Letitia Huckaby: “Lynnette” (2016)
I have become a slave owner. Yes, like you I believe in the freedom of all men—your Hungarians, the Poles, the Rumanians!—and in the role we artists must play—light-bringers, revealers of passion, sympathizers with the oppressed! But I have become a slave owner. It is a stain, a mark of rot. How many stains have I come to bear in these last weeks? They are countless.
I beg you, my dear Master Liszt, read this letter.
Complete story available online
at Oxford American
Just as well-behaved women seldom make history, nice guys seldom make interesting protagonists or good fiction. It’s just the opposite, in fact: somehow the bad guy gets us on his side. This goes back centuries. I’m taking a mooc on Icelandic sagas, and have discovered 13th century readers of Grettis Saga wrote notes in the margins championing the lazy, vicious outlaw protagonist and cursing his eventual conqueror. For that matter, one of the original Western protagonists, Odysseus, was not a nice guy by many standards. But in fiction, as sometimes happens in life, a bad guy gradually worms his way into our hearts; we discover that, while he may act like a jerk, or even a criminal, he has moments of tenderness, or we discover some rationale for his antisocial behavior, or we admire his willingness to take the consequences; that helps us ease up on the judgment. In other stories, a basically good guy goes bad, and his initial goodness lets us stick with him.
In this story, I found I was completely sympathetic to Miszner from the opening. Who wouldn’t be? I was repulsed by most of his actions later on, but he recognized his disgusting behavior, so I was disappointed, but still with him as this is fiction and compassion is easier to come by than in real life. However, the last line of the story cut him off from my good graces entirely. On further reflection, I realized there are several ways of thinking about this story.
But let’s go back to the beginning. The story is in the form of a letter, obviously; does that make it an epistolary story? Epistolary novels are virtually always multiple documents, allowing for attitude change to occur in the gaps between letters. The changes here are traditionally narrated by someone who already knows the end when he sits down to write, so that changes things a bit. Still, the letter form is crucial, since it allows that last line, hearkening back to the opening. The narration throughout is therefore in the service of the ending.
Miszner is a young pianist who studied under Franz Liszt until he accidentally discovered the master considered him a mediocrity. That work leapt out at me from the text; Amadeus is one of my five all-time favorite movies, and mediocrity – the artist’s recognition of his own mediocrity – is crucial there, too. In fact, in many ways, Miszner reminds me of Salieri, though the Austrian achieved success in his mediocrity in one of the greatest musical cities in Europe rather than in Henderson, Texas.
I reached Henderson, Texas, the town I settled in, newly risen in those remote wilds, and the town from which these pages come.
Only in a place such as this, you said, might I be accepted as a genius—an ambassador of light!—a bearer of art, stirring passions in every breast! And, indeed, my dear Master Liszt, for fifteen years, in this far spot, it has been so.
Henderson has an academy, and for these fifteen years I have been its music teacher. To my students I proclaim emotion and the spirit as guiding stars, and for all the town I am a wonder, with my long hair, my twenty bright cravats, and my white gloves that, like you, I pull from my fingers and toss whenever I play. My townsmen consult me on the revolutions of ’48, the fashions of Europe, the duties of the heart.
Is this not genius? How we act and are perceived? It is not. Fifteen years, my dear Master Liszt. For fifteen years I have pretended to genius, only pretended. For this I have been punished. For this I have been made to pay.
I feel for this guy, who had so far to go before finding a pond small enough to make him look like a big fish. But I’m not convinced: he’s not talking about feeding his soul with music, but about feeding his ego with praise. The pursuit of the first, though foolish and damned to fail, is romantic and sad and beautiful; the second evinces a corrupted value system. And, more importantly, it is a choice.
Here is also where an alternative reading of the story comes into play. When, as a student, he asked Liszt what he should do if pianistic greatness is not within his grasp, the master suggests he go into his family’s business; lead a normal life, so to speak, and consider freedom from the demands of genius to be a gift. But Miszner is not satisfied with that answer, so he presses further, and Liszt suggests he travel the world to find a small pond. When does Miszner realize “you meant your words as a rebuke”? It wasn’t in the moment, or he wouldn’t have packed his bags that day and sailed in search of his small pond. Did he realize when he first shot the dead body of the hanging abolitionist? When he kept silent when the pregnant slave girl was gang raped? When her baby, now his property, died? Or only afterwards, when in his guilt and shame he realized the price of his pennyante fame?
I could have forgiven him even then. We all screw up, and to recognize one’s sin is to show a capacity for virtue. But redeemability requires one to accept responsibility and suffer the consequences, and here is where Miszner fails.
When I left your rooms in Baden-Baden fifteen years ago, I dreamed of transmuting my mediocrity into genius, of leading my fellow men as a noble artist, of living above the world like a heralding comet or star. Now I am stained with these guilts, these failings uncountable. Have you read on, my dear Master Liszt? I pray you have. It is why I write to you who taught me falsely, who sent me to this Texas. These stains, these guilts, these failings, they are mine. Yes, I own them. But you have a share, and my words—they have brought that share to you.
I’m still debating what words Miszner refers to. The advice to seek glory on a smaller stage? He knows that was his misunderstanding; does he blame Liszt for not being clearer? Or for mentioning the option at all? Or does he blame Liszt for recognizing his lack of genius, even though that lack was demonstrated to him in other cities, indeed recognized by himself, before he got to Henderson? Or is he just looking for any channel to release some of the guilt and shame, much as a beaten child sometimes turns into an abuser himself?
I became infuriated with that last sentence, with what I saw as cheap self-pity and the cowardly deflection of responsibility. But now I wonder if I was too harsh in my judgment. Then I read about Missy May and her doomed baby, and I wonder if there is any such thing as too harsh.
I continued to think about the responsibility a teacher, particularly a teacher of something so subjective as artistic practice, owes a student. I recalled a poem by Jeffrey Harrison, titled “Fork”, made into a top-notch video by some high school class:
You might even say your fork
made me a writer. Not you, your fork.
You are still the worst teacher I ever had.
You should have been fired but instead got tenure.
As for the fork, just yesterday my daughter
asked me why I keep a fork in my desk drawer,
and I realized I don’t need it any more.
It has served its purpose. Therefore
I am returning it to you with this letter.
The situation here is very different. Unlike Liszt, who was answering a question honestly, the teacher has major failings – the constant criticism and negativity, the use of students as a mirror, the flaunting of status – at least in the eyes of the student. Are those criticisms fair? Given that the student went on to become a successful writer, probably. What fascinates me about the poem, however, is not just the similar element of a teacher’s effect on a student of the arts, but whether or not the teacher was, in fact, detrimental. Without that teacher, there would have been no fork. Without that fork, would there have been a writer?
It takes a kind of genius to recognize and properly guide a student of the arts. I would guess that Liszt – the one in the story, anyway, though biographers tend to describe the real-life version as “complicated” and ‘contradictory” – lacked that genius. But I balk at the offloading of blame onto him. Yet it’s a story whose implications I’ll continue to think about, wondering who I’m blaming for my own failings.