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”.

From the front page

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The edge of their seats

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Frank Sinatra & Bob Hawke

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Bad behaviour

‘Barley Patch’ by Gerald Murnane

Giramondo Publishing, 320pp; $27.95
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Death notice


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow (After Gauguin), 2020. Image courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand

The dream machine: The 59th Venice Biennale

Curator Cecilia Alemani’s long overdue Biennale overwhelmingly features female artists and champions indigenous voices and other minorities

Image of Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled (TBOMB)’, 2020

Mission statement: Daniel Boyd’s ‘Treasure Island’

An AGNSW exhibition traces the development of the Indigenous artist’s idiosyncratic technique, which questions ideas of perception

Image of Bundanon

Shades of grey: Kerstin Thompson Architects

The lauded Melbourne-based architectural firm showcase a rare ability to sensitively mediate between the old and the new

Still from ‘Men’

Fear as folk: ‘Men’

Writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film is an unsubtle but ambitious pastoral horror, mixing the Christian with the classical


More in Noted

Cover of ‘Trust’

‘Trust’

The American novelist Hernan Diaz audits the silence of great wealth in a story of four parts presented as novel, autobiography, memoir and diary

Still from ‘Irma Vep’

‘Irma Vep’

Olivier Assayas revisits his 1996 film in a delicious palindromic limited series, in which a frazzled director remakes his ‘Irma Vep’ film into a TV series

Cover image of Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’

‘Trespasses’

The powerful debut novel from Irish author Louise Kennedy is a masterclass in emotional compression

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection


Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime