Monday, June 24, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books 

“MAYA’S NOTEBOOK” by Isabel Allende (Fourth Estate / Harper-Collins, $NZ34:99)

            Getting the narrative voice right is one of the most exacting things a novelist can achieve. A narrator who is too obviously the author’s mouthpiece lacks credibility, but then so does a narrator who sits incongruously with the life he or she is supposed to have led.

Isabel Allende’s latest novel Maya’s Notebook (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean) suffers very badly from an incongruous narrative voice. The novel is very busy with plot - improbably so in places – and quite heavy on social comment. But no matter how interesting much of this may be, Maya’s Notebook flounders with a first-person narrative voice just this side of risible. And, though it may seem blasphemous to say this of the Spanish language’s all-time best-selling novelist, much of what Allende has to say is insufferably pat.

Kindly let me explain by way of plot.

Chief protagonist and narrator is 19-year-old Maya Vidal. She has no mother. Her philandering father was married only long enough for her to be born, before her mother gave her up and took off. So Maya has been brought up by her loving Chilean alternative-lifestyler grandmother Nidia – “Nini” – and her equally loving mixed-race astronomer grandfather “Popo”. Her ineffectual father looks in occasionally.

Nini was a refugee from Pinochet’s Chile and has settled in the United States. So Maya has grown up a Californian, attending Berkeley High. But she has got badly into trouble with the law and with various nasty people. To shield her from harm and perhaps protect her from herself (and post-Pinochet Chile being a democracy once more), her grandmother has arranged for her to go and live on Chiloe Island, one of a group off the southern coast of Chile. Her host there is old Manuel Arias, a former dissident against the Pinochet dictatorship. Maya takes her notebook, in which the story is supposedly being written.

So we have a double-barrelled novel.

Maya gives an account of her life among the variously remote and quaint and healthy Chilean islanders, whose values and customs at first contrast so strongly with her Californese. She also chronicles her relationship with old Manuel. The novel is divided into the four seasons of her sojourn.

But her account alternates with memories of how she got into all her trouble in the first place; and this is where the voice narrating the novel is so completely at odds with the person she is supposed to be. For, without throwing too many “spoilers” at you, I can tell you that Maya got involved heavily in drugs while at high school; fed her habit by being part of a gang that extorted money out of paedophiles; was sent to a rehab facility in remotest Oregon; escaped; was kidnapped and raped by a truck-driver; wound up in Las Vegas where she became a courier for an abusive drug-peddler; got hooked badly on the stuff herself and almost died of it; and finally stumbled on a big-time gangster counterfeiting operation, the gangsters being the main people from whom she is fleeing.

I do not for one moment believe a recovering junkie and traumatised rape victim would speak with the perky, confident, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact voice that Maya uses. This is the novel’s central absurdity. Indeed it nullifies what I assume was intended to be the horrific effect of the novel’s more sordid episodes, because the young woman who suffers all these indignities is – if the tone of her voice is to be trusted – completely unaffected by them.

I am not complaining about an unreliable narrator here. Unreliable narrators are almost standard operational procedure in modern novels. I am complaining about a totally improbable narrator. True, Isabel Allende tells us that Maya comes from a well-read family who dabble in high culture. But this does not cover the yawning gap between Maya’s experience and the voice with which she speaks.

Early on, Allende tries to paper the gap by having Maya say:

 “Writing is like riding a bicycle: you don’t forget how, even if you go for years without doing it. I’m trying to go in chronological order, since some sort of order is required and I thought that would make it easy, but I lose my thread, I go off on tangents or I remember something important several pages later and there’s no way to fit it in. My memory goes in circles, spirals and somersaults” (p.4)

But this explains only the novel’s back-and-forth revelation of Maya’s earlier life. It does not explain the voice itself. Indeed, we soon realize that when she chooses, Allende simply has Maya conveying information journalistically, as Allende herself would have done had she been writing in the third-person.

Take the travelogue of the following:

In Chiloe the salmon-farming industry was the second-largest in the world, after Norway’s, and boosted the region’s economy, but it contaminated the seabed, put the traditional fishermen out of business, and tore families apart. Now the industry is ruined, Manuel explained, because they put too many fish in the cages and gave them so many antibiotics that when they were attacked by a virus, they couldn’t be saved; their immune systems didn’t work anymore. There are twenty thousand unemployed from the salmon farms, most of them women” (p.30).

The sum effect of this disjunction is to turn the novel into something perilously close to “chick-lit”. Maya sees the sordid side of life then (without bearing any scars) is miraculously redeemed by immersion in a purer society than the one she left behind.

Which brings me to the ‘insufferably pat’ side of the novel. Maya’s Notebook far too easily and neatly contrasts rough, sordid USA with redeeming, quaint Chiloe. It is true that Allende has Maya make some wry comments about how tourists are deceived into thinking that in going to Chiloe they are meeting the unsullied, pristine past. Take this amusing account of eco-tourists’ delusions:

People travel to Chiloe with the idea of going back in time, and they can be disappointed by the cities on Isla Grande, but on our little island they find what they’re looking for. There is no intention to deceive them on our part, of course; nevertheless, on curanto days oxen and sheep appear by chance near the beach, there are more than the usual number of nets and boats drying on the sand, people wear their coarsest hats and ponchos, and nobody would think of using their cell phone in public.”(pp.59-60)

It is true, too, that later in the novel there are some comments on domestic violence on the remote islands, and some ironies about local superstitions. Even so, the arc of the story suggests too easy a curing of the soul by withdrawal from corrupt modernity. That is signalled near midway point with such fol-de-rol as:

In the academy I was my very own Russian novel; I was bad, impure, and damaging. I disappointed and hurt those who loved me, my life was fucked up. On this island, however, I feel good almost all the time, as if by changing the scenery I’d also changed my skin.” (p.126)

And if that idyll isn’t enough to show you that Allende thinks in terms of some sort of unrealistic magic, then consider Maya’s involvement in a coven of benign white witches, who act out healing rituals. Maya says:

The ceremony of women in the womb of Pachamama connected me definitively with this fantastic Chiloe and, in some strange way, with my own body. Last year I led an undermined existence, thinking my life was over and my body irredeemably stained. Now I’m whole, and I feel a respect for my body that I never felt before, when I used to spend my time examining myself in the mirror to count up all my defects. I like myself as I am and don’t want to change anything. On this blessed island nothing feeds my bad memories….” (p.184)

Sorry. I believe none of this. It is soft-feminist daydream.

Did I enjoy anything in this book?

I suppose there are some interesting sidelights on Chile.

As is well known, Isabel Allende is related to the socialist President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and died in the coup that brought Pinochet’s dictatorship to power. (She is neither Allende’s daughter nor his niece, as some people seem to believe – she is his second cousin. Her father was the president’s cousin). Of course she looks with horror on the coup that overthrew Allende. In Maya’s Notebook, one strand of plot gradually reveals one character’s experiences during the years of repression.

What I found most interesting, however, was the implicit tone of forgiveness in this novel – the rich landowner who benefitted from Pinochet’s rule is depicted as an essentially decent man, only slowly realizing his errors of judgement. Likewise, while there are some jabs at the church and its teachings, one of the novel’s sympathetic characters is the liberation-theology priest Luciano Lyon and there is clear acknowledgment that the church largely stood against Pinochet. I think Isabel Allende aims for reconciliation rather than bitter memory. And I wonder if her depiction of a sordid, criminal-ridden USA isn’t a way of saying that Chile’s own violent past has to be seen in balance with the evils of other countries.

Having said all that, though, the novel’s improbably neat ending, the unbelievable narrator and the glib schematisation of the story made it difficult for me to accept it as something for grown-ups. Possibly its event-filled plot would go down best with teenage girls, such as the narrator is meant to be.

Odd Final Comment: Having read this novel, I searched the ‘net for reviews thereof. I was interested to find that New Zealander Emily Perkins reviewed it for the Guardian in England, and I felt reassured that she, like me, was troubled by the narrator, although she was a little more polite about it than I have been here. At one stage Perkins remarks: “The effect is a bit like taking a bus tour through the desperate parts of Las Vegas, a guide delivering facts about life on the streets. You see a mugging through the window, but the bus has moved on.” Yes. Quite.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“RODERICK HUDSON” by Henry James (first published 1875)

One day I know I will have to stand before the recording angel and explain why I never got wholeheartedly into the novels of Henry James.

Yes, I will say, I did read with delight and attention many of his short-stories and novellas and I marvelled at how compressed and meaningful he could make his prose – The Aspern Papers, The Beast in the Jungle, The Turn of the Screw. Yes, I enjoyed the brash confidence of earlier books like The American and I climbed happily into shorter novels like The Europeans, Washington Square and What Masie Knew; then into mature and full-bodied psychological studies like The Bostonians and The Portrait of a Lady. All of these I regard as great pieces of writing. But I was never able to crack the later novels like Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl or The Awkward Age, which sit unread (except for the first few pages) on my shelves. Like, I suspect, many literati, I know The Golden Bowl only because I once watched the 1972 BBC TV adaptation of it, in which Cyril Cusack spent long periods looking at the camera and reciting James’ words, as the story’s impotent narrator. I recall that when The Ambassadors was one of the set texts in the Honours course I did as a student, I struggled to get even halfway through it, and then gave up.

For the life of me, I can’t improve on that old wisecrack about Henry James’ writing career falling into three periods – James the First, James the Second and James the Old Pretender. James the First and Second I quite liked. It was the Old Pretender who stumped me and who just could not express himself clearly and concisely. His sentences waffled on, often missing their ostensible subject in elaborate and redundant subordinate clauses. (I recall one lecturer saying that James in later career took to dictating his works to a secretary. It shows.) He ruminated at far too great a length over trivialities. As one of my fellow students curtly remarked, James “took about three pages for somebody to cough.”

I hope I do not appear a complete philistine in making these remarks, as I know there are dedicated Jamesians who regard him as the master stylist, the master psychologist, the man whose penetrating gaze looked deeper into the human soul than any other writer’s did. But, apart from his later prose style, there were two other things that alienated me from the man’s later works.

The first was the social classes with which he mainly dealt. Some stories of wealthy Americans and titled Europeans are interesting up to a point; but when that point comes, you start asking why you are reading about these privileged people and their domestic dilemmas in the first place. So wealthy Mr X from Boston may or may not marry sensitive Princess Y from Florence, and their coupling may or may not affect the feelings of Mrs Z with her discreetly scandalous past, and of the naïve young Mr J, also from Boston. Very well. I am giving a crude caricature here, but there is in James’ later novels that oppressive sense of a wealthy in-group with enough time on their hands to stroke and stroke their feelings until they are refined beyond reason. And I was never fully convinced that America was always as wide-eyed, and Europe as sophisticated and corrupt, as James depicted them.

My second problem had to do with the matter of what I can only call “evasion”. So often in James’ novels you get the sense that something is not being mentioned – that much which is thought or said or described is really beside the point of what really animated James. I have read both (the heterosexual English novelist) David Lodge’s novel about James, Author! Author! and (the homosexual Irish novelist) Colm Toibin’s novel about James, The Master, both coincidentally published in 2004. In their own different ways (Lodge far more wittily) they both tell me that James was a non-active homosexual, sexually attracted to men but apparently living and dying a virgin. I also know that, thanks in large part to the American critic Leon Edel, it is now considered unforgivable to discuss James’ work without mentioning this fact. Among activists, he’s now supposed to sit in the pantheon of Great Gays. Except that you would have to be very ingenious indeed to detect clear indicators of male homosexual activity in his writings. (The lesbian desire of one character is heavily implied in The Bostonians). After all, the subject was verboten when James was writing. So maybe this is the unnameable, which leads to what I have called “evasion”. Are all these agonisings over whether one should or should not get married in fact coded tales of frustrated homosexual status? I think not, but I do think James’ condition could have contributed to James’ habit of talking about and about things without ever directly addressing them.

This is all by way of prelude to discussing one of James’ very earliest novels, written before the really oppressive stylistic mannerisms kicked in. Roderick Hudson, published in 1875, was only James’ second novel, written when Henry James was 31, with over forty years of literary production still ahead of him. True Jamesians regard it as an immature piece, an early Bildungsroman about a young man’s development. But to me it already appears to have most of the Jamesian preoccupations.

Rather than giving you one of my notoriously overlong plot-summaries, I will attempt to describe the plot of this one as pithily as I can.

Wealthy New Englander Rowland Mallet is impressed with the work of the young sculptor Roderick Hudson, becomes his mentor, takes him under his wing and takes him to Europe to learn his craft fully. The emotional complication is that both Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson are in love with the same intellectual American woman, Mary Garland, to whom Roderick is engaged.

Over in Rome, Roderick’s sculptures impress the small American expatriate artistic community. Could he possibly be the great hope for American art? At which point, Roderick becomes obsessed with the American beauty Christina Light, who seems about to make a wealthy marriage to an Italian aristocrat, Prince Casamassima. Roderick is both inspired and distracted from his art by Christina. For a while she returns his feelings. But Rowland fears that Christina is having too much influence over Roderick.

To rein Roderick in, Rowland Mallet invites Roderick Hudson’s mother and Mary Garland to come and join the group in Rome. Rowland has conflicting feelings – if Roderick married Christina, then he (Rowland) would have Mary Garland to himself. But inexplicably (perhaps because she has been discreetly told that as an illegitimate child she would have no other chance of entering high society) Christine Light does marry the Prince Casamassima.

Roderick’s inspiration dries up. He idles. He does not work. We are not told directly how he is wasting his time (James here pioneers his habit of alluding without stating), but there are some indications of possible loose living.

The novel ends in Switzerland, when Rowland tells Roderick that he loves Mary and that Roderick is selfish, immature and wasting the talent that could produce real art. Roderick walks off into the mountains. There is a tremendous snowstorm. Roderick does not return. The following day his frozen body is found at the bottom of a ravine. Whether he committed suicide or died by misadventure is left unclear. (Of course. This is an allusive novel by Henry James.) At any rate, he lost in love and his art never flourished and there is the tragedy of a young, unfulfilled American artist.

A brief ironical epilogue tells us that Rowland Mallet never did win Mary Garland, but at best became an occasional visitor to her.

Years before I read this young man’s novel, a stray remark from somebody led me to expect something far more melodramatic than James’ more mature novels. In fact, save for its conveniently final and melodramatic ending, Roderick Hudson strikes me as typical of James’ lifelong preoccupations – fine emotional perceptions among the moneyed classes, the clash of American and European cultures and the status of art. It springs as fully-formed from young James as Minerva from the brow of Jove.

And, to do the author credit, he does at least prepare for the ending with some foreshadowing symbolism. Long before Roderick’s death, there is a scene where Rowland observes Roderick in the Roman Coliseum, perched perilously over a precipice as he is about to pluck a flower for Christina. She tells him not to risk his neck. Later, in Switzerland, Roderick reaches out to pluck a flower for Mary Garland, who lets him take the risk. The contrast between the two women is symbolically established – but so is the image of Roderick hanging over the abyss into which he will eventually crash to his death.

Inasmuch as the novel focuses on Roderick, it is the tale of an American artist in Europe, both feeding off, and stultified by, the past. The novel does not exactly set up the dichotomy of innocent American and worldly European, but the potential for such a dichotomy is there. There is also a theme of the difficulties an artist faces when he needs both the emotional stimulus that gives inspiration and also the mental detachment to work methodically. Roderick achieves no such balance.

Here, however, is the rub. The novel does not really centre on Roderick. Despite its title, it centres on Rowland Mallet. Although it is written in the third-person (with the odd first-person authorial aside), Rowland is the centre of consciousness and events are seen through his eyes. Essentially he is the looker-on rather than the partaker-in – Nick Carroway to Roderick Hudson’s Gatsby. Often he is the puppet-master – financing Roderick’s journey to Europe; and calling over Mrs Hudson and Mary Garland when Roderick is afire with Christina. We end up seeing passionate events (especially between Roderick and Christina) only at a distance, as seen by a concerned observer.

I’m sure the names are significant – Garland (=safe posy of flowers); Light (=inspiration); Mallet (=one shaping others to his will). In this post-Edel age, it is impossible to read it without at least considering a homosexual subtext. Personally I do not believe in Rowland’s (swiftly-established and only occasionally-mentioned) love for Mary Garland and I do note that he ends up as an unattached male, as so many of James’ narrators are. His attitude towards Roderick is more that of one who wishes to possess rather than to encourage. If you are so inclined, you could interpret Rowland’s and Roderick’s final quarrel as being like a lovers’ spat; you could note that at one point Roderick calls Rowland “unnatural”; and you could observe that the mainspring of the plot is a male patron trying to get his male protégé out of the clutches of a woman. Except that, if you are going to join the dots this way, you would also have to note that there is no suggestion that Roderick has any strong feelings for Rowland and also that, if homosexuality is implicit, it is certainly never spelled out and would presumably not have been evident to the novel’s first readers. And remember, it is a young and beautiful woman who distracts and inspires Roderick.

Very well, this is not one of James’ mature novels, but it does have some nice strokes of irony and at least a couple are worth quoting.

When Roderick first reaches Europe, James remarks “Wherever he went, he made not exactly what is called a favourable impression, but what, from a practical point of view is better – a puzzling one.” (Chapter 5)  This is a neat account of the appeal of novelty.

Then there is this little piece of class and cultural feeling. Mrs Hudson and her wealthy friends are at one of Rome’s better-known sites. James observes:

During this little discussion our four friends were standing near the venerable image of Saint Peter, and a squalid, savage looking peasant, a tattered ruffian of the most orthodox Italian aspect, had been performing his devotions before it. He turned away crossing himself, and Mrs Hudson gave a little shudder of horror. ‘After that’, she murmured, ‘I suppose he thinks he’s as good as anyone.” (Chapter 17)

Goodness! A praying Italian peasant imagining he is as good as wealthy Americans! Fancy that.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


            It is now exactly two years since I began posting the weekly comments that make up Reid’s Reader. The first posting was on 29 June 2011.

            My essential method hasn’t changed. Each week I devour and make copious notes on a new book, then write it up as “Something New”. As often as possible, I try to make that new book a New Zealand book. The comments on older books in “Something Old” come mainly from notes, which I’ve been making in my notebooks for the past twenty-plus years. These are notes on everything I read, serious or frivolous. Often I check these notes against a more recent acquaintance with the older books discussed. Sometimes, however, “Something Old” is a book I have read specifically for inclusion on this blog. Summer holidays are often the time when I find myself chewing my way through books I have meant to read for years. As for “Something Thoughtful”, it is either the easiest or the most troublesome part of the whole blog. A topic or controversy for discussion will come readily to mind, or else I will rack my brains trying to think of something.

            One year ago, while celebrating the blog’s first anniversary, I noted that the counter [which you can see at the foot of the blog] stood at c.20,000. Allowing for holidays and breaks etc., I took this to mean that about 500 people weekly visited the site. Now the counter is rapidly approaching 100,000, meaning the site has received 80,000 ‘hits’ in the last year, or four times the number of visitors it received in its first year. Over summer, I take a four-week break from making postings; and I recently took a three-week break while visiting Canada. Putting all this together, it adds up to a weekly average of 1600 ‘hits’ weekly, but in fact over the last six months, it’s a poor week when the site doesn’t receive 2000 ‘hits’. So the site has built up a sound regular readership.

            Only occasionally has there been anything approaching controversy. One novelist took exception to one of my reviews, and subjected me to a series of strident e-mails on the matter. Two readers took diametrically opposite positions on a book I’d covered, and posted their conflicting comments. (And good for them. That’s what the Comment button is for. More use should be made of it.)

            I am pleased that in the last year, some comments on this blog have found their way into the general cultural “conversation” and have been cited on other platforms. I am also aware that (unlike printed reviews, quarterlies etc.), I often have the advantage of making detailed analyses on books very shortly after their first publication. In other words, sometimes I get my thruppence worth in first. In this respect, I am fully aware that this site is sometimes used as a “source” by other reviewers. I am also pleased that occasionally, some helpful people have contributed “Something Old” essays. My friend Dr Iain Sharp, my brother Christopher Reid, and the distinguished academics Peter Simpson, Harry Ricketts and Brian Boyd have all sent me essays, which have appeared here.

I would, however, welcome any further such contributions.

To put it bluntly, producing this weekly review single-handedly takes a very big commitment in terms of time. Sometimes I have considered easing up on myself by making my postings fortnightly rather than weekly, and I may adopt that option at some future date. Meanwhile, post a comment (leaving your e-mail address) or get in touch by e-mail if you’re game to give me an account of a book you have really liked and want to bring to the attention of a wider readership.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

 “THE LUCKY CULTURE- and The Rise of an Australian Ruling Class” by Nick Cater (Harper Collins, $NZ34:99)

            I have to begin my review of Nick Cater’s The Lucky Culture with a statement that might immediately alienate a number of readers. English-born Nick Cater is a well-known Australian journalist and commentator, whose main homes have been the Sydney Daily Telegraph and the Murdoch-owned The Australian, of which he is currently senior editor. Middle-class readers of the Sydney Morning Herald shun these publications in the same way that middle-class readers of the Guardian in England shun the Daily Mail. They are regarded as vulgar, populist and right-wing. Therefore there might be at least some readers of this blog who, sight-unseen, will already have made their mind up about Cater and his book. No worthwhile insights can possibly come from a man who works for such publications.

But, even if I disagree with some of his analysis, I’m prepared to give Cater a commodity which he often celebrates as one of the great Australian (and New Zealand) virtues – a “fair go”.

The Lucky Culture has a title which consciously echoes Donald Horne’s famous 50-year-old polemic about Australia, The Lucky Country. Cater begins by telling how, when he first stepped on Australian soil as a young man arriving from class-ridden England, he rejoiced to find a genuinely egalitarian society. There may have been wealth and poverty in Australia, but there was a strong sense of classlessness, of opportunity for all, and of contempt for people who gave themselves airs.

But it is Cater’s contention that this egalitarianism has been whittled away over the last half-century, and the book is an attempt to explain why. Cater’s basic contention is that university graduates (in Academe, in the media, as pressure-groups in political parties etc.) now constitute a commentariat or chattering class with values quite different from those of the mass of Australians. While these values pose as humanitarian, they are fundamentally a form of snobbery. So, in Cater’s reading, Australia is now divided into little Aussie battlers on the one hand; and on the other middle-class types, who sneer down upon the battlers from the better suburbs, while claiming to have impeccably moral credentials.

As he notes, when Horne wrote The Lucky Country in the early 1960s, relatively few Australians had tertiary education. But

today…. higher education is becoming ubiquitous. In 1939, only fifteen out of every 1000 school-leavers progressed to university; now the figure is closer to 250, and the Labor party would increase that to 400 if it could. It is time to take stock…. Quietly, and with little recognition, the higher education revolution has changed Australian culture, for better or for worse. A cohort of tertiary-educated middle-class professionals think, act and live differently from their forebears and their contemporaries who have not been exposed to higher learning. Why shouldn’t they? This, after all, is what they were promised. They were assured that they would emerge as people with knowledge and distinction, with clearer, educated minds better equipped to deal with the challenges of a complex world. The graduate class has become a new class, insulated and isolated from the world of the educationally deprived. They are inclined to live in different suburbs, shop and socialise in different places, listen to different radio stations, read different newspapers and websites, and adopt a different set of manners from the class we might call middle Australia.” (pp.24-25). Thus “for the first time in Australian history, snobbery has been legitimised, bringing with it the institutionalisation of contempt and the disparagement of difference. The new class elevates its own status by devaluing that of others.” (p.28)

For two chapters (2 and 3), Cater discusses those values which he believes made Australia great – scientific and technological ingenuity, generating both wealth and equality. There was a great faith in scientific achievement which (his subtext implies) is disparaged by current Australian historians. He sees the growing Green movement as at least in part an irrational fear of technology, and he narrates their successful opposition to new hydro-electric dams in Tasmania as the first victory of an elite conservationism against the common good. After all, he says, because of Green influence and opposition, there has been no growth in stored-water capacity for Australian cities in the last thirty years, despite the growth in population. All this he links to recent droughts and water-rationing in Queensland. Over-zealous conservationists have thought sentimentally about the wilderness, while ignoring the real needs of the population.

After taking a swipe (Chapter 4) at the growth in the teaching of impractical and theoretical subjects at new Australian universities, with their anti-technology bias, Cater moves on (Chapter 5) to pungent comment on the moralistic nature of new political movements and their tendency to excoriate the habits, manners and values of the non-tertiary-educated lower orders. “New political movements are as intolerant as the old” he says (p.94), and notes that while ‘progressivists’ are likely to be atheist or agnostic, they close together on the same unexamined assumptions, as if clinging to a religious faith, on matters such as history, anthropology and the environment.

Paradoxically, almost all progressive thinkers would imagine themselves as liberal and open-minded, tolerant of diversity and receptive to rational debate. The lack of self-awareness among the enforcers of correctness can be startling; the truths they set out to protect seem self-evident to them and they are dumbfounded that they should be challenged. The allure of righteousness, however, is a powerful force. They would be unlikely to consider themselves puritans, yet in their disdain for other people’s values and their presumption of a greater purity, they display pious disregard for the choices of their fellow citizens. They become vigilantes against vulgarity, policing public morality with the zeal of the late nineteenth century wowsers intent on turning Australia into a mirthless and monotonous place.” (p.113)

It is then the turn (Chapter 6) of Australian intellectuals’ well-established habit of looking down on suburbanites, beginning in the 1960s with Robin Boyd whingeing about dull suburban architecture; or Allan Ashbolt complaining that Australians were unadventurous in their politics; or the young North Shore grammar-school boy Barry Humphries inventing his original version of Edna Everidge (before she became a fantasy figure detached from any recognizable reality) as a smirk at the pretensions to gentility of the lower orders.

Do-gooders assume the mantle of dragonslayers, putting oppressors to the sword to liberate their victims. Yet the obsession with suburban architecture and lifestyles suggests an altogether more ignoble instinct: a search for markers of taste and refinement to buttress the middle-class right to rule. In short, while the causes of aesthetic beauty and environmentalism serve as cloaks of righteousness, much of the suburban sneer comes closer to old-fashioned class snobbery: criticism which starts with inanimate objects then passes seamlessly to criticisms of the animated masses and their inappropriate lifestyle.” (p.127)

For three chapters (7,8 and 9) Cater turns to the political scene, focusing mainly on the recent history of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). As he correctly notes, up to the 1960s and especially under the long-term leadership of Arthur Calwell, the ALP was virulently anti-intellectual and genuinely representative of Australian workers. But since the accession of Gough Whitlam as leader, the ALP has increasingly been under the control of middle-class university graduates whose outlook is quite distinct from that of its original constituency.

The challenge of finding an acceptable place for the intellectuals in the socialist movement is not peculiar to Australia, although the relatively late attachment of intellectuals to the ALP, as a bolt-on upgrade as opposed to a factory fit, ensured that the relationship would be particularly uneasy. Karl Marx had wrestled with the paradox of a proletarian party led by an intellectual elite: you could take the intellectual out of the bourgeoisie, but you could never remove the bourgeois from the intellectual.” (p.141)

As Cater tells it, the result of this new leadership has meant that many of Labor’s traditional supporters have tramped over to the (conservative) Liberal Party. And, on many core values (such as the establishment of a republic) ALP leadership is often nonplussed to find that it does not have the support of the very people it once deemed indispensible.

You can tell what Cater is going to say about the media (Chapter 10) when he introduces his remarks thus:

The media class and the political class were cut from the same cloth: people more interested in ideas than things, who were fascinated with the abstract rather than the concrete. They were graduates who had chosen to work in the creative sector, as distinct from the wealth-creating sector.” (p.198)

In a chapter on universities (Chapter 11) Cater argues that the expansion of Australia’s university network (there are now 32 registered universities in Australia) has led to a pressure-cooker system which has downgraded teaching professionalism, led to a debasement in the quality of degrees, encouraged the introduction of nonsense courses and subjects, and made education a ticket to the middle classes rather the introduction to professions that serve the community.

Only in the last chapter does Cater tentatively address the changed ethnic nature of Australia in the last half-century. Correctly he notes that the old (pre-Gough Whitlam) ALP was once the most ardent supporter of the defunct White Australia Policy, seeing it as a means of protecting jobs from cheap imported (Asian) labour.

The stated aim of the [White Australia Policy] was to maintain ‘a predominantly homogenous population’, and it had succeeded; of the 10.5 million people in Australia in 1961, 99.6 per cent were of European descent, and under the nationality rules that prevailed, 95 per cent were considered British subjects. If the entire non-indigenous, non-European population of Australia – men, women and children – had assembled in the Sidney Cricket Ground, there would have been empty seats.” (p.250)

Now, as Cater tells it, the opening of Australia’s borders to non-European immigrants has led to a flourishing Human Rights industry; the perception (buttressed by disputes over asylum-seekers) that Australia is a “soft touch” for illegal immigrants; and the tendency of the chattering classes to appeal to “international opinion”, over and above the laws of the sovereign state. when determining policy about state security and the policing of borders. All these things Cater deplores.

Cater closes by quoting a nineteenth century document, in which an English immigrant rejoiced at the opportunities Australia offered for self-improvement, untrammelled by the type of petty regulation which Cater sees as now flourishing in Australia.

I think in giving this summary of The Lucky Culture I have given Nick Cater his “fair go” with the minimum of commentary on my own part.

I can say the obvious at once. This is a polemic, not a scholarly sociological study. It does have end-notes and references, authenticating the quotations Cater deploys, and it is written with considerable style by somebody who knows Australia well. But its main purpose is the expression of a point of view, in which purpose it is no better nor worse than polemics that have come from all quarters of the political compass. (In this respect, I would immediately compare it with the equally opinionated, but left-wing, polemics of New Zealander Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn). This being the case, readers will warm to The Lucky Culture only to the extent that they already agree with the positions Cater adopts. My summary should allow you to judge whether you see it as common sense or as intemperate rant.

            It’s easy for me to say where I think Cater goes wrong.

I believe he underestimates the existence of identifiable class barriers in Australia in the days he chooses to recall as blissfully egalitarian. Yes, there was a cheerful culture of Aussie larrikinism up to the 1960s, but there was already a huge distance in culture and outlook between, say, the Sydney factory worker and both the professional classes and the heirs of the squattocracy. Australia already had bitter and sometimes strongly-contested tribal dividing lines (ALP – Liberal/Country Party; Catholic-Protestant; Laborite-Commo; ALP – DLP etc.). Cater may have a point in noting that governments and opinion-makers now are more distant from, and less responsive to, the opinions of the majority. But this doesn’t entirely justify the golden nostalgic glow he gives to the past. Perhaps he also fails to acknowledge that new forms of production mean much of the old industrial base is not there anymore. What he sees as the emergence of a new ruling elite could have as much to do with IT as with university degrees.

            More obviously (and as Cater himself is aware), the past he laments was determinedly mono-cultural. Only in the last chapter does Cater even address the issue of race and ethnicity. Cater is quick to remind us that it was the old Liberal government of Robert Menzies – and not the ALP – that began the process of making tertiary education more readily available. He fails to note that it was also the 1950s Liberal government which began the process of making Australia less British. It was in the 1950s that considerable numbers of Italians, Greeks and Germans immigrated. One also notes how speedily Cater jumps over matters concerning Aborigines, preferring to tell us about the abuses of the Human Rights process rather than about the abuses that process was intended to amend.

On one specific point, I would also say Cater is dead wrong. Notoriously, an Australian referendum on establishing a republic and abolishing the monarchy failed to get a majority for a republic. Cater takes this as evidence that real Aussie working people love the Queen and reject the republicanism that fancy-pants intellectuals were trying to sell. This is nonsense. Notoriously, the referendum was conducted under the Liberal government of John Howard, which presented voters with a model of a republic (a president chosen by parliament, rather than popularly elected) which few people – even republicans – wanted.

            Yet, having said all this, I still find myself sympathising with some of Cater’s positions. Like him, I do indeed detect a culture – in New Zealand as much as in Australia – of middle-class liberalism, which purports to support humanitarian causes but which is often coded sneering at the middle-class liberals’ social inferiors. (I detect it strongly in the work of at least one New Zealand novelist). In New Zealand as in Australia, there is the phenomenon of liberal intellectuals not asking themselves honestly how wealth is generated in a society; and how humanitarian and conservationist and social-engineering schemes can be paid for without a flourishing productive base. Hand in hand with this, there is denigration of honest work, trades and skills – which has led to the phenomenon of kids wanting to do (perfectly useless) degrees in liberal arts instead of taking apprenticeships. I am painfully familiar, as Cater is, with social-engineers’ overuse of the words “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to skew arguments on any social or moral issue. Much of Cater’s analysis of the current intellectual bases of the ALP rings as true of New Zealand as of Australia, as do his comments on ALP in-fighting. (Wasn’t it a West Coast Labour MP who accused New Zealand’s Labour Party leadership of having been taken over by “a gaggle of gays” who no longer represented the party’s traditional base?). With sorrow rather than anger, I would also endorse many of his comments on the nature of tertiary education as now offered. To put it as simply as possible, a Bachelors or Masters degree earned in a New Zealand (or Australian) university in 2013 simply isn’t worth as much, in terms of real academic achievement, as a Bachelors or Masters degree earned in the 1960s and 1970s and earlier.

            More than anything, though, I sympathised with Cater’s criticisms of Aussie intellectuals’ habit of beating themselves up over the short-comings of their own country, without seriously considering the actually-existing alternatives available elsewhere. In New Zealand, the template for this would still be poor old Bill Pearson’s over-praised, and essentially somewhat hysterical, essay “Fretful Sleepers”. Despite its scoring some palpable hits, “Fretful Sleepers” strikes me as belonging to this genre – a hasty over-reaction to the mood of New Zealand at the time of Sid Holland’s rough handling of the 1951 waterfront dispute, which ends up as a great piece of self-flagellation, accusing New Zealanders of being crypto-fascists. And how the readers of Landfall loved it! After all, here was the ideal opportunity to look down on those uncouth, rugby-playing, tea-drinking, monarchy-loving, Woman’s Weekly-reading, commercial-radio-station-listening, non-university-educated masses who had never heard of Stravinsky or James Joyce. Here, gentle reader, was a chance for us to look down on them. Cater detects the same mood in current post-modernist Australian museum displays which ridicule suburban implements (rotary-hoist clotheslines etc.) while exalting the grand achievements of the Aborigines.

            I think he has a point. Ostensible social critique becomes real social snobbery.

            But then he is writing a polemic and we don’t have to believe everything he says.