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”.

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