Peter Goldsworthy - Maestro
Peter Goldsworthy's first novel, Maestro, is the story of a young pianist living in uncultured Darwin. He has, by some twist of good luck, secured as his teacher the surly, drunken Eduard Keller, an Austrian who may just be a musical genius from the time of the Second World War. Paul Crabbe is in his mid teens and his parents, who are fond of musicians and music, and always wanted a concert pianist in the family, strongly encourage his lessons with the Maestro – no matter how odd the man may seem.
Paul narrates the novel. He is writing this account from the perspective of his middle-aged years, looking back on where things went wrong and how it all ended up the way it did. Of the Maestro, he writes:
Misleading, of course. As always. But unforgettable: the red glow of his face – a boozer's incandescent glow. The pitted, sun-coarsened skin – a cheap, ruined leather. And the eyes: an old man's moist, wobbling jellies.”
This is quick writing, rushed, but it captures the intensity of feeling Paul has for his teacher. Like so much of the novel the sentences string themselves together in a way that doesn't always feel quite right. One suspects that a thesaurus kept the author company while writing, and that sentences were worked on to the point where they lost their initial vitality and instead became merely written.
The usual pieces are in place, and they perform their roles well. There are the school bullies, who are eventually convinced to become Paul's friends through the power of music. There is the girlfriend of one bully, initially a source of radiant unrealisable desire and then suddenly an immediate, available reality – and a disappointment. There are the well-meaning parents and the gruff teacher who is too tough to bear, but in the end becomes the protagonist's closest friend. They are all here, put together with workman-like skill, and moved about accordingly. But the strings are visible and the reader can clearly see the chipped paint and wooden limbs of these constructs. They are not people so much as vibrations intended to shift the plot where it needs to go, and nobody outside of (perhaps) the Maestro himself ever really breathes.
The central question of the novel, however, is interesting and well argued, though perhaps with results tending a little too much toward the melodramatic near the end. What happens when you have talent, but not “that little bit” that separates the talented from the genius? What happens when you know that no matter how hard you work, you are missing some essential spark, ensuring you will always remain the runner up, and never the winner? When do you admit it to yourself? At fifteen, when the world blushes at the promise you show? At twenty when arrogance and sex gives you all the power in the land? Or at forty, when life has beaten you down, and you have achieved everything you wanted, except that one thing you wanted most of all, which means you haven't really achieved a thing? Eduard Keller has the genius in him, we are both told and, through Goldsworthy's skill, also shown. Paul Crabbe does not, and this truth is sadly a mystery to him, to his friends, and to his parents – but never to us, and never to the Maestro.
Darwin is well described and well felt within the novel. Goldsworthy never really spends a great deal of time describing the upholstery of a place, but there is the ease of truth in his words to suggest comfortable familiarity. We believe his Darwin and, equally, we disbelieve everywhere else he takes us. We believe the Maestro's passion for music and the heartbreak of his past, but we cannot believe in the talent of Paul – all we ever really see him do is lust after his school mates, and bumble through a Battle of the Bands competition, and moan about his lessons. It is astonishing in such a small novel that one aspect of it is so clearly seen while the rest – and “the rest” is, unfortunately, the crux of the work – falls short.
The problem in the end is one of feeling. We are told by the narrator that he feels deeply about such matters – but we are told, not shown. The final act of the novel rushes by in a whirl of nouns and years, and while a lot is written, very little is said. European cities are simply place names, they are never truly written. The names could be changed to anything else, with the flavour of a place never properly expressed. And Paul's realisations as he ages are laughably shallow, the sort of regret that we all feel about something, but expressed in such a manner that nothing really new is offered. Yes, I have regrets. Yes, you have regrets. But what of it? Simply stating things is not a substitute for plumbing the depths of a topic, and that is unfortunately all Goldsworthy has done.
Australian literature has not tackled the Second World War with the depth and breadth of say, American fiction, and certainly nothing approaching the libraries full of European literature. Maestro takes an odd tack, using the War as a backdrop and a source of information and conflict, rather than an explicit event within the book, but this serves the story well. Australia was a player in the War, and it affected us to the point of having our cities attacked and our soldiers killed, but overall it was an event on the periphery of our vision when compared with European powers. Maestro handles this material well, with Eduard Keller a suitably drawn character who fits admirably into the shape of the novel. His War years are revealed with skill and great attention to the subtlety of emotion required to properly convey the sadness and betrayal of Germany's temporary insanity.
Maestro was Peter Goldsworthy's first novel, though not his first published work. Prior to this he had published poetry and short stories. Maestro went on to be shortlisted for Australia's most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Award, and it has become something of a staple of contemporary Australian writing. Yet this short novel is too flawed to be called great, though one senses that Goldsworthy perhaps sensed powerful forces in his chosen material. The theme of genius and what makes a genius so is a great one, and there are flashes of high quality writing here. But it is not enough, and the whole falls vastly short of what it could have been. Worth a look, but this is a footnote, and not a chapter, of Australian literature.