Thomas Keneally Keneally, Thomas (Michael) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Paul Zweig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

D. J. Enright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

Marion Glastonbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

A. N. Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 268 words.)