The Double Life of Anna Song

From Chapters 1 and 2

[…] At the time of her death, Anna Song’s legacy consisted of 102 CDs that included, among other things, the entire body of works for piano for by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Ravel; the nine sonatas by Prokofiev; almost all of Chopin; major works by Liszt and Debussy; all the concertos by Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninov; and the 54 etudes by Leopold Godowsky, inspired by Chopin and considered to be the most difficult pieces ever written for the piano. Only Arthur Rubinstein with his 94 CDs even comes close in comparison. However, Rubinstein recorded a number of works several times, and spread them out over an entire lifetimethis could hardly be the case for Anna Song. The majority of her recordings were made when she was gravely ill and had reached a time in life when most other artists are enjoying the pleasures of retirement, which they may on occasion come out of in order to impart their knowledge to the younger generation, with varying degrees of modesty.

And modesty was the most striking feature of this great pianist’s personality, in life and in her approach to her music. For two decades she found the strength to struggle against an illness that should have struck her down; never yielding to convenience or discouragement she persevered along a path that seemed to lead nowhere; and at the same time, her strength was coupled with a total absence of ego or vanity. Nothing was more important to Anna Song than to serve the composers she admired in the best way possible. “We performers,” she observed in one of her rare interviews,”—what are we, other than humble cogs in the wheel? When someone says to me, ‘What a marvelous piece!’: that is the true compliment. Our task consists in conveying the spiritual essence of existence as it has been incarnated in harmony or counterpoint. Nothing belongs to us. It is important to remember Bach, Mozart, Liszt, yes, it is even vital. But to remember me… what is the point of that? In the end, only the music will survive.”

Anna Song is no more. She kept no articles or press cuttings chronicling her career. All that mattered to her was that a few weeks ago, sitting in a wheelchair, she managed to record a last piece by Chopin. Its title now rings like a premonition: La Valse de l’adieu.

This morning I read the first feature article about Anna’s death. I put it with the others that I had cut out and stuck in a big moleskin notebook. The journalist was right when he said that she had kept no review of the press. He forgot to mention, however, that I took care of all that—unbeknownst to Anna, it’s true. It was my morning ritual: I would weed through the culture and music columns of the dailies, weeklies, and monthlies, and I painstakingly pored over all the specialized press and websites in search of her name. In recent years I have found it more and more frequently. The last months. The buzz that had been created around her recordings was extremely flattering, and besides, people have always loved stories about artistes maudits. One after the other, journalists felt duty bound to rush forward and proclaim Anna was a genius, to ask for interviews, to bring her out of oblivion. Justice must be rendered, they said, it was time to show the world what a remarkable artist had been overlooked: no one should ever have been neglected the way she had been. I agreed, and to prove it I vigorously supported their pronouncements and answered all their questions, explaining that Anna was too sick to meet with anyone, but that did not matter, I was here, I had always been here, and I told them they could count on me to provide all the possible and imaginable information about Anna—her work, her past and future projects.

In the end, I had collected enough articles and features to devote a little album to Anna’s glory. I caressed the cover with such pride that it became absurd; after all, it was not I, but Anna who was being honored with such thundering praise… Leafing through the notebook, you could see how brief notices had given way to quarter pages, quarter pages to half pages, half pages to full pages. There was a photograph of her here and there, always the same one, in varying formats. A black and white portrait of a very Hollywood style: her face sculpted by the light, her hair pulled back into a chignon whence a few artistically curled strands escaped, and she was smiling, her gaze filtering through long eyelashes that cast a charcoal shadow over eyes that were already so dark, so black, as impenetrable as peat-coal. The lighting and pose emphasized her beauty in an almost theatrical way-her straight nose, regular features, high cheekbones, delicately rounded forehead. The jet-black embroidery on her dress made a striking contrast with her pale skin. The photograph had originally been taken for a brochure publicizing a concert that never took place. I was pleased that, twenty years later, it had finally been put to good use.

I gave my little scrapbook to Anna one day when she had just come back from the hospital, thinking it might cheer her up. She was stretched out on the bed, leaning against two velvet cushions that seemed about to engulf her, so frail was she; she tore off the gift wrapping, opened the album, turned a few pages, and leafed through the testimonies of unanimous acclaim her music inspired. After a moment, she shook her head, and closed the notebook that I had so patiently put together. Then she handed it back to me. “There is really no longer any point, you know.” And in a gesture of consolation her hand caressed my cheek, while she smiled at me in that calm way she always had about her-the impassiveness of a lake that no storm can disturb. I sat down and gave her a smile in turn, a pain in my heart as I held her hand in mine.

She was right: it was too late, and all my excitement had been in vain. I had collected so many glossy pages that I had actually begun to believe in the myth that they conveyed, and I thought I would at last be giving Anna the recognition she had struggled for all her life. But Anna had moved on, a long time ago. The endless trips to and from the hospital had drained her of strength, eroding her physical and psychological resistance. She was tired, more and more tired, and I could tell the day was coming—even if I did not want to admit it—when she would refuse to get up to go and submit to a new exam or a new treatment. A time when all that remained between two spasms of pain would be her memories, to go on with her life, or to end it. Which is the point I have reached today.

*

I was eight years old when we met. My grandmother had taken me in, after a car accident on a road in Normandy had left me an orphan. An orphan who dreamt repeatedly not of car horns blaring or brakes squealing in the dark or bodies crushed in a grinding of crumpled metal, but of a vehicle silently moving away down a winding road, while I stayed behind watching it, my forehead against a window impossible to break. In reality, too, I spent hours and hours at the window of that room—which had become my bedroom—whence I had seen my parents leave the evening they had dropped me off at my grandmother’s. It was meant to be only for two days: their plan was an excursion to a village located a hundred miles or so from there, to go on a hike that they had been wanting to take for a long time, but which was too long and too difficult for a child like me. I was angry at them for abandoning me like some cumbersome parcel, and so I had pretended, my way of sulking, to fall asleep at the dinner table, to avoid having to say goodbye to them. My strategy failed. With no idea of what was going on, my father carried me to my bed, my mother tucked me in and kissed me, they closed the door carefully, lowered their voices to a murmur in order not to wake me up, and then they left. The moment I heard the engine start, despite my resolution not to pay any attention to them, I got up. I drew the curtain, and watched the glow of the headlights until they had disappeared entirely; a line, a dot, and then nothing more—just darkness.

The next day, my grandmother informed me in a flat voice that I would never again see either the car, or my parents. I climbed up the stairs four at a time and went to the window I had leaned against only a short while before. Motionless, looking at the countryside below me without seeing it, I went back over the images of our last evening together. I could scarcely believe that I had preferred to pretend to be asleep rather than tell my father and mother that I loved them and would miss them, those simple little words you say without thinking, however sincere they might be, and their absence now seemed irreparable to me, because I would never again have the opportunity to say them, nor they to hear them. These thoughts brought tears to my eyes, and I cried silently in the darkened room while a pitiless sun beat down outside-the sky was a pure blue, without a cloud, and the sun seemed to be dripping with light. My grandmother sat down next to me, and she did not try to start a conversation; she sensed that there were no words that could console me, and she let me lean against her while she put her arm around my shoulder. All afternoon she stayed with me, contemplating the road, as if we concentrated hard enough we were eventually sure to see something or someone appear-my parents, perhaps, coming in person to refute the rumor of their disappearance. It was only when night had fallen that I dozed off, overcome by fatigue and sorrow. My grandmother put me to bed, with the same gestures, the same tenderness her daughter had shown me twenty-four hours earlier.

The weeks and months that followed, she often found me like that, at the window. I maintained an obstinate hope that one day I would see my parents’ little light blue convertible coming down the lane, and my father, ever the gentleman, would go around the car to open my mother’s door, and her blond curly hair would be like a halo, a golden mist floating about her, framing her face, flowing down her neck and shoulders—a gracious, slender creature, almost unreal, in the way of all mothers lost at too young an age. My father, on the other hand, had a far less ethereal  allure: broad shoulders and a lively expression, a laugh that crackled like a fire in the fireplace, his temple marked by a scar—the memory of a bad fall—and he emanated strength tempered by serenity. They made a magnificent couple: a magazine image.  All that was missing was me. Soon, I thought, they would call to me and I would hurry down the stairs in order to throw myself in their arms. It would be as if the cemetery, the black clothes, the speeches interrupted by tears, and the acquaintances coming to stroke my head as if I were a stray cat had never existed… But my parents didn’t call to me. The film stopped just before. Abruptly. I could wind it back as often as I liked, it never went any further.

Rather than chasing me from my lookout point, my grandmother decided to join me. In her grave and patient voice, she distilled her memories and spoke to me at length about my parents, the love they had had for each other, the love they had had for me. How they had met, through friends of friends, while waiting in line to go and see a Japanese film. The day my mother had introduced my father to her, his attempt at indifference, contradicted by his lowered eyes. The tender words they wrote on postcards and sent to each other by mail, even though they met every day. Their wedding at a manor house in Normandy. My difficult birth, which had taken an entire day of effort. My first name, chosen in homage to a writer whose poems they were fond of… Her anecdotes came one after the other, increasing in number, increasing in tender, picturesque details. Even today I cannot be sure to what extent my grandmother mixed what was imaginary with what was authentic, in order to compose my parents’ legend. But one thing is certain, nothing mattered more to her than to make me feel that the connection between them and myself continued to exist, despite their disappearance. Perhaps we could no longer touch nor speak, but they continued to be inside me: I was the prolongation of their story. And while their memory might be my sole support for all the time remaining to me on earth, my very existence was like a second chance, a way to bear witness to the fact that they too had existed. This notion comforted me. I left behind the window and my illusions. Never for long—their death, in those days, was an integral part of my life.

I frequently awoke in the middle of the night. While I did not actually have nightmares, I was incapable of resting for more than a few hours in a row: I would open my eyes with a start, my stomach in knots with a strange premonition, I got up, went across the room, and took the corridor leading to my grandmother’s bedroom. I groped about in the dark, trying to make out the shape of things in order to clear a path as discreetly as possible to her. Now that I no longer had my parents, she was all I had left, and I had a dark fear that her heart might stop beating while she slept. She was an old lady, after all. If death had already managed to cut down two grown-ups, why should it spare this woman who, according to the logic of things, should have left me long before they did?

And so I got into the habit of leaning over her bed, and passing my hand just above her face to make sure she was breathing. Feeling her breath on my tense fingers relieved me from an inexpressible anxiety. I was tempted to slip into her warm blankets, and to feel her arms around me: it would have been the safest shelter against the cruelties of the world, of that I was sure. I never did it. That way, or so it seemed to me, my grandmother would preserve the strength I might otherwise have taken from her had I succumbed to my temptation. Once I was sure that she was fine, I was happy to return to my room, where I would sleep uninterrupted until morning.

We lived on an old farm that had been refurbished, with an outbuilding that had been completely remodeled to house any potential guests (who never came). The bells of the neighboring church rang the hour, providing a rhythm to the long slow days my grandmother filled easily with various occupations: cooking, shopping, housework, sewing, and then me, of course, getting me up and putting me to bed, dressing, feeding, caressing me, scolding me, urging me to do my homework, or driving me out into the yard to help her care for the vegetable garden. She had put the earth to good use: rows of blackcurrants and raspberry bushes colonized the strip of earth along the fence, and closer to the patio she had planted different varieties of tomatoes (including my favorites, the “Coeur de boeuf,” with their puffy shape, and the “Black Krim” that made me think of cliffs plunging into the sea, with monasteries perched here and there, a Riviera of mountains scattered with greenery). I loved to inspect them, at length, as well as the flower beds that produced all sorts of blooms, from the delicate roses that were purely decorative, to the delightful nasturtiums with their peppery aroma; arranged artfully on my grandmother’s dishes, they added a touch of color, a note as fleeting as a will-o’-the-wisp. In the middle of the garden, an apple and a cherry tree provided the wherewithal for the pies and jams I could smell with delight when summer came around, with their rich, slightly acid odor of melted sugar and stewed fruit.

In the morning, the daylight greeted me at the same time as my grandmother’s perfume, a scent of jasmine that remains forever reminiscent of an old lady with exquisite manners and eyes as clear as water, with beautiful snowy hair gathered in a chignon clasped in a jade barrette. The barrette had been a gift, and it was her only concession to stylishness-she never wore any jewelry, other than her wedding ring. The gift was neither from my mother nor my grandfather, who had died before my birth, but from a neighbor, Madame Thi, an old Vietnamese lady who could just get by on a few words of French. But that did not stop her from exchanging smiles, nods, and delicious little dishes with my grandmother whenever they met.

One day my grandmother gave a jar of apple jelly to Madame Thi. After numerous expressions of gratitude, the very next day Madame Thi returned the courtesy by offering her a plate of spring rolls wrapped in aluminum foil, accompanied by lettuce, mint, and a bottle of nuoc mam. She mimed the way one must wrap the crunchy little rolls in mint and lettuce before dipping them into the fish sauce; my grandmother had a proper feast, and the two women would not rest until they had testified to their delight in each other’s company by means of various meals: little cakes and a homemade terrines from one, caramelized pork and shrimp pancakes from the other,  as well as little presents, like the carved jade barrette in the form of a lotus that decorated my grandmother’s chignon. Madame Thi—who wore her hair in a similar fashion—also had a multitude of ravishing barrettes, embedded with mother-of-pearl, jet, or dull gold. Touched by her kindness, my grandmother gave Madame Thi a silk square in return; she had noticed that every day around her neck her friend wore a scarf in autumn colors—brown, bronze, cream, plum—no matter the weather or the season. She had grown up in a little village in North Vietnam where the temperatures easily climbed to a hundred degrees in the summer, and she had never gotten used to the French climate, and with irrational terror dreaded catching cold and dying of pneumonia. So she collected scarves, shawls, stoles, woven in all sorts of fabrics, but always of the same autumnal hues.

Madame Thi did not live alone, but with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. The son and the daughter-in-law were the first to settle in France, fleeing a Vietnam that had been transformed by years of war into a land of fire and ash, where the future increasingly offered no way out, or a way that led only to a void (or hell, depending on one’s point of view) from which there was no return. They had gone to Paris to study, which is where they had met and gotten married, and since that time they worked relentlessly to try to recover some of what had been lost—a home, a family, a sort of faith in the ways of the world, too. The father was an engineer, and he worked all God’s hours, which was also true for his wife, a chemistry researcher, and as a result their daughter stayed most often with her grandmother, who looked after her the way my grandmother looked after me.

Bios

Minh Tran Huy

Born in Paris in 1979, Minh Tran Huy is a deputy editor of Le Magazine Littéraire and a literary critic. La double vie d’Anna Song is her third novel after La Princesse et le pêcheur (Actes Sud, 2007) and Le Lac né en une nuit (Actes Sud, 2008).

Alison Anderson

Alison Anderson has translated many books from French, including works by JMG Le Clezio and Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. She is also the author of two novels, Hidden Latitudes and Darwin's Wink. She lives in a village by Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

La double vie d'Anna Song. Copyright (c) Actes Sud, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Alison Anderson, 2010.