The Rehearsal: A Novel
By Eleanor Catton
Hardcover, 320 pages
Reagan Arthur Books
List price: $23.99
"I can't do it," is what she says. "I simply can't admit students without prior musical training. My teaching methods, Mrs. Henderson, are rather more specific than I think you understand."
A jazzy pulse begins, just drums and double bass. She swirls her spoon and taps it once.
"The clarinet is tadpole to the sax, can you see that? The clarinet is a black and silver sperm, and if you love this sperm very much it will one day grow into a saxophone."
She leans forward across the desk. "Mrs. Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud."
Mrs. Henderson is looking down, so the saxophone teacher says rather sharply, "Do you hear me, with your mouth like a thin scarlet thread and your deflated bosom and your stale mustard blouse?"
Mrs. Henderson nods imperceptibly. She stops fingering the sleeves of her blouse.
"I require of all my students," the saxophone teacher continues, "that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardor and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realizes that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children."
Kiss-kiss-kiss goes the snare drum over the silence.
"But she wants to learn the saxophone," says Mrs. Henderson at last, sounding ashamed and sulky at the same time. "She doesn't want to learn the clarinet."
"I suggest you try the music department at her school," the saxophone teacher says.
Mrs. Henderson sits there for a moment and scowls. Then she crosses her other leg and remembers that she was going to ask a question.
"Do you remember the name and face of every pupil you have ever taught?"
The saxophone teacher seems pleased to be asked.
"I remember one face," she says. "Not one individual student, but the impression left by them all, inverted like a photographic negative and stamped into my memory like an acid hole. I'd recommend Henry Soothill for clarinet," she adds, reaching for a card. "He's very good. He plays for the symphony orchestra."
"All right," says Mrs. Henderson sullenly, and she takes the card.
That was at four. At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door.
"Mrs. Winter," she says. "You've come about your daughter. Come in and we'll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to feed me week by week."
She holds the door wide so Mrs. Winter can scuttle in. It's the same woman as before, just with a different costume — Winter not Henderson. Some other things are different too, because the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role for a long time. Mrs. Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs. Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long. Mrs. Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.
They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.
"To start off with," says the saxophone teacher as she hands her a mug of black-leaf tea, "I don't allow parents to sit in on private lessons. I know it's a bit of an old-fashioned policy — the reason is partly that the students are never at their best in that sort of environment. They become flushed and hot, and they laugh too easily and their posture changes, folding up tight like the lips of a blossom. Partly also, I think, the reason I like to keep things very private is that these little half-hour slices are my chance to watch, and I don't want to share."
"I'm not that sort of mother anyway," says Mrs. Winter. She is looking around her. The studio is on the attic level, and the view is all sparrows and slate. The brick wall behind the piano is chalky, the bricks peeling white as if diseased.
"Let me tell you about the saxophone," says the saxophone teacher. There is an alto saxophone on a stand next to the piano. She holds it up like a torch. "The saxophone is a wind instrument, which means it is fueled by your breath. I think it's interesting that the word for 'breath' in Latin is where we get our word 'spirit.' People once had the idea that your breath and your soul were the same thing, that to be alive means, merely, to be filled with breath. When you breathe into this instrument, darling, you're not just giving it life — you're giving it your life."
Mrs. Winter nods vigorously. She keeps nodding a few seconds too long.
"I ask my students," the saxophone teacher says, "is your life a gift worth giving? Your normal, vanilla-flavored life, your two-minute noodles after school, your television until ten, your candles on the dresser and facewash on the sink?" She smiles and shakes her head. "Of course it isn't, and the reason for that is that they simply haven't suffered enough to be worth listening to."
She smiles kindly at Mrs. Winter, sitting with her yellow knees together and clutching her tea in both hands.
"I'm looking forward to teaching your daughter," she says. "She seemed so wonderfully impressionable."
"That's what we think," says Mrs. Winter quickly.
The saxophone teacher observes her for a moment, and then says, "Let's go back to that moment just before you have to refill your lungs, when the saxophone's full of your breath and you've got none left in your own body: the moment when the sax is more alive than you are.
"You and I, Mrs. Winter, know what it feels like to hold a life in our hands. I don't mean ordinary responsibility, like babysitting or watching the stove or waiting for the lights when you cross the road — I mean somebody's life like a china vase in your hand" — she holds her saxophone aloft, her palm underneath the bell — "and if you wanted to, you could just . . . let go."
Excerpted from The Rehearsal: A Novel by Eleanor Catton. Copyright 2008 by Eleanor Catton. Copyright 2010 by Reagan Arthur Books. Excerpted by permission of Reagan Arthur Books. All rights reserved.