Thursday 14 November 2019

Masterson's debut serves up a cocktail of mischief and misadventure

Fiction: Quality time at St Chinian, Patrick Masterson, Liberties Press, €14.99

Quality time at St Chinian by Patrick Masterson
Quality time at St Chinian by Patrick Masterson

Madeleine Keane

In the lovely Languedoc area of south-west France lies the University of Saint-Chinian, a young (mythical) college, where staff and students enjoy a mostly carefree existence under the benign leadership of charismatic President Guy Boulanger. However, their bucolic idyll is suddenly threatened by notice from the Ministry in Paris of an external quality appraisal.

And so into this sunlit land of grapes, love and languid learning arrives a committee of international experts, led by the humourless Hans Kerstin, emeritus professor of business administration and former rector of a small Hamburg university. Cue enormous fun for our debut novelist, Patrick Masterson, professor of philosophy and former President of UCD who lines up the chaotic but amiable Languedociens against the briskly efficient Eurocrats.An exotic cast includes Boulanger's erstwhile lover, academic Claire Macon, Kerstin's fashion and food-loving wife Helga (whose unhappy encounter with a beehive is the impetus for an amorous liaison), Susan Mitchell, dean at the new university of Athlone, Flemish librarian and collector of 19th-century erotica Andreas de Wit, and the various satellite groups who orbit the campus, among them the Concerned Mothers of St Chinian and the Association of Landladies of Languedoc.

From the Preparation and Internal Reports which precede the committee's arrival and their tumultuous tours through the various Schools of Sociology, Viticulture, Arts and Business to the final Report and Response, Masterson shows himself to be a novelist of skill, expertly counterpointing the bureaucratic jargon with some wonderful comic set pieces. A riotous lunch conceived by the students for the non-plussed visitors - I don't think I'll ever eat escargots with such relish again - is especially worthy of note.

Add to all this a brace of romantic couplings, vicious squabbles among the dons, prodigious samplings of the area's chief export (le vin) in a lovingly-rendered landscape (Masterson has a home in the area), political in-fighting and a recall of L'Occitane's rich and fascinating cultural and social history, and the result is a charming, erudite and engaging tale.

For all the mischief and wit though there's a message. As our author, who during his tenure as President of the European University Institute in Florence both served on and chaired these types of quality assessment committees, observes in his prefatory note: 'beneath all the fun there lurks a serious issue'. So while there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, in the penultimate showdown comes a moving and articulate plea to remember, in the face of the State's relentless march for commercial efficiency, bottom-lines and managerial evaluation, the value and importance of knowledge.

President Boulanger cites that 'great educationalist' John Henry Newman as well as Einstein and WB Yeats in his eloquent, impassioned defence of his beloved college St Chinian, observing that, 'to evaluate the quality of a university is to review its substantial fidelity to the exploration of issues of truth, goodness and beauty.

All in all, an assured and delightful debut which prompted this enchanted reader to echo Oliver Twist's plea: please sir, can we have some more?

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