On Being Studied by your Son at School: some thoughts on Maestro

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On Being Studied by your Son at School: some thoughts on Maestro

Copyright Peter Goldsworthy, and Penguin Books, 1996

Published in Navel Gazing, by Peter Goldsworthy.

Penguin, 1996

I happened to read the autobiography of Gertrude Stein in my last year at school, the one called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Before she moved to Paris to write books, Stein studied medicine at John Hopkins Medical School. She also studied philosophy with one of the great philosophers of the day, William James, and the best story in the book was her account of the final philosophy exam, which took place on a sun-drenched summer day.

Cooped up in the examination room, Stein wrote one sentence only on her paper. It went something like: 'Dear Professor James, it's too nice a day to be studying philosophy. I'm going out into the sun.'

With that, she walked out. And when the results were posted, William James awarded her the top distinction.

At age 16 this story appealed to me no end. Not so much for its encapsulation of what philosophy is for (to know and not to act is not yet to know, as a Chinese proverb has it) as for its more smart-aleck, Wise-Child elements.

We were studying Hamlet that final year at school - in too great detail, I decided. In the mid-year English examination, opportunity knocked. No, opportunism knocked. I don't remember the exact question - Hamlet's Irresolution and Oedipal Sublimation, Discuss, 250 words. Or some such - but I remember my 25-words-or-less answer. Dear Mr Claessen, Shakespeare was writing sword-fighting spectaculars for Elizabethan audiences who couldn't even read or write. He never intended there to be this kind of analysis.

With that, I slapped my pen noisily on the desk and walked out into the sunshine feeling pretty pleased with myself.

I wasn't exactly expecting the top distinction - but neither was I expecting the mark I did get, which was zero.

Of course, that was the mark I deserved, because I was wrong. I had known all along that I was wrong, but style won over substance during the exam.

My son's results were a little better than mine in Year 12 - but not much. His stumbling block wasn't Hamlet, but a novel called Maestro. He wrote an essay on Maestro in his final exams, and he didn't do very well.

Pass or fail, he enjoyed my novel, he had told me before the exam - it was very short.

There are reasons for that, I explained helpfully. Maestro is a book which not to say too much. Think of it as a poem, I advised - or even as a joke, which I like to classify as a subspecies of poem. We don't spell out our jokes, or they aren't funny. We leave the connections, the 'Aha moments' to our readers and auditors.

'If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,' Blaise Pascal famously wrote at the end of a long letter, as a fine statement of the principle of Less is More as any. I have the motto stuck above my desk, a constant reminder, or exhortation - even while I fail it. Schopenhauer, with his self-description as an 'oligographer' - one who writes little - put it in even less words.

Ernest Hemingway dubbed it the Iceberg principle: show the tips, let the readers sense the deeper berg. 'What we bloody write is only as good as what we bloody leave out' he once wrote - although why he didn't leave out those two unnecessary adjectives escapes me.

The best Hemingway novel was in fact written by Albert Camus, but a well-known example of the Hemingway iceberg principle is the opening line of his own novel, The Sun Also Rises: Then there was the bad weather.

Then. With one adverb we find ourselves deeply immersed in a fictional world. We sense the pressure of other things gone wrong, but whatever preceded 'then' does not need to be explained in fine detail.

I like to call it the John West Fish Principle: it's the sentences Ernest Hemingway rejects...

Back to that slim volume, Maestro. It contains a central interlude in which the narrator, the teenage Paul Crabbe, overhears a couple making love in the next aisle in a library, one quiet summer afternoon. He does what some of us would probably do, and what Gertrude Stein would certainly do: tugs out a book or two from the intervening shelf, trying to take a surreptitious peep through the gaps at what is going on, while at the same time trying not to reveal his own presence. What does he see? Not a lot. Jigsaw pieces. Glimpses of something very interesting, but which he can only flesh out, later in his imagination.

The scene stands on its own I think, but also acts as a metaphor for the narrative style of the entire novel. Paul is writing the novel, a first-person account of his teacher Keller - but what is he telling us? Not a lot. His picture of Keller is rather inattentive and bookish and priggish, pieced together over a period of years.

Paul belongs to that very useful species, the Limited Narrator. These unreliable creatures are a kind of straight-man used by novelists to get around tricky situations. Paul's particular limitation take the form of his being a little insensitive and self-preoccupied and naive and easily distracted. He's no worse than most of us his age, I think - but he does find it difficult to concentrate on the central story, except episodically.

My hope is that readers might discover that they are a little more sensitive or intelligent than Paul, and will see things before he does. Even though he is writing every word in the book, he doesn't always understand what he is telling us - some of the story comes to us over his head.

We, the readers, are piecing together a picture of Keller at the same time as Paul, almost despite him.


Since the publication of Maestro people occasionally ask if I am 'still playing'. If there is a piano nearby, a favourite Chopin Nocturne or Schubert Impromptu might be requested.

In fact I am the world's worst pianist, the black sheep of a family whose other members can all play a bit, or even a lot. I share certain limitations with Paul: he is something of a smart-arse at times, and a bit full of himself at times. I think we often create characters to parody, and even exorcise, unwanted traits in ourselves.

Paul's alcoholic piano teacher, Eduard Keller, is also me to some extent: a parody of the me who in late-night insomniac mode is an uncontrollable and depressive pessimist.

But Keller is also a composite of others: a kind of police identikit. We were fortunate at Darwin High School in the late sixties to have several exceptional English teachers. One was Ted O'Keeffe - a great teacher, a great lover of literature and a great drinker. An exotic tropical bloom. He was a quintessential Darwin character - equally at home in the front bar, or on a lecture podium talking about J.D. Salinger. I still remember him on Salinger - a lesson that was more an extraordinary one-man show, a performance, than a lesson. There is some of O'Keeffe, especially the incandescent red of his boozer's face, in Eduard Keller. As I said, there is a bit of my own pessimism. There is some of a late friend of mine, Emeric Moskovits, a Rumanian Jew, nine-fingered pianist and survivor of Auschwitz, where his first wife and children were murdered. Much of Keller's highly-individual teaching style comes from my daughter's piano teacher in Adelaide, Eleanora Sivan, a former lecturer at the Leningrad (now St Petersburg) Conservatorium, and teacher of genius.

Some years ago in one of Maestro study-guides that have been published, I found that all of Keller's little sayings and epigrams and snippets of advice had been extracted and clumped together on one page. It felt strange to look through this list, and see my character compressed - and to live again, writ small, the magpie process of assembling the character from identikit bits and pieces.

It was also interesting to source again where those bits had come from.

Many came from Eleanor Sivan: 'We never lose, we only learn.' 'Before you learn to play you must learn to listen.'

One was stolen from Walter Gieseking, the great Debussy interpreter, who notoriously never practiced: 'Only those who are dirty need to wash.'

'Silence is the purest music,' is pure Mozart.

'If your neighbour offends you, give his children gifts of drums,' is a Chinese proverb, and the kind of subtle, intelligent revenge that I've always gone in for myself.

Some of Keller's epigrams, though, I can't blame on others. I did write some of this book, including what is perhaps the most important line in the novel: 'If you want people to believe your lies, set them to music.'

This line represents one side of a central debate in Maestro - an age-old debate about the role of Art, and the moral responsibility of Art, a debate which goes back at least to Plato's Republic.

It's also a continuing debate within myself. All writers breathe parts of their own Balkanised personalities into the flesh of their warring characters from time to time. The conflicts in books often represent internal conflicts within the writer, which are externalised, and worked through.

Perhaps the same applies to Plato, whose version of Socrates wanted to kick the poets out of his ideal republic. Through that mouth of Socrates and his students Plato criticised art on various grounds, but mostly that it trivialised the spiritual, and that it seduced and bemused the rational mind with its beautiful lies.

Of course, there is a well-known paradox here. Plato's Dialogues are art themselves, and use the full resources of art to criticise art.

Maestro is in part a record of this same argument, using music as a metaphor for poetry, or literature. Of all the arts, music is the most purely emotional - and surely the art-form that can most purely bemuse us.

Maestro is the third novel I wrote.

The first, which was also set in Darwin, was so bad that I sold the manuscript to a library, which pays money for such things, with instructions that no-one was ever to read it without my written consent.

The second is still being written. It's about a mathematician, and has a lot of maths in it. It will never be published. It has its own wardrobe at home - it's in its thirtieth draft, and all the drafts are all piled up in their own wardrobe at home. I like to say it's the first novel in the history of literature which is taller than its author. It also weighs more than its author. I was seeking in that novel the kind of perfection which is possible, and necessary, in jokes and poems - but which is finally impossible in the novel. Through writing this giant novel I began to realise that there are no perfect novels, only novels which have been abandoned at some stage or other on the path to perfection. The novel is a looser kind of structure, saggy and baggy - but when you come to novel writing from poetry, or even the short story, it takes time to appreciate that this looseness is also a kind of strength.

My chase for perfection was the origin of Keller's advice to Paul when he is overpractising the piano, transcribing my problems once again from the world of words to the world of music: 'We must know when to move on. To search too long for perfection can also paralyse.'

Through the process of writing that earlier novel - through chasing perfection too long - I began to hate the form of the novel itself, if only because I couldn't write one. Novels plague my childhood. Even on Christmas mornings when I would wake at 3 or 4 am and grope about for my Santa-stuffed pillowslip, novels would fall out. One year all of Kipling's novels fell out. Another year, V.S. Naipaul. Another year, all of E.M. Forster. In one of those Forster novels - in fact it was Where Angels Fear To Tread - I read of a visit to a provincial opera house in Italy, of how locals ate food, drank wine and chatted through the opera, only pausing to listen during the catalogue aria.

This seemed a good analogy for the novel. Novels themselves were a type of opera, I decided: a collection of Good Bits, glued together by a lot of boring recitative. Novels were plum-puddings of poems and short stories and character sketches and wonderful lines spliced from the writer's notebook. The poem, and the short story, seemed to me much more natural literary forms, with a much more ancient and honorable history. I've written elsewhere ('The Biology of Literature') that perhaps their music and structure are even hardwired into our brains to some extent, a part of our biological inheritance.

So: I developed a great suspicion of the novel. And then I wrote Maestro, or rather it was given to me, like a poem, in a few blissful weeks, and I changed my mind completely.

Dostoevsky once said that the only education a writer needs is a single glowing memory from childhood. I suppose we all romanticise certain times in our past, periods when we were overwhelmingly happy. For me there were two golden periods of childhood: the last years of Primary School in Penola, in the southeast of South Australia, and my adolescence in Darwin.

Interestingly (if only to me) Penola was where I first learnt to play the piano, at the Mary McKillop convent, from the infinitely patient Sister Collette. When the Vatican were seeking another miracle to help the cause of Mary McKillop's beatitude a few years back, I thought of writing to His Holiness with the news that in 1961 a small miracle occurred: Sister was able to teach me, the most tone-deaf of my family, to play Fur Elise.

On one level, the novel Maestro is my Dreaming, and its sacred sites are those of adolescence in Darwin, and the various initiations of adolescence. It's a physical celebration of the town of Darwin - or an elegy for a Darwin that has gone forever, and perhaps never existed anyway, except as glimpsed through the rich fog of nostalgia. We always filter and invent and heighten the past through the process of memory.

In 1988 I went to Brisbane for six weeks as a writer in residence. I hadn't been in Darwin since before the cyclone - since 1969. I had been writing another novel - my novel in the wardrobe - and in Brisbane the frustrations of that finally overwhelmed me. The search for perfection - an impossible search - had paralysed me. I was alone in this strange city, and missing my family. Loneliness is an occupational hazard for writers - shut in the convent all day, with no-one to talk to but Macintosh.

A line of Luis Bunuel's sums it up: 'Solitude is a wonderful thing - as long as you can talk about it with someone afterwards.'

With no-one in Brisbane to talk about it with, I wallowed. Each afternoon rain would fall, warm rain, and the air would fill with humid, sub-tropical scents - scents that the rain seemed to somehow press back against the earth and multiply and magnify.

We all know the evocative power of the senses of smell and taste - the power of Proust's Madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past. Neurologists claim that the effect is anatomical - the smell cortex is located immediately next to the hippocampus, which is the repository of long-term memories on the brain. Whatever the mechanism, it works. Sitting in my study in Brisbane, smelling the tropical rain, I was transported back to the Darwin which I hadn't seen since 1970.

I remembered steeping off the plane at 2am in January 1967 - into a night thick with heat and rain. The first sentences of Maestro which I wrote were more a journal entry from that time and place. I gave my first experience of Darwin to Paul Crabbe, largely as it happened. This is what I wrote:

I loved the town of booze and blow at first sight. And above all at first smell: those hot, steamy perfumes that wrapped about me as we stepped off the plane, in darkness, in the smallest hours of a January night. Moist, compost air. Sweet and sour air.

In the motel-room I couldn't sleep. Sometime near dawn I jerked the mosquito netting aside, rose from the bed, and peered out through the louvres. Always I'll remember that first morning: the brilliant furnace of the rising sun, the huge clouds that ruddered the sky. In every direction rain could be seen falling: vast, distant cubes of water dropping slowly, ponderously out of the sky.

From time to time a cube would descend from directly above: not so much rain as solid mass of water, beginning and ceasing suddenly.

I spent most of the first day outside, ducking beneath the house during downpours. I was keeping out of range of the unpacking, yes - out of sight, out of mind - but also exploring. The garden was large and wet and green...I had never seen such greeness: an unnatural greeness, as if the leaves were a kind of plastic. Huge parrots yattered in the dripping fruit trees. Butterflies of brilliant colours - bright rainbow colours, chemistry set colours, coffee-table book colours – filled the air. Under any leaf I chose to lift small creatures seemed hidden: giant, clockwork insects, built from strange meccano, or grubs the size of small juicy mammals.

Cartoon descriptions? How else to describe a cartoon world? The moths that thudded into flyscreens that night were the size of bats - soft powdery bats. And the bats that filled the mango trees in the darkening twilight were foxes. Even the garden lawn - the most domesticated foliage - needed mowing again as soon as it was done... like some lush five o'clock shadow.

Everything grew larger that life in the steamy hothouse of Darwin, and the people were no exception. Exotic hothouse blooms.

I wrote the first draft of Maestro very quickly - in three weeks. And if Darwin wasn't - or isn't - like that, I didn't - and don't want to be disabused of my precious memories.

Students who study the book sometimes write to me questions of the 'Our teacher says that you meant this part to really mean that, but you didn't really, did you?'

I can sympathise. It's a variation on my own precocious Hamlet answer, an answer which perhaps my son might have got away with. Dear Teacher, my father never intended there to be this kind of analysis...

Besides the obvious pleasure of catching teacher out, such questions reflect a suspicion of analysis, and also an anxiety that studying a book in too great detail might ruin the pleasure of a good read.

But there is an entirely different answer to these anxious questions about interpretation that I like to give. Sometimes I did mean it, I say, and sometimes I didn't. And sometimes I didn't, but I like the idea so much that I'll pretend that I did.

This is only a part-joke. Writing is a kind of thinking, but it's often only after the process, or at least after succeeding drafts, that we see what we have done, of thought. And if we're lucky, we write, or think something that seems better, or more intelligent, than we really are.

An instance: Paul has no idea of what disc jockey Rick Whiteley is really about: this ignorance is supposed to resonate, ironically, with is rather self-righteous criticism of Keller failing to understand what Nazism was about. There are many such connections in Maestro between the present and the past - between Paul's self-importance and naivety now, and Keller's as a young pianist in Austria in the Thirties.

A student once suggested to me that the tattoos which Whiteley attempts to persuade Paul's mates to have engraved on their biceps encapsulate this, resonating the concentration camp number tattooed on Keller. This was never a conscious notion, but I like the idea - it has simplicity and symmetry - and I might try to claim it for my unconscious.

One of the wonderful thins about writing is that your unconscious throws up solutions - you are to some extent given solutions. Especially if you are patient, and leave things alone for a while between drafts.

And whether you meant it or not, if you don't like it, you can always blame your Limited Narrator. Another student recently accused me of not knowing that I am the very Model of a Modern Major General is a song from Pirates of Penzance, and not from HMAS Pinafore as I said in your book. He was right, and I was amazed at having made such an obvious mistake. I sang in all those operas as a child, and should have known. My editor should have known. My parents, Gilbert and Sullivan freaks, should have told me when they read the first edition. I considered asking the publishers to fix this error in the next edition, but then I decided to leave things as they are.

Then the next time that someone accuses me of not knowing where the song comes from, I can look them in the eye and say: I know it, but Paul doesn't know it.

It's fun to leave it there as an (unconscious?) clue to the unreliability of memory, mine and Paul’s.


A few years ago, HarperCollins produced a CD-ROM multimedia version of Maestro. This includes recordings of most of the music, illustrations, QuickTime interviews, historical background, poetry and even some manuscript pages showing the progression of the text during editing.

What, I was asked, did I think of this?

As I've said, I always thought of Maestro as a series of ice-berg tips. But what Multi-Media technology proposed was to lift the entire berg out of the water, and shine a spotlight into every nook and crevice.

I supported the idea for one main reason: it seemed like a good way to get the boys to read. My son would have loved it.

On the surface, Maestro is the simple story of the relationship between a teacher and a student, and the (incomplete) lessons they learn form each other, the most important of which have nothing to do with music, and everything to do with humility and maturity (on Paul's part) and learning to feel again (on Keller's). But there are other things going on beneath these narrative tips that poke through the surface of the novel.

With this essay, or collection of thoughts, I've tried to lift the berg a few more centimetres out of the water, and gazed into some of those crevices. I wish I'd written this for my son. It might have ruined the pleasure of a good (short) read for him, but some novels probably have to be sacrificed on the dissecting table during the process of learning to read more deeply.

Sometimes we have to stay in the examination hall despite the call of summer, and tease things apart. If this diminishes our immediate, simple pleasure, perhaps the lessons we learn will make the reading of later books a much richer and more complex experience.

That's the theory anyway.
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