Thomas Keneally Essay - Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 5)

Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 5)

Keneally, Thomas 1935–

Keneally, an Australian Catholic novelist of Irish ancestry, has written eight novels. His most recent novel, Blood Red, Sister Rose, will undoubtedly establish his international reputation.

A Dutiful Daughter is a disquieting novel and in many instances a moving one—qualities which testify, above all, to Thomas Keneally's skill in using to his advantage a subject which in less capable hands might have looked merely grotesque, or even ridiculous. Not that the grotesque is in short supply—for two of the four principal characters have been afflicted by a horrific physical metamorphosis which has left them half animal, half human.

Barbara and Damian Glover have kept secret their parents' sudden, inexplicable change into what might best be described as bovine centaurs. Damian, now at university and beginning to find a life outside the terrible emotional claustrophobia in which his sister remains trapped, is becoming increasingly divided between a concern for his parents' plight and a need to break away from them, and from an obsessive relationship with his sister. Barbara, meanwhile, tends to her parents much as she might tend ailing cattle, although her commitment to them is more than filial….

The parents are, as it were, kept from us in the opening stages of the book, though we know something of their suffering, and this cleverly organized suspense leaves us almost fearing their appearance. They remain for some time offstage: heard but not seen; and we are given shocking (because almost specific) details by way of frightening props—the medication Barbara is preparing for her mother, for example, has instructions which read: "Dispose of infected bedding … aborted foetuses … and afterbirth by deep burial in quicklime." But more than anything, it is the sense of the quotidian, of the impossible accepted as fact that lend the book its own bizarre credibility. The story seen as fable or metaphor—though that is obviously part of Mr. Keneally's design—seems not to overwhelm the characters, nor leave us hunting symbolic meanings in every turn of events. The second-person narrative gives the impression that Damian is being addressed by the narrator—or more probably addressing himself—and the accusatory (or self-accusatory) tone mellows, at times, into a sort of bemused recollection which fits precisely the painful, hopeless approximations to normality of the whole family. The success of the book lies in that tone—in the way tragedy, black comedy and emotional chaos are made to reside in acts of simple concern.

"Horses for Courses," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1971; reproduced by permission), April 23, 1971, p. 465.

One of the soundest laws of modern literature goes like this: novelists with the most damned consciences tend to write the most blessed prose. On the lengthy roster headed, of course, by James Joyce, Thomas Keneally supplies another case in point.

Like Joyce, Keneally once studied with a view to the priesthood. Joyce could not decide whether to define hell as Dublin or the nuclear family. Keneally agrees with Joyce about the family. His alternate hell seems to be his native Australia, and like Joyce again, he takes his hell both ways.

In A Dutiful Daughter, Keneally creates a presumably commonplace family—the Glovers—plunks them down on an isolated outback farm, and pronounces the scene his ninth circle…. Observing that "absolutely millions of people" are mad with "family pride," he concludes that "the only way for them to get humility is through learning they're—you know—beasts." Accordingly, like a Greek mythologist with the heart of a gloomy seminary student, Keneally makes original sin literal by turning Father and Mother Glover into bull and cow from the waist down.

This violent act of surrealism accomplished, Keneally continues as if nothing had happened. He has the special power of a poker-face comedian telling a gallows joke. Father and Mother Glover, for instance, spend their perfectly average evenings kneeling on all fours before the telly or pawing over a Reader's Digest.

Beside this terrible banality, Keneally's suggestion that family is another name for incest seems positively matter-of-fact. Further Keneally theories: an exceptional child is doomed to play Joan of Arc—martyr—to parents, who compulsively burn as witch that truthful spirit in the child that sees the beast in its elders and, worse, announces it. "Parents, for all their preaching and threats, turn out to be the children," the remarkable Barbara observes. This freedom to speculate, Keneally may be saying, is the only freedom.

How does a martyr escape from family, from original sin, even from Australia? Like Joyce & Co., Keneally is better at seeing the trap than seeing a way out. "We're cemented, you, me, them," Barbara cries. In the end, Keneally looses a Jehovah-like flood on the outback and the Glovers, washing himself clean of his creation. But in the meantime, writing like an angel, he has forcefully raised an ancient question: What is the demon in man that so often makes him a monster to those condemned to love him—including himself? (pp. 95-6)

Melvin Maddocks, "Family Circle," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 7, 1971, pp. 95-6.

Strictly speaking, heresy is dead, but its contentious spirit lingers in Thomas Keneally's work. A Dutiful Daughter is the boldest expression yet of his war against moribund doctrine and its crippling of living religious faith. He has stopped writing within the system, so to speak, as he did in his previous novel, Three Cheers for the Paraclete—where his spokesman was a sardonic young priest—to take an imaginative leap well over the parish wall. Where earlier Keneally's quarrel with the Church was revealed in civilized, scholarly rumination, now he exalts it to an almost apocalyptic vision, a modern Book of Revelation. His indictment of the Church's sclerosis takes on a grander sweep, a sharper urgency, through the symbolic acts and images available to him in the parable mode.

The narrative is modeled loosely on the Christian legend of redemption, the course of the savior who assumes the suffering and fate of man, including, in the author's view, his carnality. If we are to be restored to human wholeness, our animality must be accepted without a sense of sin and admitted to the province of divine grace. More radical still, he bestows the attributes of the Christ figure on a woman. "A woman … is a state of crucifixion."…

[Keneally tells us] that, in the face of our evolving knowledge (as, for example, Freudian sexual concepts), the old rules are less than human, with their legacy of guilt, fear, shame, and a bigoted spiritual pride….

To call this book a "Catholic novel" is limiting. For one thing, such a description could scare off whole ranks of readers, which its intricate artistry deserves. Keneally has written a sophisticated, robustly high-spirited version of the modern crisis of faith. The fierce, original geography reminds us that these dilemmas have too long been confined to the gloomy tunnels of city streets. Like another Catholic existentialist, the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, Keneally's theme is not naïve optimism but hope as an affirmation of a state that is yet to be. Even to nonbelievers, this stimulates irresistible directions for speculation. (p. 52)

Muriel Haynes, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 24, 1971.

In the kitchen of a small farm in an Australian approximation of Yoknapatawpha County, astigmatic, intense Barbara Glover prepares a syringe of antibiotic. Students of analogy will note the echo of "barbarous" in her first name and, perhaps, excavate from the family name as muffled "lover." Thomas Keneally is constructing a complex fable, and the reader must keep his wits about him in case he muffs a level of meaning. And Barbara does throb with thwarted sexual energy. But, then, Mr. Keneally might have named her at perfect random; one of the characteristics of his sustained exercise in the baroque is a diabolical ingenuity, and it is sometimes difficult to ascertain, amongst the flux of startling words and events, what is significant and what is not….

This spirited expressionist performance has stylistic affinities with American high Gothic (e.g., Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles) and thematic ones with James Purdy's parent-child fable, "Malcolm," though Mr. Keneally's tale lacks the stark outlines that characterize the fable as a mode. He offers an embarrassment of symbolic riches, and his prevailing Firbankian archness sometimes effects a tinkling queasiness of tone. One doesn't know whether one is cued in for a belly laugh, a nervous giggle or a shudder of horror.

The book's immense undertow of tormented sexuality is often expressed in a rhetoric that puts a strain on the predominant narcissistically decorative prose. The style is in subtle conflict with the Buñuelian woes of puritanical Catholicism, pubertal disorientation, unnaturally prolonged virginity, exacerbated frustration and sexual guilt, that are the monsters typified by the half-beasts Barbara hides in the byre with their television, knitting and tobacco.

But the novel sticks in the mind … because [of] the remarkable surreal vision of the father, the bull-man,… running through the little town, "a fable, a figure of speech, an accident, groping beneath genuinely municipal lamp posts." The metamorphosis itself is self-sufficient. It is authentically marvelous; one may provide the symbolic underpinning as one pleases from the wealth of material provided. (p. 53)

Angela Carter, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by pemission), September 12, 1971.

For solid performance every time out, [one of] the best of [the] Catholic novelists is also the youngest, Thomas Keneally. He has built up his vision of a world "betweengods," with patience and growing economy, through six novels: "The Place at Whitton," "The Fear," "Bring Larks and Heroes," "Three Cheers for the Paraclete," "The Survivor," and "A Dutiful Daughter." The last is best; it puts the Cheiron myth to better use than Updike had, takes Joan of Arc's witchcraft more seriously than either Shakespeare or Shaw did, and details nightmare in daylight realistic style without any reliance on Kafka. ["A Dutiful Daughter"] is an extraordinary book in every way. (p. 20)

Garry Wills, "Catholic Faith and Fiction," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 16, 1972, pp. 1-2, 14-20.

Perhaps a mild disappointment … awaits admirers of Thomas Keneally, Australian author of the much-praised Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. With Blood Red, Sister Rose he has chosen to explore the Joan of Arc legend, producing a novel that, while always accomplished, seems in the end several degress less than memorable. To put it crudely, the problems with using a very familiar story as a basis for a novel is that, knowing to one's bones how it's all going to end, one expects so much from the getting there: some extraordinary insight, perhaps, or a marvellously exciting retelling of the familiar tale … anyway something pretty special. Mr Keneally has had the nice idea of making his warring knights converse in the idiom of Mafia mobsters, and he is sharp on the class-distinctions operating in 15th-century warfare (for the knights a courtly game, for the peasantry a brutal slaughter). But still, finally, that something special isn't quite there. (p. 513)

Peter Prince, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 11, 1974.

[The] novels of the Australian writer Thomas Keneally seem to grow rougher in style and more eccentric in substance as he gains in experience. The awkwardness of his earlist work was the kind you expect from any first novelist. Through those that followed—Bring Larks and Heroes, Three Cheers for the Paraclete, and The Survivor (good books, all)—there was an orderly development of narrative skill, and his work gradually assumed a certain professional polish. With A Dutiful Daughter, Keneally's work took a strange and very original turn …, the book featured animal metamorphoses and sudden irrationality, and was surely one of the oddest books in a decade of odd books. And while there was nothing so very bizarre in the story of Keneally's superb next, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the author seemed to do all he could to subvert the strong narrative of his novel—and to do so quite consciously. It seems he doesn't wish a narrative to come between himself and his reader: Thomas Keneally has an absolute horror of being understood too quickly….

Although Keneally takes Joan [of Arc] seriously enough—she is [in Blood Red, Sister Rose] neither the witch that Margaret Murray made her out to be, nor quite the firebrand that Bernard Shaw portrayed—this does not mean that he takes her solemnly. His intent, in fact, seems to be to reduce her and her legend to recognizably human dimensions. Jehanne, as he refers to her (in the interest, I take it, of historical accuracy), is very much the peasant girl as the account begins—though never quite what you would call a simple peasant girl. Cow-herding, milking, working in the fields—none of this is much to her liking: she has yearnings for a grander life. When she is only 13 and her "voices" begin, she is delighted for she knows they will set her apart and suspects they will grant her entry into the great world to which she has always aspired….

She is somewhat intimidated, if not finally appalled, by her prolonged exposure to warfare. As practiced in the 15th century, it is a game—but a deadly one whose carnage gives Blood Red, Sister Rose its most real moments.

There is some irony in this, for Thomas Keneally seemed determined to write a sort of antihistorical novel, one that would expose the pettiness of war's political basis—at least that of the Hundred Years War. He would expose the royalty and the nobility as no more than silly. He would present war in its bookkeeping details. In this way, the book dithers along for the first 200 pages, through a lot of chatty nonsense…. It comes almost as a surprise then, that two-thirds of the way through the novel, Keneally's narrative suddenly roars into life as he describes the separate battles fought to lift the siege of Orleans. It is as though Keneally could suppress his story-telling instincts no longer. His high intentions are brought low by his successful story-telling.

What were those high intentions? To expose war as the most vain of human vanities because the most destructive. Just as strong, though less explicit, seems to be his wish to attack the sainthood of Joan, the religious commissar of all French forces. Keneally, an ex-seminarian, is no doubt disturbed—just as you or I or any thinking person should be—that history (sacred history, at that) accepts it that the Divinity should actually have mucked about in French politics through the agency of some deluded adolescent. The longer you think about it the more absurd it becomes. Which accounts, I suppose, for the willful absurdities of Blood Red, Sister Rose.

Bruce Cook, "Suspicions of Sainthood," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 26, 1975, p. 3.

Thomas Keneally's new novel [Blood Red, Sister Rose] is a version of the Joan of Arc story, and interesting enough for the amount of information—whether fact or lore—that has gone into it, and for the imaginative reconstruction of the horrors of 15th-century warfare. The characterisation of Joan—Jehanne—is unusual. A sexually abnormal peasant girl, her life in Blood Red, Sister Rose is as blood orientated as even so bloody an age could provide for….

That the book has pretensions to being more than an 'historical novel' is evident from the sanguinariness and the preoccupation with political management: we are meant to learn something about the price of power and its unchanging nature. But it does not get beyond being an excellent historical novel—not quite in the Mary Renault class, perhaps, but a match for Helen Waddell or T. H. White. What imprisons the book is the Keneally trade mark—the use of modern, and transatlantic modern, colloquialism for dialogue. But you cannot help enjoying it, for all that. For one thing, the narration is not a first person monologue—believe me, a rare pleasure these days. (p. 190)

Neil Hepburn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), February 6, 1975.

We all know the story, the big scenes: the Voices, the Dauphin's court, Orleans, Rheims, Rouen, the pyre…. It would seem foolhardy to attempt to revive these worn tales again. Yet Australian novelist Thomas Keneally has done it and carried it off with aplomb. [In "Blood Red, Sister Rose,"] Saint Joan lives again, robustly, in a way we have not known her before….

Portrayed here is the brilliant, doomed, gala day of the mock king, who must pay the price when the sun goes down. The institution of mock kings and temporary kings is familiar in many cultures and has been well documented by Frazer in "The Golden Bough." "Blood Red, Sister Rose" recasts the Saint Joan legend within the framework of this broader tradition. The result is startling and, at the same time, amazingly plausible….

Keneally's Jehanne, alone, is supple and fully dimensional. She is, at times, sharply nostalgic for the world of ordinary loves and lives she must leave behind….

The story is a tragedy, yet "Blood Red, Sister Rose" is a romp. Queen Yolande, giving the go-ahead for presentation of the girl at court, is reported to have said: "'Although such people always abound in times of emergency it could be useful to have a prophetess on the staff…'." Accordingly, a subcommittee is set up for validation of the girl's virginity. When Jehanne fends off a common soldier who is making a pass at her, she reminds him of her Voices and says: "God help any man who has me." He is properly unimpressed and replies "You only want to sleep with knights."

Irreverent? Not in the final analysis. For none of this diminishes Joan. It ennobles her sacrifice by making it real. (p. 7)

A. G. Mojtabai, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 9, 1975.

The original legend of Joan of Arc was all ethereal voices and uprolled eyes. George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan suffered from an opposite flaw: a 15th century French farm girl with 19th century English socialist leanings, she seemed all pragmatism and muddy boots.

Between this Joan-too-spiritual and that Joan-too-earthy, a third Joan has been waiting to be born. In his eighth novel, Australian Thomas Keneally, who once studied for the priesthood, slowly and thoughtfully reconstructs a whole Joan, less spectacular than the first two but decidedly more convincing and perhaps, at last, more moving….

At her simplest level, the Keneally Joan can be very simple indeed—obstinate but rather dull with the protuberant brown eyes of a cow: "Looking at her, you nearly went to sleep." She is an object of manipulation. The knights wave her like a banner to win battles. The "fat clergy" cash in those victories as new ecclesiastical revenue. The Dauphin, of course, uses her to gain his crown. Keneally graphically savors the irony of this visionary innocent ("our little he-nun") ending up in the midst of disemboweled and headless corpses, moving from battlefield to bloody battlefield in the company of assassins, whores and lice.

But this clownish dupe, Keneally also knows, finally out-manipulated all her manipulators. To Keneally she is the incarnation of an idea whose time had come—the peasant striding into the council of kings and lords of the church. As rude as common fare, she serves notice on the feudal system that knighthood is no longer in flower. As she lifts the siege at Orléans and pushes her balky Dauphin with the "fat, unhappy lips" toward his coronation at Rheims, she is hurrying onstage not a monarchy but the modern nation-state. The descendants of this Joan are the bourgeoisie.

But the Joan that ultimately fascinates Keneally is Saint Joan. To him, her voices are as real as she is. Why not? Keneally's world of 1420 is full of voices—from all sorts of prophets, astrologers, witches. Every oak grove is "enchanted timber." The Golden Bough seems to coexist with the Gospels on these pages, finding common ground in the ritual of sacrifice. From the first, Keneally's virgin, who never even menstruated, is predestined to shed blood as scapegoat for her unworthy King. "All she wanted to do." he sums up, "was achieve her own victimhood."

Were the voices then holy or demonic? It depends on who is listening, Keneally seems to say. But if he has no new answer, he has a new question. His Joan—part battle flag, part rebel and part saint—adds up to a heroic surrogate for the absurd and contradictory in Everyman, "the feel of the frayed edges of all the world's foolishness coalescing in her guts." Is her mystery, he asks, harder to explain than the mystery of any reader's life?

Melvin Maddocks, "Joans of Arc," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 10, 1975, p. 76.

Australian novelist Thomas Keneally's revisionist portrait of Joan of Arc [Blood Red, Sister Rose] retells the conventional story from an ironic viewpoint that dares surprising omissions and emphasizes the profane dimensions of a doomed adventure into spirituality. The novel attends dramatically to "Jehanne's" sieges of Orleans and Rheims, but ends with the coronation of the ridiculous Dauphin, thus made Charles VII of France. Only in an epilogue is there mention of "the witch's" capture, inquisition, and martyrdom.

Keneally concentrates on the formation of his heroine's bewildered sensibility….

The novel's organization reflects an unsuccessful search for a parallel structure that will convey the reduction of otherworldly aspirations to a muddle of banality….

How purity burns itself up in the lower air of mundane intrigues: that is the point. But the point should never have been allowed to dominate, much less replace, a story whose pristine internal logic demands that it be told to its conclusion, or not at all. (p. 12)

Bruce Allen, in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the March 31, 1975 issue by special permission), March 31, 1975.