The enigma of Killer Kramer’

Broom­stick: Per­sonal Re­flec­tions of Leonie Kramer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

AT one point in Broom­stick, a vol­ume of her ‘‘ per­sonal re­flec­tions’’, Leonie Kramer re­marks gnom­i­cally that ‘‘ I felt, in Aus­tralia, noth­ing fails like suc­cess’’. The com­ment is per­sonal and gen­eral and re­vives the now more or less aban­doned no­tion of the tall poppy syn­drome (plucked out by celebrity cul­ture).

That Leonie Kramer, DBE, AC, pro­fes­sor of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, for a decade chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Sydney, briefly chair­man (the word, then) of the ABC, di­rec­tor of Western Min­ing and mem­ber of many other bod­ies, had a strik­ingly suc­cess­ful pub­lic ca­reer (es­pe­cially for a woman in her times) is ev­i­dent. Yet she aroused an­tag­o­nism not only within the al­ways ran­corous aca­demic community but in par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal cir­cles that seems out of pro­por­tion. Her book — at once eva­sive and en­light­en­ing — does not fully ex­plain this puz­zle.

The ti­tle sig­nals some of the am­bi­gu­i­ties to fol­low. The pref­ace is writ­ten by Kramer’s daugh­ters, Jo­ce­lyn and Hi­lary, who have brought the book to pub­li­ca­tion dur­ing ‘‘ the pro­gres­sion of de­men­tia’’ in their 87-year-old mother. To the ques­tion, Why call it Broom­stick?, three con­tra­dic­tory, or per­haps com­ple­men­tary an­swers are given: Kramer’s life has been like ‘‘ the mag­i­cal ad­ven­ture of rid­ing a broom­stick’’; she might rightly be re­garded as hav­ing been ‘‘ a new broom ven­tur­ing into male bas­tions’’ and ‘‘ she was aware that oth­ers, per­haps, per­ceived her as a witch’’.

For Patrick White, she was, petu­lantly, ‘‘ Killer Kramer’’, fig­ure­head of the aca­demic By Leonie Kramer Aus­tralian Schol­arly Pub­lish­ing, 222pp, $49.95 study of lit­er­a­ture that he loathed, this ir­re­spec­tive of her ex­ten­sive if some­times sar­cas­tic com­men­taries on his fic­tion. Whether she con­sented to the book’s ti­tle or not, Kramer cer­tainly ad­dresses its con­no­ta­tions. Broom­stick be­gins with a dis­arm­ing mild­ness: What fol­lows is an ac­count of how a child from Mel­bourne, whose par­ents had very mod­est means, and who lived a set­tled and happy child­hood, came to be in a po­si­tion to re­flect on fifty years of pub­lic life, as well as on other un­planned ad­ven­tures.

Then we are plunged abruptly (in an open­ing chap­ter ti­tled The­atre of the Ab­surd) into one of those ad­ven­tures. This was the at­tempt, bru­tal and ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful, to trun­cate her third suc­ces­sive term as chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Sydney, ‘‘ events both rep­re­hen­si­ble and lu­di­crous, marked by ir­ra­tional ac­tion of plot and play­ers’’.

The ac­cu­sa­tions against her Kramer keeps vague: ‘‘ out of touch with the ex­ist­ing mil­len­nia fer­vour’’, un­per­suaded by ‘‘ the pass­ing fash­ions of busi­ness rhetoric’’ for univer­sity gov­er­nance. Hers is an abid­ing anger re­gard­ing ‘‘ that cu­ri­ous mix­ture of false­hood, in­sin­u­a­tion and malev­o­lence’’, but the case is weak­ened be­cause Kramer dis­dains to name or an­a­lyse those who op­posed her. And if she doesn’t tell the other side of the story, nor does she tell all of hers.

Al­though the pref­ace in­forms us that ‘‘ bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion was in­tended only as a con­text for her ideas’’, the first chap­ters fol­low a con­ven­tional au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal pat­tern: school at Pres­by­te­rian Ladies’ Col­lege, Mel­bourne (where the au­thor known as Henry Han­del Richard­son, the sub­ject of Kramer’s most im­por­tant crit­i­cal work, had also been a pupil); hon­ours in English and phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne; the chance to

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