h) Culture, history and literature
Review of The Comfort of Men (Dennis Altman, Heinemann, 1993)
But I was far from alone in my assessment of this one
(published in the Hobart Mercury, February 1993)
When I first heard about Dennis Altman's novel The Comfort of Men - over a drink in a gay pub in Melbourne - the author was billing it as 'a book that will show how much Australia has changed in the last twenty years'.
The novel begins in a fictional version of modern Hobart.
Steven and his ailing lover James visit the city because James is keen to understand the place that has shaped his partner's life.
During their time in Tasmania they are repulsed and fascinated by the reactionary politics of an island that has been an independent country for twenty years (when they arrive in Hobart Steven and James learn that the Tasmanian government plans to deport all known homosexuals to Australia).
While in Hobart Steven also begins to examine his past, recalling the people he has loved, reconciling the changes he has witnessed, exploring questions of human intimacy and identity, and slowly gathering the strength he needs to survive his lover's death.
Throughout the novel Altman's sparse language and scattered narrative seems to be a deliberate departure from his effusive, intense and tightly woven academic style - perhaps too deliberate.
In what seems a laboured attempt to move from sociology to fiction Altman has left behind the spontaneity and richness of the intellectual works that have earned him an international reputation.
What he hasn't thrown off is the intellectual's need to methodically explain his subject:The Comfort of Men may have been more compelling had I been more often permitted to use my own imagination to interpret its characters and events.
There is also a sameness about Altman's characters. They all seem to be shards of the same person - Altman himself, and at times the reader is left to wonder why the author chose fiction rather than autobiography to make his point.
The most satisfactory aspect of The Comfort of Men is Altman's continued commitment to the liberation of homosexual people.
With this book Altman reinforces his status as Australia's most articulate advocate of gay emancipation - supplementing influential theoretical works like Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation with a sensitive and damning portrayal of the way that society has hunted, harmed and humiliated gay men and lesbians.
But Altman's sympathy with gay men and lesbians is undermined by his unpalatable view of Tasmania.
In order to show just how much Australia has changed in a generation Altman invents an independence movement that succeeds in detaching Tasmania from the rest of the country and arresting the island's social and cultural development.
The New Jerusalem that is thus created in the Derwent and Tamar Valleys is meant to remind us not to take the richness and tolerance of contemporary Australian society for granted.
But the cost of this historical license is high.
Altman uses Tasmania as a blank slate onto which to project his own pre-occupations. This allows him to ignore the radical new politics of place that has arisen in Tasmania in the last decade and found expression through the green, aboriginal and gay movements.
It also allows him to perpetuate the myth that Australian redneckery is limited to this island and overall the effect is to obscure rather than reveal what it means to be a Tasmanian, and in turn an Australian.
Underlying Altman's ruthless use of Tasmania for his own literary purposes is a jaundiced view of the island similar to the morbid outlook of other exiles like Peter Conrad.
Compared to Altman's loving descriptions of Sydney and Melbourne, Tasmania's cities are presented as claustrophobic, its people dull and its landscape threatening.
Herein lies the saddest feature of The Comfort of Men, for while the self loathing of gay people is exposed, explored and exploded, the equally damaging self hatred of Tasmanians is taken for granted as natural and normal.
It is true that much has changed in Australia since the late sixties. But in his novel Dennis Altman has failed to grasp the nature of these changes.
He has given us an insight into the liberation of one aspect of human experience only to reinforce oppression in another.
If we are ever to live in a country that is truly generous of spirit and free of disrespect for the marvels of human variety this is something our great writers cannot afford to do.
This review first appeared in the Hobart Mercury in February 1993.
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