Solace in a personal antipodes
By Fiona Capp Fourth Estate, 293pp, $24.99
‘ THERE are a great many things which cannot withstand the implacable, bright light of the public realm,’’ philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in 1958. ‘‘ There, only what is considered to be relevant, worthy of being seen or heard, can be tolerated . . .’’ We can only wonder what she would have made of today’s media landscape with its frenetic news cycles, privacy-negating technology and almost systemic resistance to complexity or depth.
A half century ago, Arendt could still maintain that the public realm — the place of politics old as the Greek agora, where men of property used fine words to effect change and gather glory — and the private realm, that ‘‘ shadowy interior of the household’’ where women, children and slaves performed those tasks that sustained basic human needs, were distinct. But this is no longer the case. Fiona Capp’s stately, thoughtful, slow-burner of a novel locates the point where private and public realm threatens to break down, then proceeds to wring every last drop of human drama from the collapse.
Gotland’s heroine, Esther
a schoolteacher. There is a bedrock decency about her, a quiet idealism that manifests itself in a dedication to her students. But the classroom is also an environment in which the shy and psychologically delicate woman can create a haven from a world she finds increasingly hostile. Hers is the vocational equivalent of a panic room.
And god knows she needs it, since at the novel’s outset we learn that her husband David, a former student radical who left academe as a reluctant conscript to one of Australia’s major political parties, is likely to be elevated to leadership only months out from a federal election following the sudden death of his close friend and political mentor. We understand that Esther’s grief at the loss of this elder statesman is complicated. She misses the man deeply but she also dreads the alternative future his death has opened up for her family.
David was a campus anarchist, Quixote with a megaphone, when Esther first met and fell in love with him. But she has watched with increasing trepidation through the years as her free-thinking partner accommodated himself to the less admirable compromises demanded by public life. She fears their marriage will be tested and she worries about David’s relationship with his talented and malcontented teenage daughter, Kate. Finally she worries for her own hard-won equilibrium: Each day I watch David trying to reconcile what we once believed with the way power
‘‘ All I am really sure of,’’ Esther concludes, ‘‘ is that I’m the kind of person who is happiest at the edge of things, watching and dreaming. You can see more clearly from there.’’ A perspective, in other words, similar to that of the author: the figure who listens hard and hoards scraps of the real; who abdicates from grinds on, and I see him becoming hardened and impatient with those still free to dream. And then I ask myself, if anarchism could be applied here and now, how would I like it? I hate committees and meetings of any kind, not to mention the tedium of everyone having their say. I just want to get on with running the classroom and my life as I see fit which makes me sound dangerously like the individualist liberals we used to despise.