The Pianoplayers

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Billy Henshaw is a pianoplayer, not a pianist. He is the last pianoplayer to supply the music that accompanies silent films in the gaudy movie houses of English seaside resorts. As the need for pianoplayers diminishes, Billy goes from town to town, ferreting out what few jobs remain. His daughter Ellen, whose mother is dead, accompanies him, learning a great deal about the world in this itinerant existence she and her father lead. Finally, badly strapped for money, Billy bills himself as The Marathon Man, who will play the piano nonstop for thirty days and nights. Half way through this grueling extravaganza, Billy’s heart stops and he dies.

Ellen goes to live with an aunt and uncle who have little feeling for her. When she is offered a scholarship to attend a convent school in Brussels, she accepts gladly. In the convent school, she learns more than the lessons the nuns teach. After a stint of high-class prostitution in Paris, she drifts into being the paid companion of rich men in the south of France.

Eventually, prompted by firsthand experience, she begins to offer instruction on how men can satisfy women’s needs, founding a string of love schools that soon stretches from London to Jakarta.

In THE PIANOPLAYERS, Burgess successfully combines the ironic, understated wit that distinguishes such earlier novels as EARTHLY POWERS (1980), with his lifelong interest in music, reflected in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1963) and in his Enderby books. The plot in THE PIANOPLAYERS is tight, the wit sustained, and the characterization convincing.