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Book review: 'The Bohemian Bourgeois' by David Myers

By Ian Callinan - posted Wednesday, 15 February 2006

With few exceptions, of which the Pickwick Papers is the finest example, happy writing rarely makes good and enduring literature. Jestful, amusing, even bawdy writing, of which Boccaccio and Chaucer were masters, often does, but only if there is a moral to the stories and an underlying gravity, sometimes even tragedy.

I doubt whether David Myers, academic, editor, novelist, poet and publisher, would deny that his picaresque tale of academe, The Bohemian Bourgeois, has many strains of autobiography. He would be disbelieved if he did. The novel is all of zestful, funny and occasionally bawdy but does have an underlying seriousness. To say however that it has an element of the tragic would be overstatement. Rather it has an air of sadness, of disappointment that youth, which offers so much, has not quite lived up to expectations. I am sure that this is intentional. And it is this aspect that makes the book a book for everyone because no one's life is lived without regrets.

Academe has proved a fruitful field for English writers. C.P. Snow's, The Masters, takes its reader into the ever simmering pot of Oxbridge politics, and David Lodge has made the red brick universities his own, despite earlier forays into them by Kingsley Amis. Although there have been some notable excursions into them in Australia, such as H.H. Richardson's The Getting of Wisdom and Don Aitken's The Second Chair, it is surprising that there have not been more.


But then it is no less surprising that there have been so few Australian novels, or indeed even plays, David Williamson's apart, of any kind about professional and middle-class life and political affairs. These reasons suggest themselves: a bias on the part of the Australian critical establishment against affairs which they very imperfectly understand, a bias perhaps against the professions and the politicians themselves, and a dearth of writers who do know and understand. It was said of C.P. Snow when he was elevated to the House of Lords and made a minister in Harold Wilson's government that having written about the corridors of power, he was now treading them.

David Myers has a keen and acute understanding of academe and its politics, much of it learned the hard way on a variety of campuses in Germany, Canada and Australia. He also has a good ear and a fine sense of the ridiculous, and an attractive ability not to take himself too seriously. These talents are all admirably and originally employed in The Bohemian Bourgeois.

The story begins in a working class suburb of Sydney towards the end of World War II. The author's young politics are of course Labor, even though the years of which he is speaking were the aspirational years of the Menzies' governments, which introduced Commonwealth scholarships to enable anyone of moderate intelligence and ambition to attend university: an opportunity not offered on this scale before by any state government with a constitutional responsibility for education.

The suburb is lovingly regarded. The protagonist's father works all his life in the State Government Printing Office, compliments of the local member and his strict adherence to union solidarity. Life and conditions then will be a revelation to a generation that has come to regard television, the two or three-car family, and the en suite bathroom as indispensable.

Then there were long summer days, uncrowded beaches, bathing togs made of wool with skirts for modesty for both men and women, valuable copper coins deposited in a tin savings box, a small replica of the magnificent depression project near Martin Place, the Commonwealth Bank building, football boots with leather studs and a hard toe cap for kicking and a good Sunday suit.

There weren't many books in the houses of most people in those days. Instead they looked to the small lending libraries in little strip shopping centres, to which the author, as was a generation of such children, sent weekly, to get two novels for his mother, and a choice of two for himself from a shelf of W.E. Johns's or P.C. Wren's. These early years are particularly well realised. The Bohemian Bourgeois is a book of a kind that is likely to have a growing currency for an aging population with a taste for nostalgia.


Afterwards the author travels in the United Kingdom and studies in Germany. He describes his experiences there with a charming and endearing self-deprecation. "Did I really do that? Did that actually happen to me?" The boy from outer Sydney may not have become a boulevardier, but he certainly reached a level of sophistication as foreign to his father as vintage French champagne. As a lecturer and a professor, like Henry Higgins, he joined the great middle classes.

Most adolescents today would assume that tertiary education has always been there for the taking. The only questions they ask are whether they should be bothered to postpone adulthood for a few years, and which course they should enrol in if they do. David Myers's book explains why it was not always so. Parents, especially those who had left school at 14 or 15, and had grown up during the depression, were often deeply suspicious of the sandstone portals and the licentiousness to be found behind them. David Myers tells about all of this better than anybody else in Australian writing.

After a sojourn in Canada the hero returns to Adelaide, academic mud-wrestling, a traumatic marriage breakdown, a divorce, and a disastrous property settlement all of which are all well and disarmingly frankly described.

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About the Author

Justice Ian Callinan is a Member of the High Court of Australia and a playwright and author.

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