What She Understood: A Reading of Sergio Pitol’s “Mephisto’s Waltz”

Mexican writer Sergio Pitol.

A woman prepares to sleep in a train berth, draped in blue silk pajamas. She has taken a sleeping pill to travel as if floating on air. However, before the pill takes effect, she begins another journey: a magazine she thought was packed away falls open at her feet, and she cannot avoid reading a particular piece, or rather rereading it, as the writer is her husband Guillermo, from whom she is presently separated, though he has given her all of his manuscripts to read.

So begins “Mephisto’s Waltz,” among the most exceptional short stories in Spanish, written by Sergio Pitol in Moscow in 1979 and published in his 1981 book Nocturno de Bujara [Bukhara Nocturne].

The protagonist, who remains nameless in the story, finds herself at an inflection point in life; she has cut off her marriage and is experiencing “the sober pleasure of living apart.” The literary magazine, and the story Guillermo has published there, return her to a reality she did not want to face. Reading the text means, in a certain sense, reading herself, recovering scenes from her own life, forming resonant connections with something that seemed already dissolved in the past.

The separation from Guillermo has led her to discover her own voice as an author. In recent months she has worked skillfully on a monograph about Agustín Lazo’s painting. She feels freer, more secure.

Reading the story implies returning to a time in which the preeminent voice was his, the writer in the marriage. The story presents a concert in Vienna where a virtuoso plays the “Mephisto Waltz” by Franz Liszt. In Doctor Faustus Thomas Mann explored the enigmas of musical talent that, in excess, seems to require a diabolical explanation. Paul Valéry felt the same enchantment and summarized it with the phrase “Style is … the Devil!” Pitol adds an essential chapter to a canonical theme, the Faustian pact. What must be paid in exchange for receiving the gifts of inspiration and eternal life? What is the toll of creativity?

Guillermo, author of the story the woman reads on the train, is not a great connoisseur of music. He bases his plot on a concert he attended in Paris, accompanied by his wife, but he transports the scene to Vienna, where he has recently been living.

She has never felt convinced by her husband’s writing. She defines herself as his “devil’s advocate.” In his pages, she has always found fissures and defects with a zeal heightened by their closeness and years shared together. It was something he needed and learned to appreciate.

That night, on the train, she again judges Guillermo with severity. She finds the story interesting but poorly concluded. In contrast to the pianist, the narrator does not discover his own strength, nor does he surrender himself to it.

Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” is inspired by the moment the devil appears to Faust in Auerbachs Keller, a tavern in Leipzig. The composer relives, on the piano keys, the demonic impulse of the Faustian pact. Guillermo is incapable of that passion. Of this there is no better witness than his wife, the devil’s advocate.

Pitol writes a master narrative with the residual from another story, the one Guillermo fails to conclude. From the tension between the flawed writing and its interpretation by the character of the woman critiquing it, an extraordinary narrative emerges.

Guillermo knows little about music, though he tries to disguise this. To write his story, he seems to have relied on notes from a performance program, or on an essay about Liszt; what is certain is that he reproduces opinions he has not fully understood. There are various levels of misrepresentation in the narrative. The first deals with music itself. Throughout their fifteen-year relationship, it was her that took an interest in attending concerts. He followed her with calm acquiescence, pretending to recognize the most obvious pieces, but almost always lost in the musical forest. Only once did he show fervor for the subject. It was in Rome, when they heard Sviatioslav Richter play Schumann’s Carnaval. On that occasion Guillermo became uncharacteristically agitated, accusing the virtuoso of militarizing the score and sidestepping the lyrical spirit of German Romanticism; he criticized the obsequious audience, which gave the pianist a standing ovation, and blathered incessantly until she said to him, “Please, Guillermo, stop talking such nonsense.” This produced an airtight silence, and he uttered not one word during the dinner that followed.

She was surprised by his rebuff but did not dwell on it. However, upon reading the story, the episode took on new significance. She had been the one to interpret music for him and had guided him through its sounds. What gave him the sudden uge to say something for himself, something capricious, unrestrained?

They had gone to that concert in the company of Ignazio, an Italian friend that escorted the couple. We know nothing about this character, but his mention in a story of such calculated effects cannot be dismissed. After the concert, Ignazio takes them to a trattoria in Trastevere, a restaurant “on the other side of the river.” They crossed a border.

Ignazio is the “included third.” What does this mean for the story? In various versions of Faust, the devil appears as a foreigner, frequently as Italian (Valéry elevates the game to another degree and has him speak Italian with a Russian accent). While saying almost nothing, Pitol creates a tempting and unsettling presence. In medieval music, the tritone was considered the diabolus in musica, a harsh dissonance that equated to summoning the devil, an undesired guest, and to promoting sexual debauchery. The use of this fearsome dissonance figured among the many sinful deeds that could lead to burning at the stake. In Faust, Gounod’s opera, Mephistopheles enters the scene to the sound of a tritone. Pitol does not say who Ignazio is, but the effect of this third character is akin to the diabolus in musica. In Rome with Ignazio, the writer speaks as if drunk.

The passion that Guillermo found lacking in Richter appears in the pianist who plays the “Mephisto Waltz” in his story. His name is Gunther Prey, and he is being observed by a writer in the audience, Manuel Torres. Here another misrepresentation takes place. Pitol is writing a story about Guillermo, who is writing a story about Manuel Torres, who, in turn, is writing another story. (The name of this third author in the narrative deepens the game of mirrors, as it references one of Sergio Pitol’s friends and colleagues, a companion from his years in Poland, Juan Manuel Torres.)

Gunther Prey “seems to have a blood, almost umbilical, relationship with the piano.” Surprised by this organic link with the music, Torres takes hurried notes in the program. He is surprised by, among other things, the musician’s beauty, a beauty he cannot describe. In his eagerness to characterize, he makes a risky comparison; the pianist looks to him like “a greyhound with a touch of feline.” Can there be a more absurd, less attractive combination? In the name of defining the harmony of that face, the clumsy narrator constructs a cat-dog. How he envies Tolstoy’s skill in describing “with joyful ease Vronsky’s lips, his teeth, or his waist”!

Manuel Torres, Guillermo’s double but not Pitol’s, fails in his attempt to capture the pianist’s sensuality, in the same way that, at that concert in Rome, Richter failed to recreate Schumann’s Carnaval with passion.

Incapable of describing the eroticism that emanates from the pianist, the narrator yeilds to a compensatory temptation: he lingers excessively on the voluptuousness of a secondary character, a Catalan woman who does not escape examation by the devil’s advocate. The woman who reads, lulled by the rocking of the train, “senses there a surplus of curves, of roundness, an overly full figure that evokes hips like anaphoras and breasts like the façade carvings on unduly baroque buildings. There is an obsession with brocades, velvets and lace, of “Veronesery,” as she exclaimed once after having had enough, which always annoys her about his female characters.” The affected sensuality that Guillermo gives those women stands in contrast to his wife’s body: thin with small breasts, slim hips, short hair – a somewhat masculine presence with a “linear style of dress.” Had she been the author of the story, she would have blurred out the sumptuous Catalan woman.

From Hemingway to Piglia, numerous cultivators of the genre have reflected on the definitive fact that the modern short story tells two tales, one explicit and another covert, more insinuated than said, which gives deep meaning to the first (the anecdote matters because it alludes to a hidden conflict that wished to be avoided). The musical story that Guillermo writes under the name Manuel Torres hides another one, a more intense one, that gives it authentic meaning. The performance of the “Mephisto Waltz” awakens a feeling of unsatisfied desire in the writer. In his eagerness to seize it, he creates a game of suppositions. Manuel Torres hears the devil’s work on the piano keys and notices a singular character in a theatre box. Through this figure he seeks to explain the confusion he feels.

It is not a coincidence that the only piece of music that stirred Guillero during his entire marital relationship was a masquerade: Schumann’s Carnaval. Pitol, who years later would dedicate a trilogy of novels to the subject, continues his masked dance. Torres feels an electric connection with the pianist; he perceives the masculine beauty and transgressive eroticism emerging from the keys without being able to articulate his emotions. He envies Tolstoy’s freedom in exalting the body of a man; incapable of accessing that register himself, he borrows words from his wife and describes the virtuoso as a faun who has just finished making love. Transfiguration of the sexes: the androgynous-bodied woman supplies a mythological code to define what her husband feels toward the pianist.

In Pilol everything is boundless; various possibilities are insinuated. Is Guillermo experiencing homoerotic attraction or envy for the faun who sweats after copulating with a ruddy woman worthy of Veronese? “Two souls, alas! reside within my breast, and each withdraws from and repels its brother,” exclaims Goethe’s Faust. What is crucial, in the case of Guillermo, is that the “Mephisto Waltz” reveals a perturbing and definitive desire. Intriguingly, we know this not from the relatively flat story that he writes but from the reading of him that his wife undertakes, that is, from the masterful story written by Sergio Pitol. While the pianist interprets the “Mephisto Waltz,” his wife, the devil’s advocate, interprets Guillermo.

The game of mirrors that has been set in motion reaches a moment of culmination. The music guards a zone of silence, a secret that is not revealed but is insinuated: facing the sweating pianist, touched by the grace and admiration of the audience, Guillermo speaks as his wife; for a moment, he is her.

He then distances himself from this attraction and turns it to another character, hidden in a theatre box. An older man observes the young talent. In his role as Guillermo’s avatar, Manuel Torres ponders alternatives upon which he might base the plot of a story. He imagines a former military officer who despises his grandson’s bohemian profession and attends the concert to repudiate him. Or perhaps he is a music teacher, now quite sick, who is watching his favored student for the final time. There could be a third, more complex option. A man decides to poison his unfaithful wife. He carefully plans a slow, imperceptible murder. He gives her minimal doses of toxins, and her health begins to suffer; doctors do not discover the cause; he pretends to dote on her while she grows frail. During that prolonged agony, she plays the “Mephisto Waltz” unceasingly. Finally she dies. The concert takes place when he is now an old man. The melody reminds him of his crime. This last variation is situated in Barcelona; from the Secession-inspired atmosphere of Vienna, we move to Catalan Modernism. During the concert, the murderer thinks that perhaps his wife discovered she was being poisoned and played that music as a sacrifice deferred. This could explain why “the old man’s cadaverous gaze, contemplating the pianist, holds one part longing and an equally powerful part hate.” Eros and Thanatos. The spiteful lover did not abandon his passion; he channeled it as outrage.

Guillermo’s wife has taken a sleeping pill, and her body loses strength as she reads. Her husband has written not one story but three possibilities. In typical fashion, he fails to choose any of them and hands his denouement over to the bland normality of life. “Life is rich in low blows, not in great feats,” notes Guillermo. The narrator, who represents him in the story, wanders the concert hall during intermission. He finds the old man in the lobby and witnesses an admiring crowd paying their respects. It turns out he is famous, a celebrity orchestra director who years ago discovered the pianist, made him his favorite and later his lover. A vulgar story of love and manipulation that can no longer survive, due to the difference of age, and continues only through music.

The three imagined variations were more attractive than the real conclusion. Life, in effect, is rich in low blows. The spell is broken. With that Guillermo ends his plot. “For her, the most interesting part was just beginning at the point where her husband closed the story,” writes Pitol. The piece disappoints, smothered by that banal ending. A predictable story about the weaknesses of the body.

Pitol’s conclusion is superior to Guillermo’s, though it depends not on action but on the gaze of the woman who reads the story. What is it she understands? Her husband’s inability, not only to conclude the text but also to express his desire.

In this singular version of the Faustian pact, Guillermo has no one to whom to sell his soul or, even worse, does not know what to request in exchange for it. He does not choose, and that is his tragedy. “True passion is found only in ambiguity and irony,” the Devil tells Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus. But ambiguity must also be chosen. Hence Leverkühn himself tells his biographer Serenus Zeitblom: “music is ambiguity erected in a system.” In contrast to Thomas Mann’s character, Guillermo lacks the will to choose or to accept two alternatives. Faced with various options, his indecision cancels them out one at a time. We would not know this if not for his wife’s observation.

The reader of “Mephisto’s Waltz” is one of the most suggestive characters in literature. She does not speak, she does not act: she interprets.

The fundamental plot twist consists of having the story depend on the passanger who reads it while she travels by train. This role applies also to the external reader of the narrative. In his Lectures on Russian Literature, Nabokov signals that the greatest character a writer can construct is his reader. The force of a narrative universe is measured by how it demands to be read in new ways. Pitol constructs successive layers of meaning, analyzed by the fictional reader in the story, until they spill over onto the actual reader, the narrative’s final protagonist, the witness who understands what she discovered in the text.

The woman abandons the magazine. She has read a failed story. In those pages she glimpsed “something that in some moment was about love” and that allows her to close an episode of her life.

The train advances, the sleeping pill having taken effect, although not as strongly as the reading. Reconciled to her solitude, the woman stops searching for mental connections and feels the caress of the silk pajamas. “Plunged into confusion that is nonetheless pleasurable,” she surrenders to the reality of her dreams.

Translated by David Lisenby

Published in Revista de la Universidad de México. Number 115. 2013.

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LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

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