Ketil Bjornstad, The Young Pianists’ Society (Orig. 2004, French 2006)

I was attracted to this book because I know firsthand how ruthless the competition among young musicians can be. Until my last year of high school, I studied viola at the local music school, and I can tell that the atmosphere some days was more about winning over the next student rather than enjoying music. Upon learning that the author was both a famous musician and composer and a successful writer in Norway, I thought that I wouldn’t be told a mushy story of romantic musicians playing together for art’s sake only: I wasn’t disappointed.

 

The Young Pianists’ Society (original title: Til Musikken) is set in Oslo in the late 1960s, about the same period the author was a teenager. A group of young pianists from diverse  backgrounds get together at a competition for the year’s best young artist. They are friends, but also competitors, and teenaged high emotions make the mix all the more complex. The main character is Aksel Vinding, a confused young man of 16 from a middle class family who has recently lost his mother in a tragic accident. As the whole family hardly grapples with this loss, he drops out of high school and concentrates all his efforts on this piano competition. His friends are from wealthier families and are taught by more reputable professors (this is so very true how rivalries in the small music circles often revolve on how one professor is better rated than another). Soon his main rival turns out to be the mysterious Anja, the sheltered single daughter of a stern and wealthy doctor. She is as talented as beautiful and of course, Aksel falls in love with Anja…

 

I didn’t quite like the hero of his novel. He seemed too weak and cold to my taste. I recognized familiar features of young musicians in his ambition and (blind) trust in his own talent, yet the story doesn’t really show how good he is. The atmosphere among musicians is very realist though, as far as I can judge. Some young musicians lose themselves in the competition, others have to accept a humiliating defeat, others are manipulated by ambitious professors and parents. Here’s the moment after a young girl has tripped over upon entering the stage at her debut concert, thus ruining her every chance for future success:

 

– Is your decision really final? [Aksel asks her].

– It was easy, glaringly obvious. It feels as I am recovering my freedom to live.

I just need to look at her to understand that she’s right. She loses a career as a pianist, but she wins something else. What? Control over her life? Certainly. I’m suddenly nauseous. She notices that I don’t feel well.

– This idea came upon me as I played, she explains […]. While I was lying on the floor and struggling with myself, I felt as if I could see myself from afar. I saw the poor anxious creature I was, who wanted so much to succeed. I saw all my ambitions streaming through my mind. […] Then I realized that it wasn’t worth it. I’m not meant for this. The great renunciations. The saddest hotel rooms, the solitude, Aksel… All this for what? Only to play music that hundreds can play as well as I do or even better?

 

I don’t know much about contemporary Norwegian literature, but this first venture was quite interesting! Any other Norwegian author to discover?

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