Monday 23 January 2012

Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy

I wasn't intending to join in Australian Literature Month, because I didn't have any unread Australian novels, nor did any of the suggested titles fill me with longing.  I'm trying to be sensible with money this academic year, since I'm no longer funded, and (believe it or not) I'm even being more circumspect when it comes to book purchases!  (Keep that in your mind when you read the following...)

I bought Maestro (1989) by Peter Goldsworthy because I liked the colour of the spine.  Ok, that's not quite true - it was the minty-turquoisey colour which made me take it off the shelf; when I discovered that it was Australian, and sounded interesting, I decided it was worth £2 of my money.  I'm glad I did - not just because I get to join in with Kim et al, but because it was rather good.

Although it's Australian - written by an Australian, set in 1967 Darwin, Australia (the location of choice for characters leaving Neighbours, incidentally, if they're not going to London) - much of the impetus is tied to Europe.  Eduard Keller is a Viennese refugee who teaches piano to fifteen year old Paul Crabbe (already an experienced pianist) whose family have recently moved from South Australia to the dry heat of Darwin.  Except Keller doesn't teach piano in any traditional sense - he forbids Paul to use the piano for the first few weeks, instead instructing him in the importance of each individual finger...
Keller waggled a forefinger in front of my nose.  It was our second lesson?  Our third?

"This finger is selfish.  Greedy.  A... a delinquent.  He will steal from his four friends, cheat, lie."

He sheathed the forefinger in his closed fist as if it were the fleshy blade of a Swiss army knife and released the middle finger.

"Mr. goody-goody," he said, banging the finger down on middle C repeatedly.  "Teacher's pet.  Does what he is told.  Our best student."

Last came the ring finger.

"Likes to follow his best friend," he told me.  "Likes to... lean on him sometimes."

He lifted his elbows upwards and outwards.

"Those are the pupils.  This is the teacher.  The elbow..."
I have an ambivalent relationship with novels about music.  I enjoyed The Well-Tempered Clavier by William Coles (although I was glad that Maestro didn't follow it down the Notes on a Scandal-esque path, not least because of the sixty year gap between Keller and Paul, but also because it's not a very original course to take.)  I loved The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart, which is non-fiction.  But novels leave me cold when they rely upon the ethos that music is the highest of all forms.  I played the piano from the age of seven onwards, and although I later became friends with my piano teacher (the lady who first told me of Miss Hargreaves) and eventually grew to like playing the piano, for many years I passionately hated it.  The best feeling in the world (and my brother agrees with me) was when you rang the doorbell for a piano lesson... and the teacher didn't answer!  The worst feeling was when you thought the piano teacher wasn't going to answer, and then, after a long gap... she did.  So, anyway, this has given me an odd relationship with stories about learning instruments, and my dislike of elitism comes into play with musical maestros.

I'm sure it's possible to be a musical expert without being arrogant and rude, of course, but Keller is not one of these.  He is one of the most rude, supercilious characters I've ever encountered - but he is battling his own demons, and the love and respect Paul feels towards Keller are contagious.  Even so, I found it arrogant rather than inspiring when he said things like this:
"Perhaps you could play one of the exam pieces, Paul," my father suggested.  "A private concert for the three of us."

"The Brahms?"

"The Beethoven," Keller injected, "might be preferable."

I played Beethoven that night as well as I had ever played, and turned afterwards, smiling, ready for praise.

"Beautiful," my mother breathed.  "Don't you agree, Herr Keller?"

"An excellent forgery," he said.

"I'm sorry?"

"Technically perfect," he said.

He drained his wineglass before continuing.  It was to be his longest monologue of the evening:

"At such moments I always remember a forged painting I once saw.  Each violent brushstroke was reproduced was painstaking, non-violent care.  The forgery must have taken many many times longer than the original to complete.  It was technically better than the original."

He rose from his chair and walked a little unsteadily towards the door: "And yet something was missing.  Not much - but something."

At the door he paused, and turned: "And that small something may as well have been everything."

I find music snobbery intensely irritating - no, that's not quite true, I feel desperately sorry for people who are only content with perfection, in any field.  Doubtless it is a form of discernment, but if your discernment reaches the level that you castigate and despise almost everything you encounter, you're setting yourself up for a miserable time.

But Keller is miserable for other reasons... it gradually becomes clear that he was more involved in the Second World War than he originally admits.  I shan't give the game away, although it isn't a big twist and doesn't come as much of a surprise to the reader.  If you're rolling your eyes at yet another long-shadow-of-war novel, then don't.  It's only one element in the interesting construction of the interaction between Keller and Paul - which is the really interesting central focus of Maestro.  Their relationship isn't romantic or fatherly or even particularly close.  Keller resists any sort of emotional connection, and Paul is far too full of youthful insensitivity to do anything but blunder into conversations in which he is too immature to participate, even if Keller were willing.  But what Goldsworthy builds between Keller and the Crabbes is still somehow beautiful.  The connection between people who never open up to one another; the legacies left behind a relationship which could not even be called a friendship.  Goldsworthy has done this beautifully.

One of the things I'm realising, doing A Century of Books and stepping further outside the interwar period, where I am happiest, is the way a decade colours each novel, even without the author intentionally following the zeitgeist.  A bit like people who claim not to follow fashion, until they look back at old photographs and see how much they were unwittingly influenced by the style of the day.  So Maestro is filtered through the lens of the 1980s, whether Goldsworthy likes it or not.  I certainly wouldn't read that people 'made slow, muffled, reckless love' in the pages of an Elizabeth von Arnim novel, for instance.  Indeed, the whole coming-of-age storyline (although much less irritating in Maestro than it is in some book) is very 1980s, and rather incidental to the main thrust of the novel - but perhaps it's main purpose is to demonstrate that Keller does not completely occupy Paul's thoughts.  He is not obsessed by Keller, but their relationship will alter a great deal in his life.

Maestro is a difficult little book to write about - it is wise, original, and rather beautiful.  I would love it a great deal more if someone could translate it into the sensitivities of the 1940s, say, but of course that cannot be done.  It reminded me a bit of Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker and Virginia by Jens Christian Grondahl, but I'm hard-pressed to say quite why - the influence of genius, for the former?  The lifelong effects of a brief connection, for the latter?  Perhaps, truth be told, Maestro isn't quite like anything else I've read before, but does bring together themes and traits I've seen in many other authors, writing both before and after Goldsworthy.

As for whether it's a representative Australian novel - well, of course there's no such thing.  Goldsworthy conveyed the heat of Darwin very well, but aside from that... I'll have to see which other novels are picked up across the blogs during what's left of Australian Literature Month.  Thanks, Kim, for indirectly encouraging to find, buy, and enjoy a novel I would otherwise have left in the shop.  And thanks for helping fill 1989 in A Century of Books!


  1. Thank you for this! It sounds like a "must read" for me. Being a musician and a teacher of piano I know I will enjoy it.

    1. I think you'd enjoy this even more than I did - and you'll know what all the pieces referenced are! Obviously I knew the composers, but I couldn't identify the individual compositions.

  2. This is an excellent review although I feel no desire whatsoever to read the novel. I didn't like The Well-tempered Clavier myself, though I did love Vikram Seth's An Equal Music (which the book group was distinctly lukewarm about, if I remember rightly). Well done for ticking off 1989 -- I can't imagine how I'm going to make may way into that decade. Perhaps via the Booker shortlists?

    1. Thank you, Harriet! But, yes, this certainly isn't one I'd immediately push in your direction - although I suspect that you'd like it more than a lot of other 1989 novels...!

      I didn't read the Vikram Seth when book group read it (I chose the Kundera instead). Booker shortlists is a good idea - maybe the James Tait prize too?

  3. Simon, I'll not comment upon your review but I will say that it is indeed possible to be an expert on music without being arrogant or rude and I think you are wrong in ascribing "perfection" as the primary goal of musicians. I think Keller is correct (though not in the way he said it) when he points out that technical perfection isn't enough. In fact it isn't that important (providing you are close to it) but musicality is. Yesterday I spent six hours in a masterclass listening to a dozen or so of our finest young flautists (current students or recent graduates of the RAM, RCM etc.) Not one of them achieved technical perfection, but some were fabulously musical. I'm sorry that you seem to have had a less than inspiring experience with the piano when you were young.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Peter - since you know much more than me on this topic, I'll just thank you, since I wouldn't know how to reply! Although I play three instruments I am certainly not musical - but at least I am not deluded about it :)

  4. Ah Simon, OV and I provided you with every possible advantage in your upbringing - including something to gripe about for the rest of your life! Just think - it could have been cleaning the farmyard, like Dad, or breaking the ice in the morning, like me. After all, piano playing is an indoor sport and the rooms were usually warm ;-)
    (AND OV reminds me that you seldom needed to wash behind your ears after lessons - the dog had licked them clean!)

    1. You are wonderful parents, working for the good of the nation ;) And I shall also gripe about having to put up dozens of marquees in wind and storm and tempest.

  5. Great review, Simon! I've got the vaguest feeling that I actually have read this book, but it was at least 25 years ago!

    And I loved your description of the best feeling in the world. The no-one answering the doorbell was my favourite feeling, too, when I was 13 and had guitar lessons with the world's grumpiest guitar tutor. Poor Mrs P. — I assume she's no longer with us, because she must have been 60+ when I had lessons and that was almost 30 years ago!

    And do all the Neighbours characters go to Darwin? I always thought it was Brisbane...

    1. Thanks Kim! And thank you for helping encourage me to read this. You must have read it around the publication date - I think you'd enjoy a revisit (and it's short!)

      I'm amused that you can empathise with my best feeling in the world :) There must be legions of people who feel like we did...

      Neighbours definitely to Darwin or Okey (sp?) nowadays! But mostly London and New York, perhaps to explain why they don't bother coming back for weddings, funerals etc.

  6. You might be interested to know Simon that Goldsworthy was inspired to write Mastro by his daughter Anna's piano lessons with Russian pianist Eleonora Sivana who had migrated to Adelaide.

    Anna grew up to be a classical pianist and published a tribute to her teacher called Piano Lessons in 2009 which is well worth tracking down.

    1. I am interested to know that, thank you! I wonder how many similarities Eleonora and Keller had in temperament...


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