Thursday, February 23, 2012

It doesn’t mean anything, but it’ll become popular right away - pop Machado de Assis

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.

5 comments:

  1. 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.

    It does remind me of a Gogol short-story about a mediocre painter who draws quickly but without talent, but nevertheless achieves success; but when he tries to paint a good paiting, he can't because he's too used to painting crap.

    I'll have to give Machado's stories a try; I think they're more to my liking than his novels.

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  2. "The Portrait" - I think. I do not remember it so well. Balzac has a good version, too, in the ludicrous "Pierre Grassou." That one is really more about the taste of the audience, I guess.

    What really struck me as new about the Machado story, one of those weird ways in which he so often seems a step or two ahead of his time, is that the artist here is not just popular but "pop." He is not untalented but is a genuinely great pop songwriter. He is Paul McCartney, so the problem is that he thinks he needs to write an oratorio.

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  3. He is not untalented but is a genuinely great pop songwriter.

    That is, seemingly, new and also quite fun. But this question of "perhaps it is [original], and I am only remembering the mass of later stories on the same theme"--there should really be some better way of addressing this. So unfair to the contemporary reader, haha, but what can we possibly do about it? (Read it all, all of it.)

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  4. Ack, I can't use my beloved "em" tags anymore. Consider that first line italicized.

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  5. The pop songwriter is another example of the odd ahead-of-his-time Machado.

    As for cataloging examples, that is the job for a real scholar, someone who is getting paid to do it.

    Maybe some expensive university library database somewhere could answer the question.

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