The Pole

J. M. Coetzee

September 21, 2023 
The following is from J. M. Coetzee's The Pole. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Coetzee is the author of twenty books, including Waiting for the Barbarians, which won South Africa’s Central News Agency Award; The Life and Times of Michael K, for which Coetzee was awarded his first Booker Prize in 1983; and several essay collections. With Disgrace, Coetzee became the first author to win the Booker Prize twice. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

1. The woman is the first to give him trouble, followed soon afterwards by the man.

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2. At the beginning he has a perfectly clear idea of who the woman is. She is tall and graceful; by conventional standards she may not qualify as a beauty but her features—­dark hair and eyes, high cheekbones, full mouth—­are striking and her voice, a low contralto, has a suave attractive power. Sexy? No, she is not sexy, and certainly not seductive. She might have been sexy when she was young—­how can she not have been with a figure like that?—­but now, in her forties, she goes in for a certain remoteness. She walks—­one notices this particularly—­without swinging her hips, gliding across the floor erect, even stately.

That is how he would sum up her exterior. As for her self, her soul, there is time for that to reveal itself. Of one thing he is convinced: she is a good person, kind, friendly.

3. The man is more troublesome. In concept, again, he is perfectly clear. He is a Pole, a man of seventy, a vigorous seventy, a concert pianist best known as an interpreter of Chopin, but a controversial interpreter: his Chopin is not at all Romantic but on the contrary somewhat austere, Chopin as inheritor of Bach. To that extent he is an oddity on the concert scene, odd enough to draw a small but discerning audience in Barcelona, the city to which he has been invited, the city where he will meet the graceful, soft-­spoken woman.

But barely has the Pole emerged into the light than he begins to change. With his striking mane of silver hair, his idiosyncratic renderings of Chopin, the Pole promises to be a distinct enough personage. But in matters of soul, of feeling, he is troublingly opaque. At the piano he plays with soul, undeniably; but the soul that rules him is Chopin’s, not his own. And if that soul strikes one as unusually dry and severe, it may point to a certain aridity in his own temperament.

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4. Where do they come from, the tall Polish pianist and the elegant woman with the gliding walk, the banker’s wife who occupies her days in good works? All year they have been knocking at the door, wanting to be let in or else dismissed and laid to rest. Now, at last, has their time come?

5. The invitation to the Pole comes from a Circle that stages monthly recitals in the Sala Mompou, in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and has been doing so for decades. The recitals are open to the public, but tickets are expensive and the audience tends to be wealthy, aging, and conservative in its tastes.

The woman in question—­her name is Beatriz—­is a member of the board that administers the series. She performs this role as a civic duty, but also because she believes that music is good in itself, as love is good, or charity, or beauty, and good furthermore in that it makes people better people. Though well aware that her beliefs are naive, she holds to them anyway. She is an intelligent person but not reflective. A portion of her intelligence consists in an awareness that excess of reflection can paralyse the will.

6. The decision to invite the Pole, whose name has so many w’s and z’s in it that no one on the board even tries to pronounce it—­they refer to him simply as ‘the Pole’—­is arrived at only after some soul-­searching. His candidacy was proposed not by her, Beatriz, but by her friend Margarita, the animating spirit behind the concert series, who in her youth studied at the conservatory in Madrid and knows much more about music than she does.

The Pole, says Margarita, led the way for a new generation of Chopin interpreters in his native land. She circulates a review of a concert he gave in London. According to the reviewer, the fashion for a hard, percussive Chopin—­Chopin as Prokofiev—­has had its day. It was never anything but a Modernist reaction against the branding of the Franco-­Polish master as a delicate, dreamy, ‘feminine’ spirit. The emerging, historically authentic Chopin is soft-­toned and Italianate. The Pole’s revisionary reading of Chopin, even if somewhat over-­intellectualized, is to be lauded.

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She, Beatriz, is not sure that she wants to hear an evening’s worth of historically authentic Chopin, nor, more pertinently, whether the rather staid Circle will take kindly to it. But Margarita feels strongly about the matter, and Margarita is her friend, so she gives her her support.

The invitation to the Pole accordingly went out, with a proposed date and a proposed fee, and was accepted. Now the day has arrived. He has flown in from Berlin, has been met at the airport and driven to his hotel. The plan for the evening is that, after the recital, she, together with Margarita and Margarita’s husband, will take him out to dinner.

7. Why will Beatriz’s own husband not be one of the party? The answer: because he never attends Concert Circle events.

8. The plan is simple enough. But then there is a hitch. On the morning in question Margarita telephones to say that she has fallen ill. That is the rather formal term she uses: caído enferma, fallen ill. What has she fallen ill with? She does not say. She is vague, deliberately so, it would seem. But she will not be coming to the recital. Nor will her husband. Therefore will she, Beatriz, please take over the duties of hospitality, that is to say, arrange to have their guest conveyed from hotel to auditorium in good time, and entertain him afterwards, if he wants to be entertained, so that when he returns to his native country he will be able to say to his friends, Yes, I had a good time in Barcelona, on the whole. Yes, they took good care of me.

‘Very well,’ says Beatriz, ‘I will do it. And I hope you get better soon.’

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9. She has known Margarita since they were children together at the nuns’ school; she has always admired her friend’s spirit, her enterprise, her social aplomb. Now she must take her place. What will it entail, entertaining a man on a fleeting visit to a strange city? Surely, at his age, he will not expect sex. But he will certainly expect to be flattered, even flirted with. Flirting is not an art she has ever cared to master. Margarita is different. Margarita has a light touch with men. She, Beatriz, has more than once, with amusement, watched her friend go about her conquests. But she has no wish to imitate her. If their guest has high expectations in the department of flattery, he is going to be disappointed.

10. The Pole is, according to Margarita, a ‘truly memorable’ pianist. She heard him in the flesh, in Paris. Is it possible that something happened between the two of them, Margarita and the Pole, in the flesh; and that, having engineered his visit to Barcelona, Margarita is at the last minute having cold feet? Or has her husband finally had enough, and issued a fiat? Is that how ‘falling ill’ is to be understood? Why must everything be so complicated!

And now she must take care of the stranger! There is no reason to expect he speaks Spanish. What if he does not speak English either? What if he is the kind of Pole who speaks French? The only regulars in the Concert Circle who speak French are the Lesinskis, Ester and Tomás; and Tomás, in his eighties, is becoming infirm. How will the Pole feel when, instead of the vivacious Margarita, he is offered the decrepit Lesinskis?

She is not looking forward to the evening. What a life, she thinks, the life of an itinerant entertainer! The airports, the hotels, all different yet all the same; the hosts to put up with, all different yet all the same: gushing middle-­aged women with bored attendant husbands. Enough to quench whatever spark there is in the soul.

At least she does not gush. Nor does she chatter. If after his performance the Pole wants to retreat into moody silence, she will be moody right back.

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From The Pole by J.M. Coetzee. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright. Copyright © 2023 by J.M. Coetzee.

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