‘Keller was bad for me, the worst possible teacher: revealing perfection to me, and at the same time snatching it away” (p.148). ’ Keller is a discouraging teacher who seriously hinders his pupil.’
Goldsworthy’s novel ‘Maestro’ uses a first person, reflective narrative to recount the memoires of Paul Crabbe, a precocious teenage musical prodigy, with particular emphasis on the relationship he has with his instructor, the retired concert pianist, Eduard Keller. The author presents Keller (the ‘maestro’) as enigmatic, reclusive and tainted by the horrors of the Second World War, in particular the murder of his wife and son. Keller displays flashes of brilliance, but his appreciation of music is clothed in his world weary cynicism, which stems from his troubled past. Keller inculcates in Paul his own rigid, dogmatic worldview and a wariness of beauty, thus destroying Paul’s own idealism, an aspect which had been crucial to Keller’s early success as a pianist. Ultimately, however, whilst Keller may be an imperfect mentor, he is the ideal teacher for Paul, who sadly is not mature enough to benefit from the education Keller provides.
Keller is a brilliant teacher due to his technical excellence, his deep love of music and the musical heritage he inherits from Vienna. Whilst Keller is characterised as reclusive and eccentric, wearing a white linen suit, pince nez, and cloistered above the beer garden at the Swan hotel, he boasts a fine pedigree having Czerny and Liszt as his ‘musical ancestors.’ Goldsworthy characterises Keller’s teaching as eccentric and domineering. In his first encounter with a bemused and outraged Paul, he spends time examining Paul’s fingers, and won’t allow the boy to play, exclaiming, ‘you are not free to play in my home without permission’. When Paul boldly questions Keller’s claim that the ‘little finger is a lazy fellow,’ Keller miraculously, plays ‘an effortless, rippling run of tenths’. Goldsworthy uses sparse, direct dialogue to portray Keller as axiomatic and domineering. Keller’s aphorisms and ‘fragments of folk wisdom,’ such as ‘is water at fifty degrees half boiling?’ (used to castigate Paul for half finishing his Rondo), present a picture of an abrupt, punctilious man with exacting standards; yet Keller can also be viewed as a man broken by the pain of his past, who is more philosophical than ambitious, such as where he explains aphoristically, ‘To search too long for perfection can also paralyse.’
Keller’s cynicism, the result of the death of his wife at the hands of Nazi officials, destroys his love of romantic music and hence his ability to see beauty in music; these sentiments surprise Paul and clash with his own idealistic appreciation of music. As the reader discovers in the novel’s denouement, Keller loved playing Romantic music; he was a showman in the same way Paul is as a teenager. Yet when he teaches Paul, due to his self imposed exile from Vienna, which he sees as a city of ‘ornamental facades’ and ‘hypocrisy,’ he is opposed to any ‘emotion’ in music and teaches Paul to value Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, composers whose music represents for him ‘a kind of arithmetic’ devoid of any beauty, which Keller stresses ‘we must be on our guard against’. His musically appreciation is viewed through the prism of his tragic experiences and hence runs contrary to Paul’s youthful exuberance. In such respects, whilst he is a brilliant teacher and pianist, his instruction finds infertile soil in the imagination of Paul Crabbe, who in Goldsworthy’s narrative embodies the emotion and beauty of music, exemplified by his willingness to impress through what Keller labels ‘insincere’ and ‘showing off’.
Goldsworthy portrays Paul Crabbe as precocious, arrogant and ‘insensitive;’ an intelligent child struggling to form his own identity, and whose own character flaws lead to him misunderstanding Keller’s teaching. In defiance of Keller’s instruction when Keller asks Paul to practice one piece instead he prepares two; he is hurt by the implication that he is not as good as he thinks he is or that Keller dismisses his talent in saying, ‘perhaps there can be no perfection’ which Paul responds to be ‘ignoring his advice,’ playing, ‘till his hands ached.’ Paul’s insensibility, which the author uses to render Keller’s teaching less efficacious is shown in the scene where Keller tries to inform Paul about his past and Paul is at first too insensitive, probing too deeply by asking Keller ‘Why didn’t you [leave]?’ and later during the confession Keller paternally hopes will benefit Paul, his interest is not sufficient to miss his rendezvous with Rosie. The context of Darwin’s steamy sexuality fuels his love for romantic music, something Keller no longer has any interest in. He is encountering sexuality and he loves Keller’s passionate rendition of Wagner’s Tristan from which he describes as ‘wonderful’ yet which Keller dismisses as ‘cheap tricks’. It is this sexual awakening that makes Paul ‘increasingly impervious to [Keller’s] criticism’ and though Keller’s brilliance is evident and the scathing eccentric teaching style as relevant as ever, Paul becomes less able to appreciate it. Goldsworthy in juxtaposing the ‘dark, humid room’ where Paul practices with Keller alongside the ‘scents and ‘sexuality’ of tropical Darwin, with its moral laxity, presents sensuality as a reason for Paul to diverge from the wisdom of Keller’s instruction.
Despite Keller’s well-meaning efforts to awaken a deeper understanding in Paul, Paul believes he has outgrown Keller. As his love affair and later his family become more of a priority, he relegates Keller’s role in his life to the ‘regretted past’. It is evident that in the passage of the novel where Paul and his parents discuss his future, the only hope Paul has for becoming a virtuoso pianist is if he were to remain with Keller, who considers the prospect a ‘gamble’ as a ‘concert pianist is one in a million’. After his law studies had fallen over and he pursues a career in music, Paul still reveres Keller, whose opinions ‘hardened into dogma’, but he is too proud to return to the maestro and take his advice as he is now ‘smug’ and ‘insufferable,’ such is the heady confidence he brings to his profession. A crucial passage in the novel reveals Paul’s self reliance where he says, ‘I knew enough…I’d learnt all the lessons [Keller] could teach me.’ In this passage Keller offers Paul criticism and advice, which Paul considers condescending and invites Paul to return to Darwin. Paul’s choice to spend time in Melbourne with Rosie, ‘love making’, ‘concert going’ and ‘socialising’ reveals that love is the emphasis in his life now, and despite the fact that the first person narrative characterises Paul as selfish (his love ‘wasted on’ himself), he chooses Rosie and his family over the choice to visit Keller. Thus, Paul’s focus on love and family, plus his being unwilling to take further instruction, demonstrates that despite Keller’s brilliance and preparedness as a teacher, Paul does not avail himself of the instruction.
Keller, who is known affectionately as the ‘maestro’ by the end of the novel has proved himself a master pianist whose harsh and unusual teaching approach brings out the best in his precocious and abrupt prodigy, Paul Crabbe. The narrative makes clear – through the context of Darwin’s steamy sexuality, which leads the protagonist on a journey of love and through the first person narrative, which critiques Paul’s callowness and his early failure to appreciate Keller – that Paul cannot follow the path his teacher has laid out. In the climax of Goldsworthy’s novel Paul realises that perhaps Keller has saved him from the egotistical path he had chosen and he is finally able to (‘endlessly, effortlessly’) appreciate the family he loves deeply.