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Thea Astley: The Acolyte

Paul Vesper lives in the wittily named backwater Australian town of Grogbusters. While out and about in the town, he occasionally comes across a blind pianist, who seems to play a mixture of popular, jazz and classical music. One day, while at an engagement party, this pianist, who, he learns, is called Jack Holberg, is playing. Not being very social, Paul goes over to the pianist, listening intently to his playing, talking to him and bringing him beer. He will become more friendly with Holberg, a somewhat strange character. He also gets to know Ilse and Hilda, daughters of Holberg’s landlady, both of whom, but Ilse in particular, are in love with Holberg. Paul’s life is not very dynamic. He goes to boarding school and finishes at school, just as war is declared. He does not want to fight but does not know what he wants. His father pushes him and, finally, he goes to university to study engineering. He does not really enjoy it, so much so that, after a three and a half years, he simply walks out and goes home. At this point, he is half-heartedly dating Hilda and showing some interest in music. Holberg has gone off to study composition at university. His father persuades him to return to his studies and as Paul wisely remarks, the decisive factor is money. He finishes his course and gets a job in an organisation designing harbours in Queensland. Meanwhile, Holberg is in Europe, studying music but it is not going particularly well.

When Holberg returns, Paul takes leave from his job. Holberg gives a concert featuring both his own composition and works by Milhaud, Webern and Schönberg, which does really appeal to the people of Grogbusters. At the party afterwards, Paul’s mother blurts out that Paul is engaged to Hilda. He is not. After he has returned to Queensland, he learns that she has, in fact, married Holberg. Ilse comes up to Queensland, and the pair try to console one another though, in the end, it is Paul’s boss, George Shumway, known as Slum, whom Ilse goes off with. Paul leaves his job and returns home. Meanwhile, Holberg has written two symphonies and is having considerable success. When Holberg injures his hand and cannot perform any more, Paul leaves his new job, and, living off money he has inherited after his parents were killed in an accident, becomes Holberg’s acolyte – his eyes as well as his assistant.

The novel is certainly in part about Holberg. He is not the first self-centred Australian artist to appear in a work of fiction – Patrick White gave us Hurtle Duffield two years before. Holberg is self-centred and,as more than one person points out, uses his blindness as a way of keeping the world at arm’s length. He can be and often is abusive and offensive. He likes wine, women and song, and indulges in all three throughout the book. In short, he can be seen as the stereotype of the erratic artist, devoted to his art but with severe social failings.

However, as the title tells us, this book is really about the acolyte, Paul Vesper. Paul drifts through life, not only unsure of who he is and what he wants to be, but not really competent at anything. His father describes him as the permanent twelfth man (the reserve in cricket, who normally does not play but, rather, carries the equipment, drinks, etc.) and he himself later uses this term about himself. He hears someone else use an even crueller term in reference to his role as Holberg’s acolyte. They call him Holberg’s eunuch. As he says to Slum The real tragedy for some us is going on living. The rut-dwellers. Us. You and me sitting flatulent in our offices and sending the sun down the sky each day with no sense of achievement at all. He will later comment on the fact that he just sees life as it. He cannot see symbols or meanings in life or in art. Only by attaching himself to Holberg, running his errands, fetching his beer, and so on, can he acquire any meaning at all.

There is a lot more to this book, as well, with Slum and Ilse, Ilse’s son Jamie and Holberg’s eccentric Aunt Sadie. Above all, with Holberg and Vesper trying to work out their respective demons, Ilse and Hilda struggling with each other and their respective spouses, as well as with Vesper, and Jamie caught in the middle, there is never a dull moment. It is a first-class work which, while still well known in Australia, seems to have faded away somewhat in Europe and North America, where it is out of print. This is a pity as it really should be better known.

Publishing history

First published 1972 by Angus and Robertson