Quality Time at St Chinian
Quality Time at St Chinian
Life is good at the young University of Saint Chinian in sunlit south-west France. All involved enjoy a happy time: some teaching is required, but research is entirely optional. The students too are a joyful group. For a moderate amount of study, which does not greatly encroach upon their leisure time, they are assured of a fairly decent degree and a job – possibly even a pensionable on – and have plenty of free time to engage in the serious business of hanging around, drinking coffee, playing pinball and fornicating.
However, this blessed state of affairs is under threat. The authorities in Paris have imposed a visit from an external committee of international experts to compile a detailed report on the academic quality of the university. The cold wind of managerial intimidation, so common in other areas of contemporary life, is about to blow through the hallowed halls academia. The serpent is insinuating itself into paradise.
A comic campus novel in the style of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, Quality Time at St Chinian is guaranteed to raise a wry smile from anyone who has come into contact with the unusual world of academia, as student, teacher or (whisper it) administrator.
Professor Patrick Masterson was President and Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin. He was President of the European University Institute in Florence between 1994 and 2002. His numerous academic publications include Atheism and Alienation, which was translated into Japanese. He is a Chevalier dans la Confrèrie des Chevaliers Vignerons de Saint-Christophe. Patrick has himself chaired several international quality-appraisal committees, so knows whereof he speaks. Quality Time at St Chinian is his first novel.
‘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. . . . [who] 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 infighting, and a recall of L'Occitane's rich and fascinating cultural and social history, and the result is a charming, erudite and engaging tale. . . . An assured and delightful debut which prompted this enchanted reader to echo Oliver Twist's plea: please sir, can we have some more?’
—Madeleine Keane, Irish Independent
‘Masterson has assembled a cast of beautifully formed, wholly believable characters and he pokes gentle fun at pompous civil servants, ponderous bureaucracy and profligate academics alike. His decades of experience inside both camps (as well as being a professor, he has chaired several quality-appraisal committees) gives him real insight into the mechanics, flaws and foolishness so often found in systems of government and education. He uses the book to expose the pretentiousness and complexity of these institutions, to question the reliability of objectivity and conceptions of quality, and to ponder the usefulness of eurocratic meddling in local affairs. This erudite comedy may have only a glancing relationship with wine (and mostly Pays d'Oc Sauvignon and Merlot at that) but I can guarantee that St-Chinian has never known so much excitement.’
—Tamlyn Curtin, JancisRobinson.com
‘Quality Time at St Chinian is genuinely funny, and [Masterson’s] sympathies are clear throughout. . . . [the] novel highlights the injustice [academic-manqué bureaucrats] perpetrate – as well as the folly and pomposity of their victims within the groves of academe.’
—Felix M. Larkin, Irish Times
‘Many people have enjoyed Ronald Searle’s The Terror of St Trinians and its sequel of comedy films. With an unmistakable reference to it in the title, Masterson provides a foretaste of this debut novel. Just as Searle described the eccentricities and idiocies of the staff and girls in St Trinian’s, he highlights the cynicism and sense of self-importance of many senior academics. He is well-qualified for this task. A former member of the philosophy department in University College Dublin, he served as president of the college from 1986 to 1993 and as principal of the European University Institute in Florence from 1994 to 2002.
Masterson creates his own university, names it St Chinian and locates it in the Languedoc in south-west France. It is a happy place, where some teaching is required but research is entirely optional. Even the students are happy.
For a moderate amount of study, which does not greatly encroach upon their leisure time, they are assured of a fairly decent degree.
There is, however, some consternation at the prospect of an up-coming external quality appraisal of St Chinian by a committee of international experts.
This was set in train by an ambitious secretary-general of the Ministry of Universities and Research in Paris. From the outset the aim of this initiative is clear. It is to steer the university away from its emphasis on liberal arts courses and programmes to pursuits which would be more useful to the business, industrial and tourist interests of the region.
Masterson’s record of the investigation conducted by the international committee sheds light on less-publicised aspects of university life.
There are the bitter disagreements between departments and sometimes a lack of civility between professors and other members of staff. The exceptional length of holidays enjoyed by academics is adverted to.
Then there are the over-generous perks, such as travel expenses for those engaged in research. The author particularly enjoys poking fun at the patois in the schools of business studies and sociology. There is more than a glimpse at the rarefied world inhabited by senior academics and administrators where rich food and fine wines reign supreme. And during their week at St Chinian two members of the visiting inspection committee find time for romantic interludes!
In due course the report on St Chinian is presented and not surprisingly it is in line with the aims of the bureaucrats in Paris. However, it is dismissed by Guy Boulanger, president of St Chinian, in a rhetorical flourish and he is also able to ensure that once filed it would not see the light of day again.
Contempories of Patrick Masterson will have little difficulty in seeing him in the guise of Guy Boulanger. The former is well-known for his commitment to the concept of university education as outlined by John Henry Newman. Thus, in his rejection of the report of the international experts, Guy Boulanger, while acknowledging the role of the university in preparing students for the world of work, insists that a university’s priority is teaching students to think for themselves and to engage with concepts such as truth, goodness and beauty and the values they enshrine. Throughout, the author’s exhaustive knowledge of every aspect of life in to-day’s universities is clear. His account of the foibles and pomposity of some senior academics and administrators takes the reader on a delightful romp. The humour and irony is gentle without a hint of malice. And beneath all the fun there is a serious message.’
—J. Anthony Gaughan, Irish Catholic
‘Paddy Masterson has a keen eye and a sharp wit, as well as a veteran’s understanding of university politics. In this charming debut novel, he serves up a cocktail of academic mischief and misadventure under the languid Languedoc sunshine. The result is tremendous fun.’
—Kathleen MacMahon, author of The Long, Hot Summer
‘Patrick Masterson’s campus novel bubbles with hilarity, erudition and eros–making for a brew as heady and spiced as the local vintages of Languedoc in which the riotous plot unfolds.’
—Richard Kearney, Charles Seelig professor of philosophy at Boston College
‘A delightful romp through the absurdities of university bureaucracy, bossy eurocrats, international rankings and academic pretentiousness . . . from the inside.’
—Dr Maurice Manning, Chancellor of the National University of Ireland
‘Paddy Masterson has drawn on his insider knowledge of the academy, and mischievous wit, to pen a campus novel brimming with a recognisable cast of characters at the mythical University of Saint Chinian as they confront the arrival of quality appraisal and the dreaded external peer review. The characters are beautifully and sympathetically drawn and the portrayal of the external visit is very funny. The novel also has a serious purpose. It harks back to a university that is all but gone and reminds us just what has been lost in the rush to university management and appraisal.’
—Professor Brigid Laffan, European University Institute, Florence
‘Patrick Masterson puts Saint Chinian on the map, celebrating this wonderfully unlikely, exquisitely illustrative campus with the mirth and affection of a masterful humorist. The institution is a worthy European counterpart of David Lodge’s Euphoria State.’
—Professor Philip Pettit, Princeton University