Thursday, November 24, 2016

"Chopin in Winter" (1990)

Story by Stuart Dybek not available online.

Stuart Dybek's story is a smooth and accomplished slice of ethnic life from a postwar Polish neighborhood in Chicago. It's told first-person, as a memory of the narrator when he was a young boy, perhaps 10. It's winter. The daughter of the landlady of the building the boy lives in, Marcy, is the first of her family to go to college—the first even to finish high school. But now she is pregnant and making the decision to be done with school. She won't tell anyone who the father is or speak about her plans for it. She had been studying music in college and she still practices on the piano now, living at home again. Meanwhile, in the boy's household, his grandfather Dzia-Dzia soaks his feet in the kitchen and listens to her play through the walls. He is an itinerant figure in the boy's family, disappearing and reappearing for months and years at a time. Dzia-Dzia recognizes that sometimes Marcy plays "boogie-woogie" music, and he speculates aloud that the father of her child is black. In fact, they are the first words he speaks weeks after his most recent return. He is prone to long periods of silence. Later, he recognizes Chopin, and we are privy to his swooning over the music, which overall feels more like Dybek, or someone other than any of these characters. This goes on for some time—Marcy plays music, Dzia-Dzia swoons over it. Eventually, Marcy begins playing less. As spring approaches, she moves away and disappears. Much later, the boy finds out she is living with a black man in a black neighborhood and has a boy named Tatum. I like the details of the building and the people living in it more than the business about music in this story. It's competent music writing, inventive and alive to the difficulty of expressing the effects of hearing music and of describing it. We've already seen James Baldwin take on the problem, in "Sonny's Blues"—and much more successfully overall, I think, weaving it more artfully and tightly into the narrative. I like the plot point, in "Chopin in Winter," that Marcy goes a typical second-generation way of embracing Americanism and rejecting the values of her parents that brought her to the privilege. It's poignant and believable. I got the sense, maybe I went looking for it, that Marcy is talented and self-possessed enough that she will do all right. But it's not certain. I also get the sense there's enough for a novel here—with these characters and all their connections and intricate relations and histories—but paradoxically not enough for a short story, no sharp focus place to land on, just a general bittersweet coming of age. Focusing on the music looks like an attempt to universalize a familiar straightforward story in a new way, but I don't appreciate Chopin enough to connect with the flights here. I have to admit I also don't appreciate bebop, the Charlie Parker style, that much either. But in Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" that doesn't matter to me, which is approximately the difference between the two stories.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff


  1. There's all these literary anthologies out there, none of which I'll ever have time to get to, but a literary anthology of short (or long, for that matter) fiction writing in which music, playing it, listening to it, descriptions of its pleasures, how it soundtracks living, hard and easy, now that's one I think I'd get around to reading.

    1. You should read the story and when you get to the part where the boy and his grandfather listen to Chopin,go to u tube and Chopin's music will be your companion.