I’ve always enjoyed Peter Goldsworthy’s fiction: I’ve read Everything I Knew (2008), (see my review) Three Dog Night (2003), the confronting Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam (1993), Honk If You are Jesus (1992), and Maestro (1989). But I have to say that I found the title of this memoir unenticing, what possessed Penguin to choose it?
Title aside, it’s an interesting memoir. In general, I prefer biography to autobiography and its offshoots: I’m more interested in the objective insights of the biographer who draws on a variety of sources to create a portrait of a subject I’m interested in, than the selective revelations of the memoirist. No matter how frank the memoirist is said to be, the work is necessarily subjective, and often filtered in order to maintain privacy or to serve the memoir’s purpose as an entertainment or to get something off the author’s chest. Goldsworthy’s memoir conveys a sense of painful honesty, but there are omissions which made me curious…
However, it seems clear from reading about this author’s peripatetic childhood where the origins of his novelistic preoccupations lie, and his eventual biographer will no doubt draw on this self-analysis of his youth. Goldsworthy’s father was a teacher in the days when education departments transferred their staff all over the place – teachers were a nomad tribe, yanking up their shallow roots every two or three years and moving on (p.25) and so young Peter never had long to establish relationships. On the other hand he became a flexible child, able to adapt to new places, content with satisfying solitary pursuits, and revelling in opportunities to take up new obsessions in the country towns where they lived. In those days housing was supplied by the South Australian education department but was rarely ‘homely’, and while the omissions that bother me in this memoir are the missing stories about his siblings, Goldsworthy does tell us about his parents. He shares his mother’s woes with the not untypical substandard housing conditions inflicted on teachers and their families in that era but he writes fondly about the way she conjured memorable treats out of a wood stove and kerosene primus (p.19) and how she read to him every night:
My pets were books, and within one of those thin square pets I found another, imaginary pet: The Poky Little Puppy. This story, too, my mother read aloud to me repeatedly, and the tale of that rebellious pup, and the hypnotic rhythms and rhetorical repetitions, were as memorable as any of the hundred nursery rhymes and songs that had lodged forever in my brain. Poetry had rhythm and rhyme and assonance and other sticky burrs, but prose – this prose – could also stick fast. Five little puppies dug a whole under the fence one morning and went for a walk in the wide, wide world. (p.23)
It must have been tough on her, a former teacher too, always moving about, but these parents made the most of opportunities, taking part in local light opera, and although church was the centre of social life (p.20) Methodism was easing up to allow plenty of music and singing, although church and Sunday School attendance was obligatory. During their brief sojourn in the Big Smoke (Adelaide) there were excursions to the zoo, the Koala Farm, the Show, and the Museum - not to mention contact with an eccentric grandfather who suffered from manic-depression who shared Peter’s fondness for visiting the airport joyously inhaling great lungfuls of turboprop fumes. (p.28)
But it’s not until late in the book that Goldsworthy mentions his siblings, and he wonders why this is. (This seemed disingenuous to me). He says it’s because he thought of himself as an only child even though he wasn’t. The memoir certainly reads as if he was, because apart from this chapter which shows a clear fondness for his brother and sister, they are conspicuously absent from his analysis of his life. This seems odd when family was the one constant that he had, and I can’t help suspecting that their absence is perhaps because he didn’t want to, or didn’t have permission to, mine their lives in sharing his memories of his own.
Perhaps the reason for the inane title is that Goldsworthy seems very hard on himself in this memoir. The book is peppered with vivid impressions of memorable events in his young life, and the books which travelled with them wherever they went. Their father eschewed television, so libraries are a fond memory, though in country towns they were reliant on a lucky dip parcel arriving from the Country Lending Library, or the school library when he was older. Goldsworthy lists numerous books of all kinds that have lodged in his memory, noting that when it was time to move on again
Being a self-absorbed loner at school, I had no friendships I would miss. My best friend was a book, and it would travel with me anywhere in the world we lived in. (p.37)
But in recounting his dilettante forays into assorted aspects of science and the way he failed to take much notice of being a bit of a bore, a bit of a
poseur ’poser’ and a bit of a rascal, Goldsworthy’s brutal self-analysis also establishes his credentials as an unusual child with a very high level of intelligence. This memoir ends at age eighteen, and Goldsworthy was already studying medicine at university then. His adolescent posturings with cravats and berets, his naïve over-confidence, his occasionally heroic-but-foolish attempts to protect the weak and his lack of self-reflection remind me of very clever boys vacillating between trying hard to fit in, and ostentatiously asserting that they don’t care if they don’t. His behaviours (with, LOL, the possible exception of his small-boy sexual fetish with cars being cranked) are typical of gifted children who don’t know where they belong.
His Stupid Boyhood makes an interesting contrast with Hazel Rowley’s biography of Christina Stead which I am reading in instalments over breakfast at the moment, not least because Stead was obsessive about her privacy, using her fiction to reveal truths about her life as a gifted child. Just as Rowley makes constant connections between Stead’s life experiences and her fiction, I anticipate that Goldsworthy’s eventual biographer will begin do the same with this engaging memoir in which we see the genesis of Goldsworthy’s provocative attitudes to spirituality, his familiarity with small town life, his repeated characterisations of ‘only children’, his sexual preoccupations and his passion for music. There are obvious connections, for example, between Robbie Burns’ childhood scrapes in Penola, and most significantly the title itself in the novel Everything I Knew. Perhaps there will be a follow-up covering his adult years, but in the meantime you can also read Piano Lessons by his daughter Anna Goldsworthy, for the genesis of his first novel Maestro, voted one of the Top 40 Australian books of all time by the ASA (Australian Society of Authors).
Author: Peter Goldsworthy
Title: His Stupid Boyhood
Publisher: Penguin (Hamish Hamilton), 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia
Fishpond: His Stupid Boyhood