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The Memoir Code

October 26, 2010

Anna Goldsworthy: Piano Lessons

A concert pianist writes a memoir in which she is unrelentingly honest about what a narcissistic pain-in-the-arse she was as a child. Is a reviewer then justified in accusing her of being selfish? Or of being melodramatic if she describes her younger self adopting a tragic, windswept pose at the top of the Sydney Opera House? Or of self-aggrandisement if she includes the achievements that are part of her story?

The pianist had a privileged upbringing – both her parents were doctors and she had a private piano teacher and attended a private school. Does this invalidate her experience, so that her story can be dismissed? Should she just shut up?

For me, the many pleasures of reading Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons coalesced around two portraits: firstly, her piano teacher Eleonora Sivan,  who passionately tries to give her student some of her deep understanding of music-making and life; and secondly, Anna herself, a “brain” who is adept at maths and words, but does not hear what Mrs Sivan is trying to teach her, and does not get the “impenetrable” code of her fellow school students.

Mrs Sivan’s great “spirit of generosity” is the driving force of the book. What she tries to make Anna understand applies to both music and life. To paraphrase some of the “lessons”: music is a projection of the imagination, so that you must listen, not just play; Mozart is an endless job, you are never finished, always going deeper and deeper, never reaching perfection; don’t enter competitions to win, but to use them – you can learn more from losing than from winning; music is the art of giving – not sharing your knowledge will kill sounds immediately.

This summary sounds glib but in the context of the story and the force of the teacher’s personality, the impact of the lessons builds on both reader and, eventually, Anna. For me the book was both a moving tribute to Eleonora Sivan and an engaging story of Anna Goldsworthy’s journey.

Goldsworthy uses a linear time line, but mostly avoids the dangers that Sven Birkerts warns of by being selective, only including those episodes that drive the main story of her musical coming-of-age.  She also achieves something of the double vantage point through the two strands of the narrative voice: the child trapped in her own naivety  and the more aware adult who is now looking back at that child. This gives the voice a self-deprecating tone, as she depicts her younger self as being narcissistic, ego-driven and slow to understand. At the Brisbane Writers Festival, she said that at first it was easy to use this voice as the child seemed a different person, but it felt more embarrassing as she moved on, as there was greater continuity between the teenager and her adult self.

By so exposing herself, a writer risks accusations of narcissism and self-aggrandisement, such as those made in a scathing review of the book by Jeremy Fisher, who is a writer and lecturer, not Beatrix Potter’s frog, although the review brings to mind the “nasty” roasted grasshopper with ladybird sauce that her character served his friends.

Apart from his caustic comments about Goldsworthy, Fisher makes many criticisms of the writing style, for example that the book “suffers from offering too much of what I regard as the techniques of fiction”. At first glance, this seems odd – such techniques are usually seen as benefiting memoir writing. But Fisher is apparently talking about adding in fictional bits. He does not believe that the child Anna obsessively uses number games and superstitions to hold herself together before performing, and implies that she has pinched this idea from the likes of Dan Brown to spice up the story. But to me, it is entirely believable that a child with a maths brain would pick up a compulsion to mentally recite the Fibonacci sequence.

Fisher’s damning assessment stands out among the mostly positive reviews the book received, but was the most useful in thinking through my own response to Piano Lessons. Goldsworthy’s privileged upbringing had niggled at me while reading it. Fisher implies that such a background means she had it easy, so that her memoir is of little interest compared to, say, Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life. My social justice values make me susceptible to such an argument, but I also have a great love for diversity and a belief in the value of each individual’s experience. The stuggle for selfhood can engage us regardless of setting. While inequality most hurts those who are less equal, it can, in a different way, impede those born to privilege in developing their own humanity.

The social position and resources of Goldsworthy’s family and the pushiness of her parents put great demands on her. The story of how she grapples with these demands and with her own anxieties and doubts kept me reading. But above that is the vibrant portriait of Eleonora Sivan. I know that I will remember her, and from time to time think of her passion and wisdom.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    November 25, 2010 2:27 am

    I find it hard to believe that in this day and age people are still being judged on their social background. Whatever happened to the idea of Australian equality? It’s frightening that a writer should be ostracised because she is perceived as being from a ‘privileged’ background. Who defines privilege? Who has the right to do so? I think these sort of judgments can lead us into the dark and murky waters of fascism. What about Patrick White? not only privileged but everything that so many people despise yet he is still the only Australian born writer to win a Nobel Prize for literature. Coetzee of course is also a recipient but it is his experiences born of a ‘privileged’ South African life that he mined to produce the work that earned him the prize. I have to stop here, this could turn into a rant.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    November 26, 2010 10:12 am

    Wholehearted agreement. It’s interesting that Jeremy Fisher is a huge fan of Patrick White. And for a real rant, you can’t go past his review of Goldsworthy’s book.

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