“They take so much for granted, all these people. What do they want me to do, on this night of all nights?” These words are from The Unconsoled but many of us have heard words like them in our heads. We hear the whine in our voice, but we can’t stop. Self-pity is a country where everyone else is unreasonable, where your manifest innocence cries out in perfect pitch. There is a horrible pleasure in visiting this country; but it’s hard to leave, the borders close behind you almost as soon as you get there. “But it’s the same as everywhere else,” the voice says. “They expect everything from me. They’ll probably turn on me tonight, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
The voice I’m quoting is that of Ryder, the English concert pianist whose dazed narrative constitutes The Unconsoled, but I’m also suggesting that its ghastly familiarity is all but irresistible. I’m sure there are people who know nothing of self-pity, and have never spoken like this, even in their dreams; lucky them. But for the rest of us, Ryder’s experience is like a map of our plaintive, small-time self-dramatizing, a catalog of the attitudes we adopt when we feel guilty, but want to feel virtuous.
Ryder arrives in an unnamed German town to give a concert. He’s hazy about his schedule—he remembers reading it, but not what it said—and can’t bring himself to ask for clarification. He’s to give a speech, apparently, as well as perform some contemporary music, and the whole town’s moral and perhaps economic well-being depends on a turn in its cultural affairs which Ryder is to preside over. The town has strongly supported one Christoff, a conductor now felt to be a charlatan. His shallow and dogmatic interpretations having been exposed, with Ryder himself administering the coup de grâce, Christoff must give way to the disreputable but reformed Brodsky, a gifted musician who has dedicated himself to drink for the last twenty years.
Ryder knows he ought to be surprised at this shift of his role from musician to musical authority, and indeed at the extreme penetration of musical life into the gossip and politics of the humdrum city. But he isn’t surprised, partly because he feels he must have agreed to the program, even if he can’t remember any of it, and partly because he’s too busy being besieged by locals asking favors of him: will he look at a woman’s album of cuttings, will he listen to a young pianist play, will he meet with concerned citizens, will he take a message to the porter’s daughter? He also seems to relish the idea of his own cultural importance, and talks complacently of “the crisis I had come to assess,” as if his concert were a sideline.
Three features in particular make clear to us what strange territory Ryder and we are in. First, almost …