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.


Janene said...

Previously I'd read that the imperfect english of the immigrant piano teacher was rendered with every flaw minutely detailed, and this had already put me off the book; your review has done the rest.

Are you in Armidale yet, Jeremy? I'm a journalist at the Express and I think your career change would make an interesting story.

Jeremy Fisher said...

Yes, I am in Armidale. I can be contacted through the University, or at

BettyK said...

I visited your blog for the first time after reading about it in today's SMH Spectrum section. Your review of the Anna Goldsworthy book is hard but seems fair, and serious readers should be grateful. We should celebrate fearless reviewing; there's so little of it, particularly when offspring of the arts elite are involved. We don't want slander or personal attacks, just an objective assessment of the work rather than fawning and sycophancy. There's so much being published and so little time that tough but fair reviewing is a necessity for serious readers.

Anonymous said...

You "wanted to smash the lid of the piano down on her selfish fingers"?
How interesting...
Tell me more about your childhood

LaDona said...

Speaking as a piano teacher, and someone who has had some of the same experiences as Anna, although not to the same degree, I liked the book for what Mrs. Sivan has to offer. There are glimpses into the spirit, or "essence" as she called it, of many composers. The book serves as a good collection of exhortations for music teachers. It is far too easy to get caught up in the technicalities of the music; Mrs. Sivan reminds us that above all, music is art.

Anonymous said...

I read Anna's book, though initially I was not interested as I have never enjoyed Anna’s playing. Neither do I appreciate Adelaide’s sad elevation of the mediocre to dizzy heights in the arts, education and literati scene. Also, I have not been able to find a biography on her teacher, Eleonora Sivan, which is rather odd seeing as she is supposed to have such a fascinating pianistic background. However, a musician friend's comments on the book intrigued me and here I must admit, from the gossipy point of view only, as I am cognizant of a number of the personalities Anna writes about and thought perhaps I would also learn more of the background of Eleonora Sivan. However, I must agree with Jeremy's review. It is excellent and spot-on. The book is a very vain piece of writing about Anna's achievements, many and marvelous. She takes reprisal on her father for his public and humiliating remarks about her acne and it seems at times, in a far more subtle way, on Eleonora Sivan. But her greatest retribution is two servings on the examiner who dared give her a 'C' for one of her exams. Many Adelaide people know him as an intuitive teacher and popular performer. I was sometimes entertained by the book for its tittle-tattle but found it boring otherwise. And one still ends up with the question, "Who is Eleonora really?"

Anonymous said...

A little bit too snide a review - what you are saying is lost in your anger. As for "she overcame the impossible odds of her deprived South Australian upbringing -- private school, dux of school, private piano teacher, both parents doctors, piano recitals" - issues about your upbringing much? And naive - private school doesn't mean a person doesn't have issues.

I flicked through this book at the bookstore and it seems incredibly boring.

Anonymous said...

Complaints about someone continually mentioning their father's achievements by someone
whose blog address is: *dr* Ok, then.

Anonymous said...

Nothing we say will interfere with the popularity of this book, so it doesn't particularly matter what we write here. I was given it for my birthday and read it pretty quickly - and with appreciation and amusement in parts (mainly the parts which feature the author's wry or self-deprecating humour). I agree that it's not a memoir: it's a sanitised, incredibly biased and self-indulgent narrative, with glaring gaps. And the ending is so hasty as to lead me to wonder whether the author had to wind up for reasons of word length and/or family/career imperatives. As for the classification 'non-fiction', that is debatable. Overall, I am astonished that someone who is so worldly, hardworking, and richly awarded - and who clearly has a phenomenal memory to boot - could get away with such a half-baked story. It's a lost opportunity to make an interesting premise properly worthwhile.

Dona Engman said...

All I can say you are pretty strong to surpass all the trials come in your life. Usually a good blogger have a good heart and your are the one of it. Beautiful story.

Piano Lessons Lakeville

Anonymous said...

I'e been ploughing through The Piano Lessons for the book club I joined and noticed there were no reviews listed in the book..(nothing good to say?), so went looking for some. Your critiques exactly sums up what I am thinking. And I am also thinking life is too short to keep reading this book. Thanks for your incisive summary which I may quote at next bookclub.

Anonymous said...

I loved the book! Perhaps it was my deprived childhood that let me appreciate it. Seriously. What a nasty pile of gossiping locals you are, the commentators from Adelaide. Thank god I'm not from there!
I'm anonymous because I really am anonymous in this situation, a nobody who found the book delightful!!

Jeremy Fisher is the name of a toad, isn't it, who sits (eats?) on a lotus leaf . Sorry, a frog. in a small pond?

toldandretold said...

"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."

I think you just don't get the humour. Often in the book Anna is laughing at herself, just like in this example.

Furthermore, what is wrong with being self absorbed? It doesn't have to be a bad thing. We each are, after all, the only way of experiencing the world that we will ever, well, experience. From this it follows that a self absorbed memoir can be a good thing, because it's only through reading someone's honest and candid experience of themselves that we are able to gain insight into the mysteries of what goes on inside of other people's selves.

This is how I read the book. As a result I related to Anna. Where she was self absorbed I laughed with her as she laughed at herself. And, because I was able to relate, I was able also to laugh at myself.

An interesting thought experiment would be to wonder what the book would have been like if Anna hadn't name dropped her father and his books. This would have resulted in a writer ignoring the connection she would naturally feel towards her father who is also a writer. It would be to deny her sense of self in a vain attempt at not coming across to the blogosphere as vain. Instead, Anna went with her honest experience of herself. For this the book was funny and refreshing.