The Machado de Assis short story “The Celebrity” (“Um Homem Célebre”) caught my attention with its subject. It is an 1888 story about a pop musician, a songwriter. I do not know any earlier fiction on the subject, although I wish I did, because I would like to read it. This one begins:
“Oh, so you’re Pestana?” asked Miss Mota, with a sweeping gesture of admiration. And immediately correcting her familiar address: “Pardon my manners, but… are you really he?”
Annoyed and dispirited, Pestana answered yes, it was he.
The celebrity Pestana is at a party where he has just played, as a special favor to his hostess, his newest hit song “Don’t Kid Me Honey.”
The very latest – published just three weeks earlier, there was no longer a nook or cranny of the city, however remote, where it wasn’t known. The tune was on everybody’s lips.
“Don’t Kid Me Honey” is a polka. Pestana writes hit polkas. Walking home after the party, he finds that last line to be literally true, to his frustration. Pestana surrounds his piano with portraits of “Cimarosa, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Bach, Schumann, and three others,” and wants to compose “just one immortal page,” but inspiration never comes. Or actually it does, frequently:
He began to play something that was his very own, with genuine inspiration: a polka, a frolicsome polka, in the language of the billboards. No resistance on the part of the composer.
It is the ur-plot for the popular artist, isn’t it? The bestselling author who wants critical acclaim, the hack painter who wants not just success but respect. This part of Machado’s story is not so original. Or perhaps it is, and I am only remembering the mass of later stories on the same theme.
The polka writer marries a consumptive woman hoping that she will be his muse, and an ironic twist or two follow, ones. She does inspire him, and he composes, in secret, a nocturne for her:
One Sunday, however, he could no longer hold back, and he called his wife to hear him play a passage of the nocturne. He didn’t tell her what it was or who had composed it. He stopped suddenly and looked at her questioningly.
“Don’t stop,” said Maria, “it’s Chopin, isn’t it?”
Pestana became pale, stared out into space, repeated one or two passages, and got up. Maria sat down at the piano and after making an effort to recall it to her memory, executed the piece by Chopin.
That is pretty good, but honestly my favorite parts of this story are the passages about the business of pop songwriting. Pestana’s publisher is always ready with a title. The one written in the passage up above, for example, is “Please Keep Your Basket to Yourself, Ma’am.” It is another smash hit. Sometimes the titles are political, “The Law of September 28” Or “Bravo for the Timely Election!” Early on Pestana asks his publisher what the title means and is told “’It doesn’t mean anything, but it’ll become popular right away.’”
Like a good novelty song, a song about something songs are not often about, “The Celebrity” is a fine novelty story.
I found “The Celebrity” in The Devil’s Church and Other Stories.