Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2021

Maestro, by Peter Goldsworthy

Peter Goldsworthy AM is the acclaimed author of eight novels, including most recently Minotaur, but Maestro is his first.  It made quite a splash, with shortlisting in the 1990 Miles Franklin award and went on to be included in the 2003 the Australian Society of Authors list of the top-forty Australian books ever published.  (Which was, BTW, a pretty good list, if the 28 which I’ve read are anything to go by).

Described in the Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature as a classic coming-of-age narrative featuring a gifted and slightly sinister music teacher whose story has dark roots in the Second World War, the novel is a bit of a rarity because it’s set in Darwin.  There are only nine with Northern Territory settings reviewed on this blog and apart from Jeannie Gunn’s We of the Never Never, I can’t think of too many more.

The climate is a constant element in the narrative.  Here is the schoolboy Paul Crabbe meeting for the first time his enigmatic piano teacher, Herr Eduard Keller.

Outside, the sound of thunder carried to us, distantly: the sound of February, of deepest, darkest Wet.  The room was stifling, oppressive, but the louvred wooden slats that formed two opposing walls remained closed, the ceiling fan stilled.  Not a whisper of movement stirred in the sticky air.

I sensed that I was undergoing some kind of test.

‘Heat,’ Keller suddenly pronounced, ‘we can withstand. A little discomfort is necessary to maintain alertness.  But noise…

He gestured in the direction of the louvred wall that faced onto the balcony—the direction of the beer garden below.

My mother smiled uncertainly and dabbed a handkerchief at her brow.  The sweat was beginning to gather, the droplets aggregating into larger drops, heavy as mercury.  Newcomers in Darwin, we had moved from the temperate South barely a month before; she found the climate unbearable.  (p.5)

Maestro, as he comes to be called behind his back, is a stranger to Darwin too, though no longer a newcomer to a city of booze, blow and blasphemy.  Paul’s curiosity is aroused from the outset by Keller’s missing fifth finger, its absence flaunted by a gold ring on the stump.  Graceless and awkward, and determined to remain aloof from the crassness that surrounds him, Keller is a hard taskmaster, never satisfied by Paul’s best efforts.  He refuses, too, to satisfy the boy’s curiosity about his Austrian origins, about the sepia photos on the piano, about the numbers tattooed on his arm although he isn’t Jewish.

It is on a Christmas visit to grandparents down south that Paul discovers Keller’s previous fame.  Keller had sent him a battered, yellowing edition of Czerny, the Opus 599 studies, with instructions to practise three studies each day.  Paul is disappointed—he’s already got that one.  But it turns out to be a generous gift: a signed first edition, 150-odd years old.  Ordered to stay indoors till his sunburn heals, Paul sets off on a quest to find out more in the library.  Hours spent researching the history of music reveals Keller’s birthdate, and a clearly incorrect date of death in 1944.  And quite by chance, he stumbles on a chilling reference to Keller’s wife, the celebrated Jewish contralto and Wagner specialist, Mathilde Rosenthal.  

The solemnity of this discovery is undercut by Paul’s startled witnessing of an erotic rendezvous between the stacks.  It’s a reminder of a more innocent time, not merely before the internet, but also before ‘the pictures’ became ‘the movies’.

Back in Darwin, Paul discovers his own lust, in the form of Rosie, and at the same time, finds a way to mask his nerdiness by joining a rock and roll band.  It’s 1968, and contrasted with the sterile and claustrophobic atmosphere of the music room, the narrative is suffused with images of fecundity.

The Wet was ending, the frogs outside my bedroom window croaking more loudly each evening in their shrinking creek, for diminishing returns.  Fruit was suddenly everywhere: in snack bars, roadside stalls, gardens.  My father couldn’t pass a shop without stopping to buy smooth-skinned pawpaws, rough, soft avocadoes, a dozen crinkled passionfruit…

He had begun planting our own garden with seedlings and treelings: banana, custard apple, mango, babaco—and his prize possession, a single precious cutting of the legendary rambutan, a gift flown in illegally by one of his patients from Timor.  (p.67)

The narrative leaps ahead by a decade, to older and slightly wiser adulthood with illusions stripped away.  It comes to most of us, but it seems harder for the talented to accept that talent may not grant the perfection of genius.

Author: Peter Goldsworthy
Title: Maestro
Publisher: angus & Robertson, 1995, first published 1989
ISBN: 9780207189326, pbk., 149 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $2.00


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa

    Thank you for another great review. I was very impressed with “Maestro” when it first appeared and it encouraged me to go on to read other Goldsworthy books. I must say that although I did enjoy “Three Dog Night”, I found both “Wish” and “Magpie” rather disappointing. I also thought that both collections of his short stories that I have read were not quite up to scratch.
    I must admit to never having read any of Goldsworthy’s poetry, although some friends tell me it is his high point. I will read Maestro again, effectively prompted by you!, and will have to consider reading Minotaur.

    Best wishes
    Chris

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    • Hi Chris, I hope you will enjoy Minotaur, I really liked it and I think it’s one of his best. Prompted by you, I shall fossick around in my old journals to see if I have a review of Three Dog Night which might be worth resurrecting…

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      • A little later… hmm, what I have is more of a retelling of the plot…I have a vague recollection that this was a book club choice.
        What I see however, is that Goldsworthy has ventured into Indigenous territory with both plot and characterisation which might be frowned upon these days…
        (I’m mindful of the pasting that Tom Keneally has had lately over Jimmie Blacksmith.)

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    • I’ve only read Three dog night, and I remember enjoying it, and being impressed by his writing.

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  2. Hi Lisa
    To follow up on your comment on Tom Keneally…
    I note that many have criticized him for appropriation of other people’s stories, and, frankly, this has been his main source of starting material for many of his books. However, the main thread through most of them is to give voice to the voiceless and to promulgate the case of the underdog. I have absolutely no problem with this, and feel that we should be proud that we have a major Australian writer in Keneally who has consistently taken this viewpoint.

    After all, without Keneally,I doubt that the story of the Schindler Juden would have become part of our cultural knowledge, and if a less gifted writer had, perchance, presented it, we would have not have had the benefit of Keneally’s fine nuanced take on the character of Oscar Schindler, as well as his moving portraits of those that he helped to save. And I say this as a person who lost several family members during the Holocaust.

    Best wishes
    Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    • Firstly, allow me to express my condolences for your losses. That is a trauma that can never be assuaged.
      And I agree with you about Keneally’s power to tell one part of that story with nuance and compassion so that it became widely known.

      As to Keneally: I understand why Indigenous people are tired of and angry about their stories being told by others, but Keneally has, first of all, apologised. He has said himself that he would not write it now, and that is because he understands the situation now, as he did not before.

      But secondly, he is an old man now, and berating him for something written, with good intentions so long ago, when the protocols still being developed today were not even in place, seems unnecessary. His humility in subjecting himself to it, is a measure of the man. And conversely, my good opinion of his accuser, is diminished.

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  3. You’re not going to believe this, but I bought this today! It’s an A&R Classic edition, which I usually buy when I see cos they’re cheap and I’m yet to read a dud one. I will come back and read your review after I’ve read the book!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been wanting to read this for a long long time. One day I really will. (It’s not very long, so I should surely be able to squeeze it in!)

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  5. This sounds good Lisa – I’m tempted…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Maestro was on my daughter’s reading list in Year 10 (I think – 14-odd years ago) and I read it so I could help her with her study. I really enjoyed it.

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    • That would have been a lovely shared experience. Did she enjoy the book too?

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  7. I think so, but probably not as much as I did (haha)

    Liked by 1 person


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