Thomas Keneally Essay - Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 8)

Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 8)

Keneally, Thomas 1935–

Keneally, an Australian novelist who once studied for the priesthood, has shown a preoccupation with religious themes in his novels. He is appraised as a serious but flawed artist. Keneally's work appears to be influenced most by Evelyn Waugh and fellow Australian and Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White. (see also CLC, Vol. 5.)

[Bring Larks and Heroes] is passionate and fluent. The author's approach to language is aggressively determined. But the result is uneven and, for a medium-length novel, oddly diffuse…. Mr Keneally writes brilliantly but he does not organize his material well, either in the novel taken as a whole or in the smaller units of paragraph and sentence. His narrative shifts in and out of character, abruptly: at one moment a character is being lyrical or reflective or ironic, at the next the author is editorializing in the same or a different vein. The narrative also changes focus when there is an episode outside the immediate experience of Halloran [a protagonist]. Such episodes are relevant and other devices to incorporate them in the main line of narrative would doubtless be cumbersome; but Balzacian omniscience requires Balzacian authority and technique.

Perhap it is Mr Keneally's very brilliance, his abundance of ideas and facility with words that suggests self-indulgence. Good phrases—and there are scores of them—seem to go down regardless of their aptness in context. And there are several horrors…. Some of the consciously fine writing is fine in spite of itself; the rest is consciously fine.

Most of Mr Keneally's faults would have been excusable in a first novel: Bring Larks and Heroes is his seventh. Treated with more austerity and discipline, it might certainly have been a very considerable novel.

"Nasty, Brutish, and Short," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 26, 1973, p. 1299.

Thomas Keneally has written a "documentary" novel ["Gossip From the Forest"] about the behavior of the Allied and German signers of the Armistice in the forest clearing at Compiègne on Nov. 11, 1918, and I started it with misgivings. Did we really need another "Ragtime" or "Travesties," reducing the great to dolls?…

[When] I finished I was persuaded that Keneally's book belongs not with historical fictions that patronize the past and thus set it aside, but with those like Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914," books that delineate the past in sympathetic depth and so urge the reader to enter it….

It is odd to have to say of a novel that it is a "study" of something, but that must be said here. "Gossip From the Forest" is a study of the profoundly civilian and pacific sensibility beleaguered by crude power. Erzberger [the pacifist and liberal member of the Reichstag who led the German delegation] is intelligent, hopeful, studious, unpretentious, absent-minded and easily bored, and Keneally depicts him as a doomed negotiator with no leverage but personal decency, a knack at sympathy and a flair for language. He is the type of the Weimar Liberal. His victimhood is completed in 1921 when he is shot to death on vacation by two vengeful young officers for the crime of signing the Armistice at all. We are to understand that obscenities like private armies and the youth movement are only a few years away. By the end of the novel we are deeply sympathetic with Erzberger's fate and with Keneally's point, that the 20th century will not tolerate Matthias Erzbergers. They are civilized, and they are sane. (p. 7)

"This account is not scholarly," says Keneally, "but merely gossip from the forest." Whatever it is, as fiction it is absorbing, and as history it achieves the kind of significance earned only by sympathy acting on deep knowledge. The tradition of the historical novel is that it is about cavaliers and bosoms. But recent historical novels, by George Garrett and Thomas Pynchon and Solzhenitsyn as well as Keneally, have been about suffering, or failure, or the world's discomfort when confronted by intelligence and probity. I think that's an improvement. (p. 8)

Paul Fussell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 11, 1976.

Serious-minded readers have ignored historical fiction for so long that when a historical novel became critically fashionable last summer many of them gasped in ignorant delight. [E. L. Doctorow's] "Ragtime," they said, was a new breed of book: real people like Henry Ford and Harry Houdini mingled with the made-up people. What daring, what imagination. Sir Walter Scott, in his corner of the empyrean, could be heard to sigh. Writers since Shakespeare's day (or Dante's, if you want to stretch a point) have thrust historical figures into fictional situations—to entertain us or to a moral. Thomas Keneally does it [in "Gossip from the Forest," a] distinguished book that is nothing like most historical novels but seems a fictional meditation on history instead….

Such drama as the novel affords is entirely psychological. There is a lot of waiting in this book, all of it highly charged. The [characters] dream, tell stories, write letters, quarrel among themselves. Keneally is a patient, exploratory writer, content to poke at his characters, to let antagonisms, develop. His forest is a fateful place, fit to get lost in, and his characters are all lost one way or another—in stupidity, delusion, desperation. His book is about the crushing effect past attitudes have upon present emergencies. It is not a cheerful story, nor is it hyperventilated like most successful fiction today. I hope its intelligence and measured pace will not prevent it from finding an audience. (pp. 90-1)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 19, 1976.

In "Gossip from the Forest" …, Thomas Keneally, one of the most talented of current Australian writers, has made the task of writing a historical novel almost intractable for himself. He has chosen to narrate from inside, as it were, one of the most complex and massively archivized scenarios in the whole of modern history: the armistice negotiations conducted in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne for four days in November, 1918…. Mr. Keneally, whose motives in the enterprise are suggestively indistinct, aims to get at the "true truth," at perceptions more persuasive than the historian's within a stringently factual framework. The current vogue for "fact-fiction," for the montage of real happenings and celebrities on an invented background, is plainly at work here. But Mr. Keneally's range is higher. He is after that poetry of order, of inward transparency, which enables the classic novel to say not merely "This is how it might have been" but "This is how it must have been" given the raw material of human sensibility, which only serious art can lay bare. (pp. 80-1)

Mr. Keneally's presentation is as stylized as a Balinese dance-drama. Much of the dialogue is direct. Short sentences and terse paragraphs hammer away to simulate confinement. Epithets are mannered in the extreme…. A precedent suggests itself for this artifact. It is a novel that few today will have heard of, let alone read: George Meredith's "The Tragic Comedians," of 1880. In it, Meredith tells the histrionic, bathetic tale of the last days of Ferdinand Lassalle, the German radical Socialist and demagogue who perished in an absurd duel in obese Geneva, his genius floundering in a risible affair of the heart. Meredith and Keneally produce a comparable omniscience and posturing irony.

I do not know that Keneally has looked at Meredith, but one source is certain. In 1931, John Maynard Keynes read to a circle of friends an exquisitely subtle and poignant memoir of his negotiations with Dr. Carl Melchior, who in 1919 had met with Allied economic officials to plead for a delay in reparations and for a more humane view of Germany's desperate domestic plight. This memoir, published later in Keynes's "Essays and Sketches in Biography," inspires not only Keneally's treatment of Erzberger but many touches of material and atmospheric detail. The honors stay with Keynes. Himself a party to the high business, and expertly equipped to judge the strategic motives and national sensibilities implicit in the situation, Keynes keeps his narrative reticent and his verdicts on person and motive provisional. "Gossip from the Forest" has a damaging knowingness. Behind the pointillist technique rumble great portents of foresight and allegorical finality. There is a tactical coyness even to the title. In short: an interesting failure, quite like the parleys at Compiègne so many (or was it so few?) Novembers ago. (p. 82)

George Steiner, "Petrified Forest," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 23, 1976, pp. 80-2.

Thomas Keneally … puts his characters through some pretty heavy paces. Emotions run large in his novels, and so do events: violence often predominates, and you can count on a good deal of blood running in the streets. Yet he is a serious writer and and accomplished one…. Season in Purgatory is a good if gruesome entertainment that readers of popular fiction might well like.

The central character is David Pelham, a young British doctor serving in World War II….

At its most superficial level, the novel is a cross between M∗A∗S∗H and A Farewell to Arms—operating-room humor all mixed up with ill-fated wartime lovers—and at that level it is rather predictable, scarcely as powerful as such earlier Keneally novels as A Dutiful Daughter and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. But Keneally is not merely an entertainer telling a bloody and exciting story. He is also a writer of formidable skills and resources;… he has a visceral feeling for physical action and his prose conveys it powerfully.

When all the blood has dried, Season in Purgatory is about the conversion of David Pelham from warrior to pacifist. At last he sees more blood than he can stomach: "In his bloodstream were two simple propositions: that the savagery of the Germans did not excuse the savagery of the Partisans: that the savagery of the Partisans did not excuse the savagery of the Germans….

It is not, as Keneally readily admits, a novel idea. But what the story of David Pelham argues is that to one discovering it for the first time, it has the force of revelation. It changes lives…. Keneally does not go so far as to say that lives thus changed will eventually change the world, but he leaves no doubt that is his hope. For one who writes with such violence he comes to gentle conclusions—and therein hangs the tale.

Jonathan Yardley, "Bloody Good Novel," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 20, 1977. p. N1.

[Keneally] is an honest workman. He will not probably end up in future anthologies of 20th-century prose, but he has the secret of narration well in hand, as well as a gift for filling in his scenes with absorbing details. Surgical minutiae, infighting with partisan bureaucrats, eccentric British fellow officers, the refurbishing of an ancient generator—all these [in "Season in Purgatory"] blend into a plausible world. Keneally may have painted in too much gore and violence for some readers, but this naturalism is more than a primitive appeal to our bloodlust. Blood is the proper medium for surgeons in battle. If it runs freely here, so does the tale. (p. 30)

Raymond A. Sokolov, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 27, 1977.