Your story “A Duet” is set in 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and told from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old boy, Roland. What had you thinking back to that specific moment in time?
I was just fourteen at the time of that crisis—surely one of the most appalling, potentially catastrophic moments in recent history, and perhaps in all of recorded history. The “nuclear winter” that would have followed an all-out nuclear exchange would have wiped out most of life on earth. (1962 is, incidentally, also the year in which my novel “On Chesil Beach” is set.) The crisis looms large in Roland’s thoughts, but is not as important to him as the thought that he could be “vaporized” while still a sexual innocent. Such can be the overwhelming and solipsistic nature of teen-age desire.
Is Berners, the boarding school that Roland attends, inspired by a school that you attended?
Yes, that was my school, Woolverstone Hall. Unlike Roland, I made it through to the end, and went on to university. It was, for its time, an experimental school, taking kids from a great diversity of backgrounds and races and sending them all onward to higher education. It gave me lifelong relief from the English class system.
In a moment of heightened emotion and suspense—as he waits for Khrushchev and Kennedy to start a nuclear war—Roland responds to a sexual overture that his former piano teacher, Miriam, made a few years earlier. Why do you think he is drawn to her at that moment, when he’s spent the previous two or three years avoiding her (while fantasizing about her)?
At the age of eleven, Roland was already partly groomed by his piano teacher, Miriam. Now, as the world “teeters on the brink” of civilization’s end, he heads off on his bike to her house. She is, in a sense, reeling him in, thanks to the damage she did three years before. Roland believes that he is the initiator. But I don’t think there can be such a thing as consensual sex with a fourteen-year-old.
Roland is sexually abused by Miriam, although he is too young to identify it as such. But, beyond the sexual act, her behavior—the way she alternates between seductress/lover and dominating teacher/authority figure—seems almost expressly crafted to cause psychological damage. How do you imagine Miriam views what she’s doing?
The story is drawn from my novel “Lessons,” which will be published in September. In a later section of the book, Roland confronts Miriam forty years on. She attempts to explain herself. To her horror, she says, she found herself falling in love with an inky little boy at a boarding school. She couldn’t escape the power that her feelings had over her. She tried to explain them away, but in the end she used all her psychological superiority to insure that Roland could never leave her. She was a brilliant woman, but she was unhinged, and whether that was part of her nature or caused by her passion I leave to the reader to ponder.
In the midst of the encounter, Miriam twice insists on playing a piano duet with Roland. First, before they have sex—at which point he is sight-reading and struggling to keep up—then afterward, when he feels more capable of playing with expression. Should we read those two passages metaphorically as well as literally?
Roland’s entanglement with Miriam offers him two possible fates, equally entangled. She could guide him (he’s a precocious player) to a career as a concert pianist, and at the same time force him to abandon his selfhood, his soul, if you like, to her. A kind of Faustian pact, one best expressed in a duet. Tartini’s famous violin and piano sonata “The Devil’s Trill” is a good musical expression of such a pact.
“A Duet” is, as you said, adapted from your forthcoming novel, “Lessons.” What does the book encompass that doesn’t appear in this narrative? We know that Roland, as an adult, understands how damaging this encounter was, how it warped his view of sex and his expectations of love. Do we see how that plays out in the course of his life?
“Lessons” charts Roland’s entire life. Necessarily, there are many other matters that the book takes in. In part, it examines how huge, global political events like the Cuban missile crisis penetrate our private lives. It also looks at how large a role mere chance can play in anyone’s life story. Some of the episodes are about the tortured and interesting relationship between fiction and the biography that lies behind it—many of the episodes in “Lessons” are drawn from my own life (though not the central scene in “A Duet”). Roland is not exactly ruined by his experience with Miriam (he finds love again, though never easily), but his life and expectations are utterly transformed.
Did you write “Lessons” during the pandemic? Was it influenced by what was happening globally?
Like many other writers, I benefitted from the sudden imposed inactivity during the lockdowns. I was free of all commitments and able to concentrate on the novel I had been planning in the pre-pandemic year. Perhaps I was influenced just a little by this unwanted peace, in the way it encouraged so many of us to gaze backward through time and consider the ragged path that brought us from our beginnings to the present. “Lessons,” with its multiple loves and regrets and moments of global turbulence, carries some of the weight of that gaze. ♦