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The Piano Shop On The Left Bank

January 2, 2008

Sometimes the reasons for choosing to read a book can be so banal. I pulled The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart off my bookshelf a couple of weeks or so ago for the simple reason that I was going out and didn't want to lug the hardback that I was reading at the time - Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise - around with me. I didn't think anything of the decision. It was just a case of "Oh, here's a paperback which I haven't yet read. Wonder what it's about?" It was pure coincidence that Carhart's book, like Ross', is a non-fiction book on a musical theme. I don't recall buying the book. If it was a gift, I cannot remember who gave it to me. But it had sat unread on my bookshelves for several years. I stuffed it into my rucksack thinking it would tide me over for a few hours, even if I put it straight back on the shelf when I returned.

Carhart's volume was a lovely surprise which ended up putting my reading of Ross' book on hiatus. Part memoir, part travelogue and part history of piano engineering, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank tells the story of an American writer's journey into the dusty crannies of Paris' piano scene. Although it's a sentimental read in places and the "American in Paris" thing has become as ripe as Camembert in recent decades thanks to the popularity of books like Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon and Edmund White's The Flaneur, Carhart does a wonderful job of allowing us a glimpse into the secret world of French piano fetishists.

I was especially fascinated by the chapter about the author's visit to the Fazioli piano factory in Italy. Like Carhart when he first came across the name of the modern Italian piano maker while window-shopping in Paris, I had never heard the name of Fazioli before I read the book. Yet Fazioli is apparently considered to be one of the three top piano brands in the world. Another beautifully executed aspect of the book is Carhart's portrait of the unpredictable Dutch piano tuner, Jos, who is capable of tuning a piano better than nearly any other tuning pro in Paris -- when he's not drunk. Unfortunately, Jos spends most of his time with his nose in a glass of red wine. We never find out what happens to this sad character in the end. It's the one frayed edge of Carhart's otherwise satiny canvas.

The book spoke to me in particular because it's all about awakening hidden creative impulses. Subtitled "Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier", The Piano Shop on the Left Bank begins with the author pushing open the front door of a ramshackle piano repair shop in his Paris neighborhood out of nothing more than vague curiosity and ends with him having rediscovered his love for playing the piano and keyboard culture in general.

This kind of creative trajectory seems to be common among adults I know. It's funny how a small, random event can make us reach into our pasts and rekindle a latent interest that had somehow been forgotten along the way. The random act of picking up Carhart's book didn't make me want to take up piano again -- though I did play quite well up until the age of 18 when I moved out of my parents' house and no longer had ready access to a keyboard. But it did make me think about my return to other long-lost childhood interests, principally singing, dance and writing fiction, as an adult. We should be aware of these impulses. Life's too short to ignore them.

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