Friday, January 29, 2010

Anna Goldsworthy: Piano Lessons

I could not fail to notice that Anna Goldsworthy (author of Piano Lessons, Black Inc., ISBN 9781863954433) is the daughter of Peter Goldsworthy. His name is on the back cover, he is thanked for his editorial suggestions in the acknowledgements and he makes his appearance on page 1.
Peter Goldsworthy was awarded a gong, an AM, in the 2010 Australia Day Honours List. He's a South Australian and he chaired the Literature Board of the Australia Council (in which capacity I met him and found him to be professional, courteous and concerned) and he's a doctor and he wrote Maestro. Don't forget this last -- well, forget it if you like -- Anna will remind you of it often enough in her "memoir" about how she overcame the impossible odds of her deprived South Australian upbringing -- private school, dux of school, private piano teacher, both parents doctors, piano recitals -- you know, the usual thing. Personally, I prefer Peter's Honk if you are Jesus, which I think is one of Australia's funniest "serious" novels, even though the title probably hurt sales. Regrettably, Peter's Three Dog Night was not a book for me, and I've never been more than luke-warm about Maestro, but Anna collaborated with her father on a stage adaptation of it, so let's mention it again shall we?
Oh, and Anna had a car accident once, and she was at fault. And then she had another a day before she was to play with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, but a drugged-out truck driver who called her "mate" was to blame for that one.
And did you know Maestro -- have we mentioned the book by her father yet? -- was in part inspired by her music teacher, Eleonora Sivan? While Anna was horrified her father was recording her teacher's conversation in a notebook, that horror didn't stop her producing this uninspired piece of self-aggrandisement, which does little justice to Mrs Sivan, despite that being, I imagine, the author's intention.
Why uninspired? I like to think a memoir is not simply a recount of episodes of a life, but a cumulative narrative that ultimately proffers some revelation or illumination. I accept that the truth of the memoir may only be such as can provide a basis for an engaging narrative, but the more a reader can accept a memoir as true, the more successful the memoir. A Fortunate Life is an excellent example. Piano Lessons, to me, suffers from offering too much of what I regard as the techniques of fiction (and I do hope this is not because of the editorial suggestions of the father).
One particular irritation is the repetitive use of numbers or superstitions to suggest Anna has some obsessive-compulsive or ADHD problem. The Fibonacci sequence (hey, Dan Brown!) is mentioned several times as she counts it down, supposedly calming herself when panicked by what never fails to be success. She'll have you believe (but I don't) that she plays superstitious little games to hold herself together in the face of the enormous pressures facing her -- like winning the Tennyson Prize for being best SA student in English AND the Don Maynard Prize for best SA music student -- at the same time!
It's a device that could have worked, but why should I accept it from a writer who offers me, after all the prizes and successes: "Afterwards I rushed from the room, disgusted with myself, and climbed the steps to the top of the opera house [yes, the Sydney Opera House], where I assumed a tragic, windswept pose". Really, that's what is written.
Melodrama this memoir may be, but Wuthering Heights it is not.
I'm not pointing the finger solely at the author here. The acknowledgements reveal Black Inc. asked her to write the book. These days, she is well-known both for her writing and her musical performances in the Seraphim Trio. I am not questioning her talent in either area in any way. For the publisher, the book may have seemed an easy sell, but there are serious problems in its structure and writing that do neither author nor publisher any good.
Still, I admire Anna's chutzpah. Several times she quotes her father saying "you have to put yourself out there". One time she quotes him suggesting her Trio be called the Stiletto Trio, with the marketing gimmick being the three musicians wearing stilettos on stage. Following this advice, she has put herself out there, but her self-portrait is not a flattering picture and much of this I think lies in the haste to get a saleable book to market, rather than working more thoroughly on a memoir that offers the reader some revelation or illumination.
For instance, "Debra" is mentioned a few times and appears to have some role in music, but we don't ever meet this character. Then there's poor old Sam, who bought the Paddington Bear. He is is dumped and forgotten in a most offhand fashion -- the star has to practise, practise, practise. No time for a boyfriend. Until Nicholas waltzes into the Coda, not a boyfriend but a husband. And finally, there's the caricature of Eleonora Sivan -- the intent was obviously meant to be inspirational, but it all falls flat. Why ?
In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald following his AM, Peter Goldsworthy noted he loathed piety, something he attributed to his Methodist upbringing. My Methodist upbringing causes me to loathe immodesty, hubris and vanity -- all of which are present in Piano Lessons in spadefuls. All of it about Anna. I wanted to smash the lid of the piano down on her selfish fingers, which I am sure is not what either author or publisher intended.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kate Grenville: The Lieutenant

My first encounter with Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant (Text, ISBN 978-1-921351-78-5) was in a warm winter in Alice Springs. Kate was a member of a panel I chaired at the Eye of the Storm writers' festival there, and she read from the book and talked about what had influenced her to write it. I didn't read the book in its entirety until some months after this, but encountering it first in what to me was -- is -- the foreignness of Alice Springs helped me understand the central character of Daniel Rooke a little more.
A visitor to Alice Springs can feel very much the stranger, divorced and alien from both the black and white people and the land. This feeling is at the heart of Grenville's powerful historical novel. She explores it through Daniel Rooke. Grenville hints in the early chapters that today he might be diagnosed with Aspergers or some similar form of autism. He has a gift with numbers and categorisation and "he had no memories other than of being an outsider". He is mistreated by his peers, who ridicule his poor social skills.
These improve somewhat when he joins the marines, but this leads to him being wounded in a naval battle in the American War of Independence. Recovering from this, he learns that an expedition is to set out for New South Wales and he contrives to be on board the Sirius as astronomer.
I had some problems with history here. The Sirius of course was a ship in the First Fleet, which was under the command of Arthur Phillip. In Grenville's book, Phillip becomes James Gilbert, Rooke is a character inspired by William Dawes. I am not sure why the historical names do not have a place in this fiction. Sydney Cove and Botany Bay are there, as are the Cadigal people themselves. Grenville even has a little joke as Rooke, sailing out of Sydney Harbour, stands "at the stern and looked towards the point the natives knew as Tarra, and which he had tried to name after Dr Vickery, but which people seemed determined to call after himself". She is referring, of course, to Dawes Point. Why then can we not have characters called Phillip and Dawes?
Grenville also acknowledges that she is using Cadigal words and conversation in the book, and her story is inspired by "recorded events". So why do we have this need to shuffle in extraneous characters?
I am conscious that there has been some debate about novelists interpreting history, but history is not Grenville's key theme. She is telling a story about, fundamentally, communication, and she is using the well-established genre of the historical novel. I would have been more then happy to have had Rooke named Dawes and Gilbert named Phillip.
But that is immaterial to the core theme, and where this novel excels. It transpires that Rooke, the outsider, has more in common with the Cadigal people than his own. With Tagaran (again, historically Patyegarang), he forms a close bond and sets out to record the language of the Cadigal. This is perhaps the most moving, though problematic, part of the book.
Grenville very clearly defines her crucial message: "This exchange was not a language lesson. For the first time, he and Tagaran were on the same side of the mirror of language, simply speaking to each other. Understanding went in both directions. Once two people shared language, they could no longer use it to hide".
But for this reader there was a problem with a lack of sexual tension between Rooke and Tagaran. We know that Rooke is a man with a mighty member, which he is able to use, from the Antigua scene. It's difficult to accept him almost sexless in his interactions with a naked Tagaran.
That quibble aside, this is a book for a rainy Sunday afternoon, biscuits to hand, and constant cups of tea.