The Fellas In The Band Observe A Flirty Actress
In Cellists, the fifth and final story in Nocturnes, we return to the city of Venice but with new characters. The complex narrative structure involves the story of a young musician, Tibor, told by a first-person narrator, another musician who is an unnamed saxophonist, although it could be someone who played with Jan in Crooners.
It begins with the narrator telling a story about how he was performing in the piazza and saw a man whom he recognized from seven years earlier, Tibor, a cellist. At that time, the narrator and the other fellas in the band had befriended Tibor, who had come to Venice to perform in a summer arts festival.
The story looks back in time from at least two vantage points; one, when the narrator sees Tibor again, and two, when the events of the story occurred, seven years before. The narrator tells both stories, but the older story is one that Tibor related to the narrator.
That’s pretty confusing.
Tibor has had good training and a few gigs, but they’ve petered out and he is struggling, The musicians decide to help him and introduce him to Mr. Kaufman, a sort of agent.
The band members who’ve had formal musical training feel a kinship with Tibor. “But to be fair, I think it was just that they liked to take the Tibors of the world under their wing, look after them a little, maybe prepare them for what lay ahead, so when the disappointments came they wouldn’t be quite so hard to take.” This is a nice mise en abyme—an encapsulation of the whole story, a story of someone helping Tibor and trying to prepare him for the inevitable disappointment.
The story of what occurred seven years before gets going. “When people say Tibor changed for the worse that summer, that his head got too big for his own good, that this was all due to the American woman, well, maybe there’s something to that.”
After a paragraph break, we read: “Tibor had become aware of the woman while sipping his first coffee of the day.” The story enters Tibor’s “head,” although the narrator continues to tell the story to his narratee. The woman accosts Tibor, saying she’d heard his recital of the previous day. She flatters him, tells him he has potential. “At this stage, what you’re doing is waiting for that one person to come and hear you.”
“She looked very pleasant, beautiful even,” he told us at the time. “But as you see, she’s ten, fifteen years older than me. So why would I think anything was going on?”
So, at some point, seven years ago, Tibor had told the guys this story and now it’s being related by the narrator to the narratee.
The woman, Eloise McCormack, implies that she is an accomplished cellist who can help him to play better. “Like you,” she said quickly. “I have a sense of mission, I guess.”
She is not telling the truth; she does not play the cello, although at this point, the reader has no reason for doubt.
As in the other stories in Nocturnes, sexuality doesn’t factor in here, although the reader may wonder.
What is going on with the two levels of narration? The narrator is telling a story to his narratee, and the implied author is telling the story to his audience. I don’t think at this point, there’s a lot of divergence. The mystery of Eloise is intact on both levels. She is lying about herself, but no one knows that—except the implied author who doesn’t reveal it. Tibor is perhaps unreliably overestimating his talent, but again, that’s not clear. The narrator knows the truth and is withholding some information.
Tibor, after two days of indecision, goes to Eloise’s room (the bedroom is closed off) and plays for her. She critiques his playing, and as a result, he feels he’s playing better than ever but struggles, wanting to leave, wanting to stay. He tells his friends (after the fact): “I could suddenly see everything,” he explained to us. ”A garden I’d not yet entered.”
He returns over several days and plays. “…to an outsider, had there been one, (her comments) might have seemed presumptuous.” An interesting passage—who notes this? The implied author, not Tibor—“Tibor was no longer capable of regarding her interventions in these terms.”
“But what’s she like herself?” we kept asking him. “On the cello?” This implies he is leaving the sessions with Eloise and going to tell the guys about it after.
Tibor is curious and then suspicious about Eloise’s playing. Where is her cello? One day, the bedroom door is ajar, and he looks in but sees no cello. “Would a virtuoso, even on holiday, go so long without touching her instrument? But this question, too, he pushed out of his mind.”
“As the summer went on, they began to prolong their conversations by coming over to the café together after their sessions, and she’d buy him coffees, cakes, sometimes a sandwich. Now their talk was no longer just about music.” She asks him about a girlfriend. He’s reluctant to ask her personal questions but learns a little. She’s American, has moved from Boston to Portland, dislikes Paris.
“She would laugh much more easily now than in the first days of their friendship and she developed the habit, when they stepped out of the Excelsior and crossed the piazza, of linking her arm through his. This was the point at which we first started noticing them, a curious couple…a flirty actress, as Ernesto put it…In the days before we got to talking to Tibor, we used to waste a lot of idle chat on them, the way men in a band do.” So the narrator is observing them some time after the sessions have begun.
The “flirty actress” remark is interesting as it will be revealed that Eloise really is acting the role of a musician. But we the readers see that she is not so much flirty as anxious and needy.
Then, Eloise says that she is involved with a man named Peter Henderson, who wants to marry her. She is hiding from him in Venice, out of apparent ambivalence.
“She didn’t bring up Peter again, but now, after that exchange, a new dimension had opened in their relationship…he (Tibor) knew his presence there beside her was appreciated.”
So her revelation helps Tibor to make sense of what’s happening. She’s involved with Tibor and the intimacy is helping her because she’s hiding out from Peter, postponing a decision. This makes Tibor feel more comfortable.
This is one of the book’s themes—the narrator (here once removed) is confronted with a male/female relationship in stress. Also, it should be noted that, like many of the characters in the book, Tibor is an immigrant from another country, Hungary.
They continue their relationship. Eloise suggests she play passages he’s having trouble with, but he resists this, saying that if she played, he would just be copying her, when she talks, in contrast, it “opens windows.” There’s a sense that Tibor knows Eloise is lying about being a cellist and is trying to protect her. And here is another theme in the book—windows, portals.
‘Kay. I think we should stop here for this week and conclude our discussion next time.