Mark Helprin

Memoir from Antproof Case

(excerpt from novel, pp. 307-314)

Poisoned by Champagne

(If you have not done so already,
please return the previous pages to the antproof case.)

I found Smedjebakken in Astoria, living under his pseudonym, Massina. His wife was a career woman who would brook no nonsense. When she met me at the door of their modest row house she was turned out like a Wall Street lawyer-with suit, scarf, and brooch, all of the highest quality. I assumed that she had just come from Manhattan, with a Florentine-leather briefcase full of legal documents. I was wrong, but I did not discover this until later.

“What can I do for you?” she asked. She was severe in a way that her husband never would be. He had been born to fight a mythical battle that was denied to him, and he was saving his strength and his power for a time that might never come, while she seemed to have been suited to make efforts in a lesser world that failed to interest him.

“I’m looking for Smedjebakken,” I said.

Her expression changed immediately. When she heard her husband’s real name she assumed that I was someone from his past, who might, perhaps, excite his Viking sensibilities.

“He’s in the back,” she said, cooling to me. “Horowitz is buying a piano.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“This evening, Vladimir Horowitz is buying a piano. He’s picked two, and will play one, and then the other, until he decides. This happens several times a week, but it’s not often that we get a Horowitz.”

“Buying a piano from you?” I asked.

She looked at me as if I were an idiot. “From Steinway,” she said. “The test studio faces our backyard. We look slightly down into it, and in all except the late fall and winter months they open the French doors.”

“Ah,” I said. “What a pity to miss it in the winter.”

“We don’t,” she replied. I could see that she was beginning to form an extremely low opinion of me. “In winter, Paolo sits in the studio. They keep his lawn chair and table there. He drinks tea and eats rusks while he listens, just as he does in the summer.”

“What a privilege to be allowed . . . what luck to live . . . how amazing . . .” I babbled on. It was my third strike with her.

I suppose it is a privilege,” she said coldly, “but they do pay him.”

“Who pay him?” I asked. Strike four.

“Who pay him?”

“Pays, pays.”



“Over the years, the artists have come to rely upon his critique. They’re superstitious about it, and won’t buy a piano unless Paolo helps them choose. He has a fine ear. It all started with Toscanini, who, when he saw my husband sitting as if on a raised platform, assumed that he was some sort of judge.”

“Toscanini?” I asked.

“Arturo Toscanini,” she repeated, adding for my sake, “he’s a music guy.”

“Yes, of course, Toscanini, how extraordinary!”

“He thinks Paolo is an Italian who forgot how to talk. ‘Every power of your mind,’ he said, ‘has fled to your ear, and it is the most beautiful ear. Bellissimo!’”

I heard strains of music coming from within the house. I pointed in their direction, and asked, “Mozart?”

Unfortunately, I was also pointing to a marble bust of Beethoven that stood in the hallway. Angelica was beginning to lose patience. “No,” she said, “Beethoven,” and led me toward the back.

“Don’t talk until Mr. Horowitz is finished and has left,” she commanded. “Unless, of course, you are asked a question.”

I agreed. I was taken to a darkened terrace entirely overwhelmed by the enormous mass of the Steinway factory. The factory walls were of richly colored ancient brick, strewn with ivy and the old brown iron of fire escapes and shutter latches, old iron that, like old wood, was comforting not for what it looked like but for what it had seen. It had held its place serenely as all the things that now vexed me had long ago passed it by, not once, but a hundred times. It had been the patient platform for the thick ice of blizzards, the heat sump of the August sun, the gymnasium of ten thousand contemplative squirrels in gray flannel suits, the trellis of ivy and wisteria and blooms that had bloomed when my father was courting my mother.

The massive brick and solid iron was the frame of many score floating windows through which came sound and light. The factory was at work that night, for the war had destroyed many pianos, the piano factories of Europe were in ruins, and the children born to returning soldiers were now old enough to begin their lessons at the keyboard.

Never in my life had I heard so many tappings, so many tuning forks, and so many basso profundo woods knocked into place with mallets that even in themselves were works of art. And as for the pianos, well, it was not so much craftsmanship and its vagaries that made one different from another, but accidents of wood that may have occurred with great slowness as summers varied in distant forests, or differences in ores that were first apparent as rivers of molten metal cooled long before the appearance of the clouds or the birth of the seas.

And at the base of all this was a middle-aged Vladimir Horowitz playing like sixty and lost in music to the detriment of time, of which all of us became mercifully forgetful. What beautiful cadenzas. They exploded into the night like huge white waves jumping shoreward in a storm; they took all the darkness from the air on that late September evening, and filled very beautifully all the empty spaces that exist to test the soul with doubt.

Smedjebakken looked dead. Not only was he immobile, his mouth open, his eyes wide, and his body stiff, but it was clear that his soul had risen from him (tethered, of course) to occupy some ethereal space nearby, like a weather balloon. It seemed as if all his mental power had been put by the magic of the music into a purifying centrifuge. Despite its connection to dance, music is nonetheless the emblem of immobility, for when it is really great it seizes time and holds it still in an invisible grip. I had experienced this many times myself, and now I was watching a portly engineer behind the Steinway factory in Astoria get exactly the same religion.

I was shocked, however, to see that he was a drug addict. The paraphernalia were arrayed damningly on a table beside him-a plate of rusks (as a chaser); a cup with leaves settled disgustingly at the bottom; and, out in the open, unconcealed, absolutely brazen, a pot of tea.

In my younger days, when I didn’t know any better and when the recklessness of youth made me sometimes dissolute, I myself had experimented with tea. One January night, in a Harvey’s Restaurant on the Niagara Frontier, I was so chilled and exhausted that I dipped a tea bag in a cup of hot water at least six times, and drank.

What visions I had, what ecstasy, what equanimity! I was able to see the continual action of colors, which move like a fire, but more evenly. The bee sees this, it is said, and what the bee saw, so did I. I watched falling snow blind the lights of Buffalo, and all my memories came as if upon the flood of a deep unagitated river cutting through the countryside of the present to find the place whence it had come.

Powerful stuff, tea, but, like all drugs, false and dangerous. For two weeks I lay moaning in the cheapest hotel in Buffalo, wanting with all my soul to kill myself, but having neither the courage to do so nor even the ability to leave the room. This was payment for mechanical ecstasy, or, if not that, the price one pays for two weeks in Buffalo.

When the lights came up I realized that the music had stopped. Horowitz leaned his head against his left hand, and, with the gravest of expressions, he said, “For the life of me, Paolo, I cannot decide which has the better sound. The actions are equal.”

Smedjebakken didn’t move.

“Which one, Paolo? Help me.”

“Uh,” Smedjebakken said. “Uh, Vladimir . . . I think . . . I think . . . I think the one on the right. The one on the right has the contained magnificence of tone that you want.”

“This one?”

“No, that’s the one on the left. The one on my left is the one on your right. Artists,” Smedjebakken said to me, acknowledging my presence for the first time, though he still did not know who I was. “The sonority of the one on the right,” he continued, addressing himself entirely to Horowitz, “I would liken to claret as opposed to Beaujolais. Especially for Mozart, you want a bell-like sound muted by almost imperceptible mists of interference beginning at the strike of each note and following like a subtle echo thereafter.”

“But what about for Beethoven?”

“Beethoven. Beethoven is . . . less pure, more rounded, not as metallic. This piano is perfect for the area where Mozart and Beethoven meet, and when you play either, that is the magic circle where you want to be. You must tug each slightly in the direction of the other. For they are like a bipolar star, and eliciting absolute perfection from either depends upon leaning away from their proclivities and toward the center.”

“Bravo,” said Horowitz, throwing a kiss, making a bow, and signaling to the Steinway people that he had chosen the one on his left.

Before he went into the glowing interior of the factory and then, presumably, to his limousine, he said, “Thank you, Paolo. See you next time.”

A Steinway worker pulled the doors to him like a fat woman doing the breast stroke, and they clicked shut. He brought up a trolley and attached it to the triangular base upon which rested the piano that Horowitz had chosen, and pulled it out of the studio, switching off the lights as he left.

“That’s the way it is with Horowitz every time,” Smedjebakken said to me. “Cash and carry.”

“How often do you do this?” I asked.

“A couple of times a week, on average. They pay me.”

“I know. Your wife told me. Do they pay you well?”

“It matches my TA salary, and I’d do it for free.”

“That’s extraordinary.”

“It’s the only gift I can give to my child,” he said.

“How do you mean?”


“Yes, music,” I repeated, having nothing but a vague and unsatisfactory idea of what he meant.

“Someday,” he went on, “they’ll have high fidelity that will be indistinguishable from the real thing-a technology we can hardly dream of now-and she’ll be able to listen to anything she wants, at any time. I’m saving for that.”

I dared not ask him to be specific, for, inexplicably, he was moved by his declaration to the point where his eyes had begun to sparkle in the light coming from the upper floors of the piano factory, and I thought it should rest, so I changed the subject.

“I play, you know,” I said. “Not well, but well enough to appreciate someone who really knows what he is doing, and enough to understand that Mozart was a divine emissary. And I think he knew it from the time he was a baby. You know, you always hear about Freud, Marx, and Einstein. Of these I think only Einstein was truly great, but even he was far eclipsed by Mozart, who, in my opinion, was the greatest man ever to have lived.”

“Yes,” said Smedjebakken. “He wasn’t like a baseball player or anything like that, was he, he was great beyond description.” After a few awkward moments when neither of us could say anything, because so much had to be said, Smedjebakken looked at me. “You’re from the restaurant.”

“And the roof,” I added.

“Yes, the roof! And coffee.”

“I hate it,” I said, looking at the tea.

“Come inside,” he told me. “It’s getting cold out here. Let’s go to the kitchen table.”

“You drink tea?”

“If you come inside,” he said, “I’ll explain.”


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