Nettelbeck, Colin William (1938–2022)

Colin Nettelbeck was an Australian scholar of French literature and cinema. He made a distinguished contribution to language policy at university, state, national and international levels. One of the founders of the Institute for the Study of French-Australian Relations (ISFAR), he was also the originator of the French-Australian Dictionary of Biography in which this entry appears. He played a leadership role in both the exploration and the practice of French-Australian relations during the half-century of his career in Australian universities.

Colin William Nettelbeck was born at Streaky Bay on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia on March 29, 1938. He spent his first three years in country South Australia, before moving to Adelaide. Like many South Australians, his parentage comprised a Barossa Valley German component, as indicated by his surname. The other components were Irish, on his father’s side, Scottish and Dutch on his mother’s side. He lost his father early in World War II, in 1941, in the Middle East. He and his siblings were brought up by his mother and his stepfather, a teacher.

Nettelbeck completed his secondary studies at Prince Alfred College, a prominent private school in Adelaide, and then undertook an Arts degree at the University of Adelaide. During his undergraduate years he converted to Catholicism and became a fervent believer. He graduated with First Class Honours and began his working life as a secondary teacher of Latin, French and Mathematics, an unusual combination. Having gained a French government scholarship, he went to Paris and enrolled for a doctorate at the Sorbonne. He was awarded the title of Doctor of the University of Paris in 1964 for a thesis on the Catholic novelist and public intellectual Georges Bernanos. Bernanos was also the subject of his first published book.

During his student days in Paris he met his future wife Carol, an American of Italian extraction, a graduate of the highly regarded Middlebury College, Vermont, who was studying at the Sorbonne for a Master’s degree. They married in Paris in 1963: the wedding was performed by the University Chaplain, Father Jean-Marie Lustiger, who subsequently became Archbishop of Paris and then Cardinal, possibly the only Cardinal of Jewish origin in the modern Roman Catholic Church. The Nettelbecks remained friends with Cardinal Lustiger for the rest of his life, and Nettelbeck published two articles on him. The Nettelbecks’ three children, Alexander, Jennifer and Bridget, were born in California during his eight year tenure initially as Instructor and then as Assistant Professor at the University of California in Berkeley.

Nettelbeck returned to Australia with his family in 1971 to take up a Senior Lecturership in French at Monash University in Melbourne. He was subsequently promoted to Associate Professor and spent a total of twenty-three years at Monash. The crowning of his formal university career was his appointment in 1994 as A. R. Chisholm Professor of French at the University of Melbourne, the first holder of the newly named chair of French. He held the A. R. Chisholm Chair for eleven years, including several terms as Head of the School of Languages. He retired in 2005 and was appointed Emeritus Professor of the University of Melbourne.

Both at Monash and at the University of Melbourne he played an active part in academic administration, promoting the teaching of languages within the universities as well as at State level, nationally and internationally. Cooperation with French universities and the French government was particularly important to him. He played an influential role in policy making in all these areas, as well as in organisations such as the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Alliance Française. He was President of the Alliance Française of Melbourne for a number of years and also of the Federation of Alliances Françaises of Australia for a term, and he published a history of the Alliance Française in Australia, The Alliance Française in Australia, 1890–1990: an Historical Perspective (1990), now a standard reference work.

Together with Wallace Kirsop and Dennis Davison, Nettelbeck was one of the co-founders in 1985 of ISFAR, the Institute for the Study of French-Australian Relations and its bulletin, Explorations. This move was both inspired by Victoria’s sesqui-centenary celebrations and the ground-breaking 1984 exhibition “The French Presence in Victoria 1800–­1901”, initiated by Dianne Reilly, then La Trobe Librarian at the State Library of Victoria, and a response to similar initiatives by French scholars at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. What set the Monash operation apart is the long life of ISFAR and its bulletin, later to become the journal, the French-Australian Review. Wallace Kirsop took responsibility for the latter, while Nettelbeck took charge of the Institute for the Study of French-Australian Relations. All these developments occurred in the context of the approaching 1988 bi-centenary. In 1994 Nettelbeck took up his new appointment as A. R. Chisholm Professor of French at the University of Melbourne. ISFAR’s gradual reorientation from its Monash association to a Parkville connection followed.

Nettelbeck held the presidency of ISFAR for two seven-year periods between 1985–1992 and between 2011–2018. His last major achievements before his retirement from ISFAR were setting up a Research Committee and creating the on-line French-Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Nettelbeck’s scholarly contributions cover an exceptionally wide range of topics. His teaching, as well as his publications, books and articles and his participation in conferences reflect his great intellectual curiosity, his interest in modern French history and society and his deep knowledge of twentieth century French literature and cinema. His nine books and the thirty chapters he authored, demonstrate his very broad intellectual and professional interests. His articles, numbering over a hundred, have appeared in a variety of Australian and international journals. He also contributed numerous book reviews in a variety of fields to the Australian Book Review. In his years as a senior scholar, his work was supported by a number of competitive Australian Research Council grants.

He has written on various aspects of the two world wars and more specifically on France under German occupation and also on French exiles in the United States during World War II. More in line with ISFAR concerns, Nettelbeck devoted his energies and his talents to the exploration of the history of French-Australian relations and published widely in this area.

A great deal of his research was on specific French authors, with in-depth attention given to several of them, including Bernanos, Céline and Modiano, whilst some of his other publications deal with post-war and contemporary French cinema and the work of influential filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Louis Malle. He played a pioneering role in introducing cinema studies in Australian French departments and also in bringing to light the contribution of jazz to French culture: one of his most original publications was a book entitled Dancing with De Beauvoir: Jazz and the French, published in 2004. His other books include Les personnages de Bernanos romancier (1970); Patrick Modiano : pièces d’identité : écrire l’entretemps (1986); Forever French: Exile in the United States, 1939–1945 (1991); and edited volumes: War and Identity: The French and the Second World War (1987) and A Century of Cinema: Australian and French Connections (1996). He was also the author of two reports into the teaching of LOTE languages (Languages Other Than English) in Australian Universities (2007 and 2009).

Nettelbeck’s contribution to so many fields was recognised by the award of several distinctions, including the French Palmes Académiques and the Légion d’honneur, as well as the Australian Centenary Medal. He was a life member of ISFAR, as well as ASFS (the Australian Society for French Studies), and LCNAU (the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities) for which he was a member of the original project team in 2011–2012.

Simultaneously with the unfolding of his career as a scholar and an academic leader, Nettelbeck was also a talented jazz pianist and jazz composer: in 2017 he was one of the stars of “Three of a Kind”, a Nettelbeck jazz concert held at “fortyfivedownstairs” in Flinders Lane, Melbourne. The other participants were his older brother Ted Nettelbeck, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Adelaide, and his son Alexander, a professional musician, all three jazz pianists.

Colin Nettelbeck died on October 21, 2022 after a long illness.

Image: Supplied by ISFAR

Author: Ivan Barko, Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney, May 2023


Colin Nettelbeck’s professional curriculum vitae and publications list.

Auhor Interviews with Carol Nettelbeck and with Colin Nettelbeck’s academic colleagues.

Australian Academy of the Humanities, ‘Vale Colin Nettelbeck FAHA: 1938­–2022’.


Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, World War II and post-war French literature and cinema, Monash University, University of Melbourne, Institute for the Study of French-Australian Relations, Alliance Française.