Thomas Keneally

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Thomas (Michael) Keneally 1935–

Australian novelist.

Keneally is one of his country's most prolific contemporary writers. He is of Irish-Catholic descent and spent several years studying for the priesthood. Unable to accept traditional Catholic doctrine, Keneally left the seminary, but his writing is pervaded with his continuing concern with human conscience and moral principles. Early novels such as The Place at Whitton (1964), a gothic horror story set in a seminary, and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968), which features a liberal Catholic priest, directly reflect his religious experiences.

Many of his later novels, however, center on historical incidents. Peter Ackroyd has commented that, "In Keneally's hands the historical novel is redeemed as the raw materials of the past are turned into a kind of fable." Most critics agree that Keneally offers a fresh perspective to historical events by focusing on the people involved and their struggle with moral choices. Critics praise his narrative voice, his careful characterization, and his sense of place.

Bring Larks and Heroes (1968), described as the historical novel that "made his name," depicts social interaction within the early convict society. Another important novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), offers insight into Australia's race relations by reforming the story of a half-breed turned outlaw. The Joan of Arc legend and the horrors of fifteenth-century warfare are the subjects of Keneally's Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974). Other novels dealing with war include Gossip from the Forest (1976) (the Armistice of 1918), Season in Purgatory (1977) (the partisans of Yugoslavia during World War II), Confederates (1979) (the American Civil War), and his recent Schindler's Ark (the survival of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust due to the efforts of a German industrialist). Schindler's Ark, which won the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize in 1982, exemplifies Keneally's skill at personalizing history.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 10, 14, 19 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Peter Kemp

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[Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark (published in the United States as Schindler's List)] deals with Europe during the Second World War….

Schindler's Ark is largely documentary: the account of a Sudeten German industrialist who saved at least 1,300 Jews from the extermination camps. Based on interviews with those who knew him, it aims 'to use the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story'. What makes this approach peculiarly appropriate is that Schindler's life frequently resembles something from fiction. Running an armaments factory that produced nothing, playing cards with a demented Nazi for a Jewish girl's life, he seems a blend of Good Soldier Svejk and Scarlet Pimpernel.

A large, easy man, convivial, womanising, Schindler moved into Cracow in 1939, looking—in the wake of the Nazi oc-cupation—for commercial opportunities. What he encountered was a different kind of opportunity: that of snatching lives from liquidation. To his eternal credit, he responded with energetic enterprise. Schindler's bon viveur good nature had ensured him a wide network of friends, drinking cronies, mistresses. When he saw what was happening to the Jews, this same good nature impelled him to turn the network into a (usually unrealising) rescue organisation. Bribes and bluff, cognac and con-man effrontery won him permission to run his own camp for the Jewish workers in his factory. Here, with heroic chicanery, he defended them against the Nazis….

Examining in detail Schindler's extraordinary oasis, Keneally surrounds it with a panorama of enormities. The Nazi shambles is meticulously reconstructed; each stage in the persecution of the Polish Jews is sickeningly charted, from the first sporadic houndings to the chemical abattoirs and fuming crematoria of Auschwitz. The book looks at both the feverishly sub-human and the freezingly dehumanised: on the one hand, SS psychopaths barking out brutalities as their wolfhounds rip...

(This entire section contains 452 words.)

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at prisoners; on the other, a macabre bureaucracy of Holocaust-efficiency experts, debating whether each 'death case' need be filed under eight different departments, or circulating memos about the formalities to be observed when flogging female inmates.

The latter combination of pathology and protocol is typical of the stark contrasts that Keneally keeps finding in his material…. The book's main contrast, though—making it at once harrowing and heartening—is between the heaped-up horrors of the camps and the very individual decency of Schindler with his wily pluck, life-saving bonhomie, altruistic black-marketeering….

Keneally's portrait of Schindler is inspiriting and carefully unidealised. It scrupulously avoids all temptation to mawkish hagiography. Likewise, in the retailing of SS degradations, he keeps clear of the pitfalls of sensationalism, handling the almost unbearable with the tough delicacy it demands.

Peter Kemp, "Prize Fighters" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1982; reprinted by permission of Peter Kemp), in The Listener, Vol. 108, No. 2782, October 14, 1982, p. 31.∗

Lorna Sage

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Documentary is a way of interrogating the world of fact, and of reintroducing us to the value of the craft that creates characters and narrative.

Thomas Keneally in Schindler's Ark, which salvages the stories of 1300 survivors of the Holocaust, and attempts to characterise their improbable preserver Oscar Schindler, is deliberately entering a territory that, notoriously, still beggars imagination. The story he reconstructs is one that goes against the grain of the general horror, and reinstates a degree of freedom and choice in a context where such things were, seemingly, impossible…. In characterising Schindler, and in making his particular choices plausible (as opposed to merely factual: the historical record does that), Keneally is reopening the question of how adequately we have imagined what happened.

What the book addresses is the imagination's apparent addiction to the worst: 'novelists spend most of their time writing about the fairly predictable triumph of malice over good,' Keneally suggests in a preface. The Schindler material drew him because it was in this sense deeply 'embarrassing,' an unpredictable triumph of good. As Keneally presents him in the novel Schindler becomes, by almost imperceptible stages, a three-dimensional 'good' man, at once alive and in love with life, without ever seeming 'fated' or heroic or unnatural.

He is a businessman …, an opportunist. The greed for life which leads him to join the Abwehr intelligence service to avoid the army, and to follow the army into Poland to establish his profitable enamel business supplying army kitchens, leads him too into race-blindness, 'Jew-loving.'…

It's by juxtaposing suggestions like these from the record that the book builds a character compounded of hail-fellow-wellmet generosity, possessiveness, ingenuity and stubbornness. Schindler's obsessively convivial style means he can neither retreat into domesticity to avoid what is happening, nor identify with large-scale dreams of resistance. Instead he saves 'his' Jews, the slave-workers he accumulates in his factory and retrieves from death-camps, and does it by the means he knows—corruption and wheeler-dealing—and ploughs back his enormous profits into what increasingly becomes for him a factory for lives….

[The book] addresses itself as much to the reader's present as to the past, in asking how far we can make sense of the intricate process by which its unheroic hero made his own sub-plot in history. Thus even the inevitable loose ends serve their purpose. Our times drive us to the boundaries of fiction …, and the ambiguities of documentary symbolize our problems very exactly.

Lorna Sage, "A Factory for Lives," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), October 17, 1982, p. 33.

Paul Zweig

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History would not normally be concerned with such a man as Oskar Schindler, a mere minor player in the sybaritic night life of a small Polish city during an unspeakable war. But history is not an exact science, and Oskar Schindler is remembered, as few men have ever been, in the testimony of 1,300 Jewish workers who escaped Poland's cities of death because Schindler, against every probability, became a possessed man, ready to risk everything in a daring, almost flaunted mission of rescue.

The versatile Australian novelist, Thomas Keneally, tells the true story of Schindler's rescue effort in this remarkable book ["Schindler's List"] which has the immediacy and the almost unbearable detail of a thousand eyewitnesses who forgot nothing. The story is not only Schindler's. It is the story of Cracow's dying ghetto and the forced labor camp outside of town, at Plaszow. It is the story of Amon Goeth, Plaszow's commandant and Schindler's dark twin. (pp. 1, 38)

In his 1980 novel, "Confederates," Mr. Keneally recreated the American South during the Civil War in all its concreteness and lilt of language, surely a stunning feat for an Australian Irishman. Now he has accomplished a similar feat even more tellingly. "Schindler's List" reads like a novel: Its voices are thick with living tissue; its scenes are so vivid they appear to result from a kind of ventriloquism. Perhaps after 37 years, it has become possible to write of such things without the cry of anguish, the testimony of rage. Perhaps by choosing to write about Amon Goeth's reign of deadly caprice—a measurable horror beside the obliterating fact of Auschwitz—Mr. Keneally has chosen a subject that art can contain. Today the Schindlerjuden are scattered from Israel to Los Angeles, and Mr. Keneally has gathered their testimony…. Because of their memories, he has grasped not simply the "holocaust"—that end-of-world fire—but the fragile daily acts of survival and death which human beings manage, even in the mouth of hell. He has given Oskar Schindler the stunning reality of a man who was neither "good" nor "virtuous" but a genius of life, a savior.

In the old epics a character is occasionally inhabited by a god, and then he acts beyond himself, living on the edge of wonder. When the god leaves him he becomes ordinary once again. (pp. 38-9)

For three years during the war Oskar Schindler was inhabited by a profound moral passion, and then the god left him. When the war ended he drifted from one failed business to another. Eventually he arranged to live part of the year in Israel, supported by his Jewish friends, and part of the year as a sort of internal émigré in Frankfurt, where he was often hissed in the streets as a traitor to his race. After 29 unexceptional years he died in 1974.

There is a mystery here, and Mr. Keneally is too good a writer to try to explain it. He leaves us with the remarkable story of a man who saved lives when every sinew of civilization was devoted to destroying them. (p. 39)

Paul Zweig, "A Good Man in a Bad Time," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 24, 1982, pp. 1, 38-9.

D. J. Enright

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It is easy, Thomas Keneally remarks prefatorily, to chronicle the victory that evil generally scores over good, but "it is a risky enterprise to have to write of virtue". And Schindler's Ark is "'the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms". As if to palliate this artistic offence, Keneally hastens to assure us that "virtue" is not quite the right word for Schindler. True, he was generous to all his women and they all remained fond of him—but all in this context is scarcely a pointer to virtue. Keneally really needn't have worried. We are happy to hear of a triumph of good over evil once in a while, and in particular a pragmatic and unsubtle victory as distinct from the type called "moral". Given the circumstances, we would not want to hear about it if it were totally fictitious, of course, for that would only be the cruel, mocking triumph of a money-making lie. But we are assured that it is true. And Keneally's defensive or ironically deprecatory prolegomena are part of that assurance. A saintly Schindler we might find hard to take; and a saintly Schindler could never have deceived the Army, the SS, the ministries, into believing that—apart from an odd partiality for Jews, but then, some Jews were women, and they knew about old Oskar—he was one of them….

Schindler's Ark is not a great literary novel in the class of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, not the kind of book that Grass or Böll might have created out of similar material. It is nearer to the documentary-style adventure stories of Hans Hellmut Kirst (Officer Factory, The Night of the Generals), though less of an "entertainment", far more powerful and more significant in its theme. For better or for worse, symbolic overtones are rarely to be detected, and individual characters have little depth or definition. Schindler himself, while we follow his antics with greater fear and trembling than the Scarlet Pimpernel could ever command, remains an uncertain figure. Was he moved by compassion, by disgust with the Nazi regime? By (to begin with, at least) a capitalist's natural urge to do business freely? Was he a blend of gambler, sentimentalist and anarchist? Or motivated by a stubborn determination to keep his word to "his" Jews and preserve his honour as a good sport, a determination strengthened by three arrests and interrogations? Was it a zest for excitement, compensating for the flatness of life with an ascetic (though morally admirable) wife?…

Something of all these, perhaps. Certainly he derived huge satisfaction from getting the better of pompous jacks in disreputable office. It occurred to me early in the proceedings that there was something of Hašek's Švejk in Schindler—when Keneally was describing the air of innocence that enveloped his sexual peccadilloes…. This absence of certainty is as it should be. Only if Keneally had been writing total fiction could he have given us a total and authoritative interpretation of Schindler's behaviour….

[The account] seems too neat to be true. But since no self-respecting writer of fiction would indulge in so arrant an improbability, it can only be true. Schindler's Ark deserves to have won the Booker Prize—as long as it isn't really a novel.

D. J. Enright, Fouling Up the System," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4152, October 29, 1982, p. 1189.

Marion Glastonbury

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To conceive of the unendurable present as part of a story with a significant plot and uncertain outcome presupposed an outside world of shared meanings and moral continuity. It assumed human recognition; a day of reckoning. Because the Holocaust provides an objective correlative of Hell, outstripping the craziest nightmares and the cruellest dreams, the imagination is constantly challenged, and soon exhausted, by the effort of grasping it. As we know from government archives, Whitehall officials refused to credit what were described as 'the exaggerations … of these wailing Jews'. In the face of strained credulity and closed minds, new words are always needed. But any novelist who attempts to do justice to these facts comes up against the limitations of his own creative vision and energy, while feeling confined by the limitations of literature itself….

Schindler's Ark is based on the wartime recollections of 50 Jews, now living in Israel, America, Australia and Europe thanks to their timely transfer as slave labour to a factory where 'the soup was thick enough to sustain life'.

The joint testimony of these survivors has been tirelessly researched, skilfully assembled, scrupulously checked. The narrative sequence of flashbacks, clues and forecasts mingles suspense and shock with an immediacy unattainable through the settled hindsight of history. In delivering successive moments of experience, the novelist selectively defers the realisation of where they lead….

The strength and purpose of the book lies in what the victims have to tell us….

All the memories of Keneally's informants converge in the person of Oskar Schindler, and it is here that misgivings arise. The author portrays the hardware manufacturer not only as the centre of the action but as the natural heir to an apocalyptic destiny: a life-enhancing figure.

Keneally specifically denies any intention of canonising Schindler and claims to be on his guard against retrospective myths. But, by identifying Schindler with redemptive virtue, casting him in the balance against monstrous evil, citing the Talmud's 'Righteous of the Nations', Keneally turns chronicle into panegyric and elevates the Direktor to a dignity unsustained by evidence. Indeed, he repeats only grudgingly the allegations of former shopkeepers that the usurper beat them up….

The real Schindler owed his reputation for mercy and munificence to the company he kept. In the society of mass-murderers, the racketeer passes for a man of principle, distinguished only by the enormity of their crimes. These continue to defy analysis. 'Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?' Understandably at a loss, Keneally reverses the question and proposes, in effect, his own enigma: 'What lies behind this daring conscience, this exceptional compassion, this marvellous lack of race-hatred and blood-lust?' From here it is a short step to the mystic notion of divine grace working through the usual Catholic channels: a childlike hedonist, wayward prodigal, sensual adventurer and whisky-priest-equivalent is seized with a desire for souls 'in the absolute passion that characterised the exposed and flaming heart of the Jesus that hung on Emilie's wall'. Sceptics may regret this apotheosis as another defeat for rational enquiry.

Marion Glastonbury, "Too Grateful," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 104, No. 2694, November 5, 1982, p. 25.

A. N. Wilson

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There can be no doubt that the story of Oskar Schindler is one of the more remarkable to emerge from the Second World War…. He was a swindler, a drunkard, and a womaniser. And yet, had he not been these things, he would not have been able to rescue hundreds of Jews from the concentration camps.

Keneally is quite understandably fascinated by this story. And he writes a very vivid book about it. But a narrative is all it is, laced with anecdote…. The story is so important to him that he has shrunk from the task of turning it into a novel.

Schindler is conceived as a very competent journalist would have conceived him, not as a novelist. There is nothing wrong with this. Schindler's Ark is not a novel. It is a highly competent, workaday piece of reportage. The feeling is therefore irresistible … that it represents a great lost opportunity. Presented with the bare outline of Schindler's career and character, the reader finds it too odd to be fully comprehensible. He remains a two-dimensional character because Keneally describes him so realistically. Had he been a character in a Graham Greene fiction, Schindler might have seemed more real. And we might have come closer to understanding the fundamentally theological paradox of his nature: that all his petty vices were serviceable for the cause of good; that in the ghastly world Schindler inhabited with such a buccaneer mixture of heroism and the gambling instinct, good could grow out of evil. (p. 71)

A. N. Wilson, "Faith & Uncertainty," in Encounter (© 1983 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LX, No. 2, February, 1983, pp. 65-71.∗


Thomas Keneally World Literature Analysis


Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 10)