October 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Piano Lessons’ by Anna Goldsworthy

By Zora Simic
Black Inc., 224 pp; $27.95

At first glance, Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir, Piano Lessons, appears rather modest: she revisits her childhood and adolescence in comfortably suburban Adelaide, with the passing years marked by her development as a classical pianist under the tutelage of her piano teacher, Mrs Eleanora Sivan, a Russian émigré and one of a formidable line of teachers dating back to the nineteenth-century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.

Under Mrs Sivan’s guidance, young Anna shifts her ambitions from appearing on Young Talent Time to becoming a concert pianist. High school induces in the multi-talented teenager the predictable panic that she might be a “square” or “worse: a dork, a dweeb or even a geek”, but this is a temporary blip. She surrenders to the demands of over-achievement, and all sorts of accolades accumulate. The rites of passage described here are not ordinary – from “her first first prize” at the Adelaide Eisteddfod we can trace a line to dux of the school and beyond.

Yet what Goldsworthy manages to pull off in Piano Lessons is far richer than a mere catalogue of achievements or self-congratulatory reminiscence. With eloquent flair and deft insight, she manages to convey the magical effects of fine teaching, an often-mysterious process that can easily turn attempts at translation into utter cliché. Here, however, the student matches the teacher: the memoir can be read as a product of their shared labours. Goldsworthy’s writing, like Mrs Sivan’s pedagogic style, is both disciplined and impassioned – and sometimes cleverly revealing – with just the right amount of self-mockery. Recalling the response of her adolescent self to a virtuoso performance, Goldsworthy writes: “The fact that I was moved moved me further, and I sobbed once, out loud.”

Mrs Sivan, with her inductive teaching methods and idiosyncratic English, is a gift to any writer, particularly one as fine as this: indeed, it was the author’s father, Peter Goldsworthy, the celebrated Australian writer, who first evoked an approximation of her in his novel Maestro. By claiming her teacher back, Goldsworthy revisits the lessons of her youth, of which only some involved a piano. She learned, for instance, by reading her father’s work, of the difference between fact and fiction: “… with each revision, the mirror became more opaque, until I realised it was no longer my story at all”.

In Piano Lessons, Goldsworthy places her own story among those of the great composers, not presumptuously, but in tribute to the teacher whose ideas were such that, as her student explains, by “the time I properly understood them, they were absorbed into my body, and I could no longer tell where her ideas began and mine left off”.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Dance with me, baby

Tasmanian devils

Jonathan auf der Heide’s ‘Van Diemen's Land’

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Socratic dialogues

Beautiful waste

The poetry of David McComb

More in Arts & Letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”


More in Noted

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Cover of ‘Question 7’

Richard Flanagan's ‘Question 7’

A slim volume of big ideas that takes in H.G. Wells, chain reaction, Hiroshima and the author’s near-death experience on the Franklin River

Scene from ‘The Curse’

‘The Curse’

Nathan Fielder directs and co-stars in an erratic comedy about the performative benevolence of a couple creating a social housing reality TV show


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality