Mother Courage cracks the whip

PROFILE – Louise Adler – Cultural Identity


THAT whip crack of a laugh is Louise Adler’s riff. She races through her life story, pausing only as she rounds some half-remembered corner into a scene of past absurdity; then she stops to laugh. Crack.Going back to uni lecturing weeks after the birth of her first baby, longing to crawl under the desk “for just an inch of sleep”. Crack.

Her brother force-feeding her Plato and R. D. Laing when she was 11. Crack.

Her first meal in an English university dorm: “Spam fritters with potatoes and baked beans flowing over it! `Oy vey,’ I thought, `I don’t think I can do this English cuisine.”‘ Craaack …

That laugh was her riff on radio, too. There it signalled amusement not so much at her own predicament as at that of her interviewee, says journalist David Marr, her predecessor as host of Arts Today on Radio National.

“It’s a wonderful laugh on radio,” he says. “People who don’t know that laugh usually assume at that point they are going to be let off the hook, but the laugh is usually an indication that another hook is coming their way.”
But those days are over, for now at least. Adler has left the ABC to become deputy director of the Victorian College of the Arts. “The VCA is the right home, in a sense, for me, because of the nexus between the arts and the academy,” she says. “I guess that’s where I’ve always been.”

Adler says she left Arts Today because three years of live radio was gruelling: “It’s like doing matric every day. Reading 700 pages of Salman Rushdie over the weekend because you have to prepare your questions – there’s no way you can fake this, and you want him to give you something different to what he’s giving everyone else – means the pressure is enormous.”

While it was also fun, she found the “instant-expert” quality of daily journalism frustrating. “Arts Today is probably the privileged and luxurious end of journalism, but I feel like I have talked to some of the finest minds in the world, and what have I retained?”

If there is more behind her decision to move, we won’t be hearing it from her. Adler refuses to be drawn on aspects of ABC life other than the excellence of her producers, and her gratitude that a raw recruit such as herself was given a chance. There are limits to her famed directness.

In 1993, Adler was nominated by Good Weekend magazine as one of Australia’s 45 most powerful women, up there with High Court judge Mary Gaudron and the ACTU’s Jennie George. She was then publisher at Reed/Heinemann, following a stint as editor of Australian Book Review.

It was publisher Sandy Grant, now chief executive of Hardy Grant, who plucked her from ABR and told her she had what it took to be a publisher.

“She is fiercely intelligent and a terrific judge of people,” he says. “She judges people faster and more accurately than anyone I have ever worked with, and her first impressions are always right. She was able to read material in a way that helped authors; (she understands) writers’ works and intentions. She developed a very good publishing program for us.”

Weaknesses? “None.”

Really? “She’s very blunt; I think her directness often rattles people.”

Other former colleagues talk of her drive. “She likes status and she knows how to work for it,” says one, “but she doesn’t have to work too hard.” Others have found her prickly and defensive under pressure. She can be sensitive to slights; she told one interviewer she keeps “a long list of crimes against humanity or against Louise”.

She is also said to be bossy to the point of “maternalistic”. Adler has no trouble owning her bossiness. She says she is a domestic tyrant in her marriage to comic actor Max Gillies, who is as vague around the house as he is focused on stage. They have two children, aged 12 and 15. Their initial meeting was set up by a friend after Adler had confided she despaired of finding a kind and considerate man: “My girlfriend said, `There’s only one left, and his name is Max.”‘

At home, says Adler, “I manage the domestic sphere in a completely authoritarian and, he would say, retrograde fashion. He says no feminist today should be doing what I’m doing, which is saying, `I’m in control of the kitchen and I’ll do all the cooking, dear’.”
Mark Davis, author of the cultural analysis Gangland, believes Adler used her organisational skills and networks to help marshal the anti-Demidenko forces in the intellectual debate over the ethics of Helen Darville’s book, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Darville initially published the book under the name Demidenko and misrepresented herself as being of Ukrainian background.

The novel told of Jewish persecution in World War II from the perspective of anti-Semitic Ukrainian perpetrators. For commentators such as David Marr and Jill Kitson, Darville entered into the imaginations of anti-Semites in a way that highlighted their evil. For Adler, the book constituted a deeply offensive rewriting of history, and was itself anti-Semitic because of the way it portrayed Jews.

“It was stereotypes from Nazi propaganda,” she says, still outraged. “I think (we do need to) understand the psychopathology of the collaborator. The genocidal project was facilitated by lots of people in Europe helping the Nazis. But Helen Demidenko-Darville did not want to understand that; she wanted to legitimise it. She wanted to endorse … that barbarism.”

The fact that there was disagreement about how the book should be read distresses her still. “I had thought what had happened during the Second World War was a nightmare, a catastrophe that had significance for the whole of humanity.

“The fact that the literary community, people that I respected and regarded highly, did not view the book the way I did and the way people like me did, showed me that they viewed the Second World War as `a Jewish issue’ … ”

Adler went to school with children whose parents screamed in the night, and the Holocaust played a large part in her own family’s history. Her mother’s parents fled Germany for Australia just before the outbreak of war with her mother, then six. “Most of their family was murdered in Europe; there’s nothing left of that family, basically.”

Adler’s father, 13 at the start of the war, joined the Jewish section of the French resistance in Paris and later became the youngest sergeant in the French army. He has spent much of his life documenting fascism and the choices people made under it.

“For him, it was about political action and taking responsibility, being active rather than simply surviving. It sounds very pompous, but I think there is a morality that involves action and choices, and I think at the time he thought that meant that there was a need to (fight), despite the fact that it put his own mother at risk.”

Black American writer James McBride, author of the memoir The Color of Water, attacked Adler publicly at last year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival over a radio interview in which he claimed Adler had hounded his elderly mother about having abandoned her Jewishness (a central aspect of his book). Adler is a tenacious interviewer but was nonplussed by the accusation.

Later, she read a magazine article in which McBride mentioned the interview again. “He said, `I can always tell it. The room reeks of it when I’m being interviewed by someone who’s Jewish. I can smell the Jewishness a mile off.”‘ Adler raises her eyebrows in amazement and is momentarily silent.

In Gangland, Mark Davis slotted Adler into a group of baby-boomer identities he saw as cultural gatekeepers preventing younger, more radical voices being heard. He says he is anti-Demidenko, but was concerned that Adler’s camp tended to draw too broad a conclusion from the book, accusing young intellectuals generally of lacking historical memory and a moral centre.

His view of her has softened since then. “I mention her as one of the people who have been curmudgeonly about literary theory, but in her show that’s definitely not been the case. She’s actually increasingly thought about the sorts of women’s issues and post-colonial issues that two or three years ago she was, by implication, criticising.”

He also admires her forthright engagement with his critique: “A lot of people responded to Gangland negatively and defensively. She was generous to a fault. She handled it with a lot of style and invited me on to her show. That takes some depth of character.”

Adler is amused at the notion that she might be sitting on the heads of younger people. “I thought that Mark Davis’ “gates” were extremely wide, from people in their 60s down to people in their late 30s and 40s. The intellectual preoccupations of my generation (Adler is 45) are quite different to those of people in their sixties.

“I certainly have not used any of the positions I have been in to keep people out. My entire reason for being, in terms of the work I’ve done, has been to include people. `May a thousand opinions bloom’ has been my attitude.” The problems Davis describes are more due to the inherent conservatism of media organisations, says Adler.

A severely asthmatic child, Adler spent most winters home from school curled up with books. Her first choice was Enid Blyton. Her father tolerated it until the night she arrived at the dinner table and squealed, “Ooh goody, lashings of potatoes!” He ditched Blyton and began introducing her to adult reading. She was 11.

HER mother drilled her in maths times tables in the kitchen and taught her how to write. Her parents took her to Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts – “with the rest of the continental schnitzel crowd” – every Saturday night and to Festival Hall to hear the Russian poet Yevtushenko.

“Culture was the important thing,” Adler says. “Music. Books. Painting. Politics … We would always march in the Hiroshima Day march.”

Part of Adler’s brief at the VCA is to help students receive a broader cultural education. The college wants her to develop connections between the disciplines and encourage the relationship between theory and practice.

Writer Tom Kenneally, a friend of Adler’s, says he suspects that “students and staff with hard-luck stories will absorb quite a deal of her time. She’s very generous-spirited, a bit of a Mother Courage figure …

“I’m sure that further down the track there’s something grander awaiting her. She has an intense and lively temperament that seems to require her to recreate herself several times over a lifetime.”

Louise Adler

1954: Born in Melbourne
Universities attended: Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Reading University, Columbia University.

1978: Teacher, Columbia University, New York City.

1980: Tutor, University of Melbourne.

1988: Editor of Australian Book Review.

1989: Publishing director, Reed Books Australia.

1994: Arts and entertainment editor, The Age.

1996: Radio National Arts Today presenter.

First published in  The Age.