season of music festivals, competitions, and master classes. I was on my way to Bordeaux, to attend a master class for string quartets at Château Mähler-Bresse. After a great deal of pleading, the organizers had managed to sign on Eugene Lehner, the former viola player of the legendary Kolisch Quartet. I was hoping for a chance to speak with him, between sessions, about a paper I was working on. That he was still alive and accessible seemed inconceivable. Not because of his age — he must have been nearly seventy then — but because he was the embodiment of a certain type of acuity, a certain auditory dedication, that belonged to a deep, dark, already vanished past.
Why I had decided to fly I no longer remember. I like to travel by train, even nowadays, because although the modern bullet train is a brash upstart — with a snack bar, armrests that don't flip up, and pursers who introduce themselves over the intercom by their first and last names, offer you their personal services in three languages, and then disappear for the rest of the trip — the stations are still wonderful. Domed roofs, semaphores, switches, the Salle d'Attente Première Classe, slowly vanishing from sight as you stare through the window of your compartment: a rocking, gently bouncing world of plush seats, from which travelers tell their life stories as they lean in closer to listen to each other, is almost yours for the asking.
When I boarded the plane to Brussels, van Vlooten was already sitting in the aisle seat, the one next to mine. I knew him, though not personally. He was — and still is — reputed to be a brilliant critic, absolutely independent, a man, for example, who could indicate with a few subtle strokes of his pen when the eccentricity in twentieth-century music is a mere pretext, an aim in itself, or the inevitable result of a person taking a stand. I wasn't surprised that he was flying economy class. It was general knowledge that he wished, for reasons of his own, to hide his material wealth from the world — a peculiar habit I had once heard compared to "an Eastern beauty covering her face with a veil."
I apologized. He stood up. I squeezed past him. The plane took off after a delay of only half an hour, which meant that I would be able to catch my connecting flight to Bordeaux. During the twenty-five minutes it took to reach Brussels, my seatmate and I ate a croissant and drank a cup of coffee. That was it. We struck up a conversation only after van Vlooten, despite his tapping cane, bumped into a marble pillar in the airport lounge in Brussels.
He stepped backward.
"Well, I'll be damned!"
I had come up right behind him, and took him by the arm.
"Are you hurt?"
The incident took place soon after we had been informed that the flight to Bordeaux had been delayed until further notice. What we didn't know then, but found out bit by bit as the afternoon wore on, was that the Boeing 737 that was supposed to take us to Bordeaux had crashed at Heathrow Airport, for reasons yet unknown, with a total of 150 passengers on board.
"Hurt? Humph! That pillar was about a foot and a half closer than it should have been. Anyway, why don't you join me? Let's go find the bar. The least I can do is offer you a Scotch."
I had no idea where the bar might be among the various counters and kiosks, but I helpfully took hold of his elbow. After a few short steps, I realized that he knew where he was going, so I surrendered to his excellent sense of direction. As he traversed the remainder of the departure lounge, he didn't say a word. He seemed to be holding his breath. Just as I was about to warn him with a squeeze of my hand that a large electric cart was parked in our path, he veered to the right. Only after we had safely passed the vehicle did he briefly tap it with his cane, apparently just checking, and sure enough, the thing was really there. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye and noticed the look of satisfaction on his face, but it wasn't until much later that I understood the exact nature of his feat — when I learned of a special sense, a subtle system of perception, that certain blind people are capable of developing, which allows them to detect obstacles within a radius of about six feet, to sense any trees, lampposts, garbage cans, recycling containers, or bike racks that might be blocking their path and to hone in on them as stationary objects, as presences in the dark emitting a weak signal that normal human senses can't pick up, a delicate nighttime frequency that in theory can only be relied on to work in a noise-free environment, though even in a racket blind people have been known, during an emergency or in a moment of supreme willpower, to utilize that miraculous instrument, stretched across the skin of the forehead, nose, and cheeks like an acoustic web and triggering, by the merest of pressures, a sensation that used to be called "seeing," except that it utilizes the entire face rather than just the eyes.
We came to the red neon letters of Charley's Bar, and van Vlooten went back to walking the way I would always remember him: stumbling around like a wounded giant. I caught sight of an empty table over by the mirror along the wall. My friend meekly placed his fingertips on my shoulder and followed me to the chairs, from which we were not to emerge for quite some time. We started sipping our first glass of Scotch, and heard the loudspeaker above our heads announce that our flight to Bordeaux was still delayed. At a certain moment I was staring rather shamelessly at van Vlooten's forehead, noting that his encounter with the pillar had been far from gentle, when he sensed my interest.
He laughed in annoyance. "Go ahead, take a good look at the proof of my stupidity!"
I felt myself blush. "I'm sorry."
I averted my gaze from the shiny bump swelling up over his right eyebrow. Our conversation soon turned to that other, previous act of stupidity in his life, and I found it impossible to keep my eyes from straying toward the whitish scar above his ear, which, by the way, I could only see by looking in the mirror.CHAPTER 2
Are you sure you want to hear this?"
She was three years older than he. A graduate student in anthropology — "Yes, the girl, her name was Ines, was the decisive type" — who informed him after their second or third date that their romance was going to be temporary, since the moment she got her master's degree she was going to start on her Ph.D., doing her fieldwork in the highlands of eastern Venezuela where the Yanomami Indians lived, a plan she had long conceived of as a strictly solo affair. "Thinking about her," van Vlooten said to me, "means picturing her," and he began to describe a window.
An arched window, a pale blue sash, and beyond that a municipal park on a wintry day. A motionless bird, its feathers white as snow, perched on a black branch, while Ines sat on the windowsill and rummaged anxiously through her bag because she thought she had forgotten her house key. She was getting ready to leave. "Try your coat pocket," he said innocently, and watched the scene without registering the farewell motif being played out before his eyes. She stood up and scanned the room. It was a large, comfortable room in student lodgings on the Rapenburg in Leiden. Big man-sized armchairs, the maroon upholstery faded and worn, a table covered with a yellow oilcloth, that kind of thing — after all, he was twenty-two years old. Up against the paneling was the bed in which he and his ladylove had spent the night, in which they had eaten breakfast, in which they had awkwardly propped themselves up on their elbows to read the newspaper he had snatched from the mat after padding down two flights of stairs in his bathrobe and slippers, never imagining for a moment that she, upstairs, had already made her own plans for her life. And now she was looking at him as though he had never kissed her body from head to toe. She found her coat, fished the key out of one of the pockets, and yawned, long and noisily. Five seconds later — "Good-bye, then!" — she was gone.
He had been studying law. Yes, just as his father and grandfather had before him: one had become a cabinet minister and the other, his grandfather, had served as royal equerry to Queen Juliana. He, Marius, had been a talented child, raised in the lap of luxury. Like his parents, who had friends from all over the world and traveled a lot, he spoke three foreign languages and felt at home in the theaters and concert halls of London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. Neither he nor his parents had ever doubted that he was bound to do something great. The fact that this abstract destiny required him to enroll in law school, in Leiden of course, with no regard to any hidden talents he might possess, seemed to him a reasonable, necessary, rather mysterious duty. He had been a student for two years without worrying about what the point of it might be. Then, one winter morning after a party, he discovered the central focus of his life. After a long rambling walk through the fog, Ines invited him in for a cup of coffee and a bacon omelet. Her dormitory lay on the edge of town, overlooking the fields. The elevator glided with hypnotic slowness to the top floor. Later that day, when he was home again, he sat down at the oilcloth-covered table, inserted a sheet of paper in his typewriter, and began to type: "The world ..."
From that day on he longed for her face, her eyes, her gestures, the way she walked, the way she turned, the way she waited for him in her red coat at the back of the busy cafe where they had agreed to meet. She was nice to him. The reason he didn't notice the other source of tension in her — he was totally blind to the signs of her departure — was because of his passion.
Which, he thought, when he was by himself, he had under control. When he was alone, he believed that he was not thinking of Ines, but of the lecture notes on imperative and regulatory law, in a friend's neat handwriting, which he was copying for his own use. Yet as soon as he heard, at the appointed hour, the heavy downstairs door swing open and click back into the lock — Ines had a key to his lodgings — and heard her purposeful tread on the stairs, coming closer to him with every step, there was again nothing else and nothing more reassuring in the world than his passion, which, despite the fact that they saw each other almost every day, was growing more and more frenzied, you might even say neurotic, and which, he was quick to point out — and this was probably the most mystifying of all — she never failed to respond to. "And then a figure would appear on my doorstep, a vague female shape that had bicycled through the cold and was bundled in so many layers of clothes that she looked like a walking coatrack."
Van Vlooten fell silent.
"Yes?" I said.
"Just a moment."
The buzz of voices around us also died down. The loudspeaker above our heads began to hum, and I noticed that everyone in the now crowded bar was listening with serious, thoughtful expressions to the announcement that was ostensibly of interest only to us and to which we had long ago resigned ourselves. Once more, the flight to Bordeaux had been delayed.
The waiter brought us another Scotch. We took a sip and sat in silence. I was convinced that van Vlooten could feel, just as I did, the throb of danger being discussed at every table in the bar. My eyes met those of a man folding up a Belgian newspaper. As if I had asked him a question, he rose, but when he reached our table, he plucked van Vlooten's sleeve.
"The landing gear jammed," he told my companion. "I heard that the pilot tried to land anyway."
And without waiting for our comments, he strode, briefcase in hand, out through the glass door.
Van Vlooten resumed his narrative, but I felt uneasy I knew how it would end. With every word he spoke, I could feel the dark event drawing closer, and at the same time I could feel its presence hovering over me like a fait accompli. She started coming late. She started canceling their dates, hardly bothering to explain why. By then it was summertime, and she had begun to drop by his house in Wassenaar on the weekends. He and his parents might be waiting for her, sitting casually on the porch steps, early on a Sunday afternoon as the shadows of the chestnut trees crept toward the stables and there seemed to be all the time in the world. And then the phone would ring. How was it possible that none of this really bothered him?
I didn't reply. I hadn't asked him anything. I still remember my discomfort when suddenly, in mid-sentence, the face across from me stretched its muscles the way the blind often do in an attempt to reproduce a smile — a reflex from an earlier life. I didn't smile back. It was possible, he told me, because Ines continued to sleep with him, because Ines continued to play on his love, passionately, and with the greatest of personal interest.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Kreutzer Sonata"
Copyright © 2001 Margriet de Moor.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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