Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

An Australian by birth, Keneally, whose career began at home and who has continued to live in and to write extensively about Australia, has on several occasions written novels which explore non-Australian themes. Among these are some which are directly or indirectly based upon historical events. Keneally often employs the historical novel, a genre which has a rather dubious reputation, as a vehicle for exploring serious themes with considerable aesthetic care. He has written a novel about Joan of Arc (Blood Red, Sister Rose, 1974) and another about the American Civil War (Confederates, 1980), and he has won the important Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark (1982; retitled Schindler’s List in the United States), a carefully researched novel about the perverse exploits of a German national who saved the lives of Jewish workers during World War II.

Keneally’s use of history, if in a fictional setting, is usually as accurate as he can make it, given the exigencies of the fictional form, and Gossip from the Forest can bear close investigation in its use of the facts and its portrayal of the actual participants in the Compiegne meetings. Only Maiberling is entirely fictional. Count Alfred von Oberndorff was, in fact, the fourth principal in the treaty affair, and he appeared in the British edition of the book, but there was an objection raised by the surviving Oberndorff family to the portrayal of the man, for which Keneally apologized in a letter in The Times Literary Supplement. He did, however, claim that the representations of Erzberger, Foch, Weygand, and others were accurate and that the flaws in the Oberndorff portrayal were caused by a lack of accessible research material.