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Thomas Keneally 1935–
(Full name Thomas Michael Keneally) Australian novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of Keneally's career through 1996. For additional information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 8, 10, 14, 19, 27, and 43.
Since the publication of The Place at Whitton in 1965, Keneally has published over thirty novels, plays, and non-fiction books. His work is noted for being as diverse as it is prolific. The settings of his fiction range from Australia and Europe to America and cover such topics as the settlement of Australia, the life of Joan of Arc, the First and Second World Wars, and issues of contemporary life. Keneally's writings often focus on the role of faith and religion in society, and human interactions in time of war.
Keneally was born October 7, 1935, in Sydney, Australia. His parents, Edmund Thomas and Elsie Margaret (Coyle) Keneally, were of Irish Catholic descent; Keneally entered the seminary, but he left two weeks short of taking orders. Two of his early novels—The Place at Whitton and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1969)—are set in seminaries and reflect Keneally's conflict with church dogma. In 1965 he married Judith Martin, and they had two children, Margaret Ann and Jane Rebecca. Keneally taught high school, then college in Australia, then at the University of California at Irvine and New York University. He served on the board of several literary and cultural organizations, and became involved in the movement for Australian independence. He was an advisor to the Australian Constitutional Committee in 1985–88, and Chairman (1991–93), then Director (1994—) of the Australian Republic Movement, a political organization with the goal of Australian independence from Great Britain.
Keneally's first novel, The Place at Whitton, is a Gothic horror set in a seminary. The play Halloran's Little Boat (1966) was expanded into the novel Bring Larks and Heroes (1967). Both works deal with moral and ethical conflicts in the early convict settlements of Australia. Ethical conflict is also the subject of Three Cheers for the Paraclete, the story of a young, idealistic priest teaching in a seminary. Keneally ex-plores race relations and the effects of power and poverty in Australia in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), the story of a young aborigine turned outlaw. The backdrop of war is used in several Keneally novels as a setting for the exploration of stress, conflict and hard ethical choices. In Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974), Keneally uses the story of Joan of Arc to examine conflict and ethics. Gossip from the Forest (1975) looks at the difficult compromises involved in negotiating the armistice at the end of World War I. Matthias Erzberger, head of the German delegation, recognizes the compelling need to end the conflict. Pressured by both sides, he accepts the ruinous terms demanded by the French. These conditions, Keneally suggests, lead to the disastrous economic conditions which follow in Germany, and ultimately sow the seeds of World War II. Confederates (1979) uses the United States Civil War as a setting for a more personal conflict between neighbors. In the midst of the war's climactic battle—Antietam—anotherconflict is underway. Ephie Bumpass' husband Usaph and Ephie's lover Decatur Cate are thrown together to fight in the Shenandoah Volunteers. Cate's emasculating injury in the battle is a symbolic punishment for his sin. In Schindler's List (1982), Keneally examines war, man's inhumanity, and the complex moral and ethical issues present in difficult and perilous times. The novel focuses on the story of Oskar Schindler, a less-than-perfect hero who saves the lives of over a thousand Jews through clever manipulation of the Nazi war machine. In Woman of the Inner Sea (1992), Keneally's protagonist, Kate, is an urban housewife who loses, in rapid succession, her husband to another woman and her children to a tragic accident. Lost in her grief, Kate travels to Myambagh, a small town in the Outback. Every year the area is ravaged by terrible floods, and the time in between is spent repairing damage and preparing for the next flood. Kate is comforted by this repetitive cycle, wherein disaster is made routine, and she finds a renewed ability to face life. Keneally's non-fiction support of Australian independence, delineated in Memoirs from a Young Republic (1993), generated a great deal of political as well as literary criticism. Set in turn-of-the-century Australia, A River Town (1995) is the story of a young Irish immigrant, Tim Shea, who is trying to leave behind the restrictive social structure of his native land, but finds many of the same difficulties in his new country. Shea suffers financially for his refusal to support the Boer War and for not signing a blanket oath of support to the goals of Great Britain. Most critics see this novel as an extended metaphor on the subject of Australia's independence.
One measure of the controversy generated by much of Keneally's work is the amount that has been written by critics about other critics of his writing. This is to be expected when a writer takes a controversial political stand, such as Keneally did with Memoirs of a Young Republic, and by acting as Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement. But diverse critical reaction to Keneally's work preceded this book. He has been both criticized and praised for his portrayal of female characters (Blood Red, Sister Rose, A Dutiful Daughter, 1971); the graphic nature of his portrayals of violence in his war novels (Schindler's List, Confederates); and his novelization of historical fact (Schindler's List, Gossip from the Forest). Keneally, defending his approach to the historical novel, says that the best ones are "really about the present and uses the past as a sort of working model … in which the human issues are the same as those we have now, and have always had to face." Keneally's characters are complex, full of internal conflict and torn by mixed emotions that make it difficult for readers to simply summarize his position. As Janet Turner Hospital says, "His protagonists, men and women who have a yen for ordinary unremarkable lives but who are compelled by circumstances and by some hard inconvenient kernel of integrity to be exceptional, are torn by self-doubt, they are hyper-conscious of mixed motives, they are distrustful of certainties." Some critics see these conflicted, marginal heroes, such as Phelim Halloran (Bring Larks and Heroes) and Oskar Schindler as representative of a pessimistic view of history, in which a savage system only allows for small moral victories of exceptional people. Many critics, however, praise Keneally's ability, through these deep, complicated, conflicted characters, to make a strong moral statement. They characterize Keneally's message as hopeful, that average, imperfect individuals can take action against unjust systems and have tangible, positive effect. Keneally is praised for taking a moral position without resorting to standing on a soapbox. This is, as Hospital says, "one of the consistent strengths of the entire (and considerable) body of Keneally's work. Though he has a passionate moral vision, he is not didactic."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 179
The Place at Whitton (novel) 1965
The Fear (novel) 1965
Halloran's Little Boat (drama) 1966
Bring Larks and Heroes (novel) 1967
Childermass (drama) 1968
Three Cheers for the Paraclete (novel) 1969
The Survivor (novel) 1969
A Dutiful Daughter (novel) 1971
An Awful Rose (drama) 1972
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (novel) 1972
Blood Red, Sister Rose: A Novel of the Maid of New Orleans (novel) 1974
Gossip from the Forest (novel) 1975
Moses the Lawgiver (novel) 1975
Season in Purgatory (novel) 1977
A Victim ofthe Aurora (novel) 1977
Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees (juvenile novel) 1978
Passenger (novel) 1979
Confederates (novel) 1979
The Cut-Rate Kingdom (novel) 1980
Bullie's House (novel) 1981
Schindler's List (novel) 1982; also published in Europe as Schindler's Ark
Outback (nonfiction) 1983
A Family Madness (novel) 1985
Australia (nonfiction) 1987
The Playmaker (novel) 1987
To Asmara: A Novel of Africa (novel) 1989; also published in Australia as Towards Asmara
By the Line (novel) 1989
Flying Hero Class (novel) 1991
Now and in Time to Be: Ireland & the Irish (nonfiction) 1992
The Place Where Souls Are Born: A Journey into the Southwest (nonfiction) 1992
Woman of the Inner Sea (novel) 1992
Memoirs from a Young Republic (nonfiction) 1993
Jacko the Great Intruder (novel) 1994
A River Town (novel) 1995
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5708
SOURCE: "Perspectives on Thomas Keneally," in Southerly, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1968, pp. 54-67.
[In the following essay, Cantrell traces the development of Keneally's novels through Bring Larks and Heroes.]
Thomas Keneally was born in Sydney in 1935. He has written two plays and three novels, and though his work has usually been favorably received, it is only with his latest novel, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), that he has suddenly been acclaimed as the author of the "long-sought Great Australian Novel". His first book, The Place at Whitton (1964), Mr. Keneally is reported as having "intended … as a pure thriller but (he) feels now that the book couldn't make up its mind what to be". It reveals the interest in Catholicism that is to persist in the later novels (Mr. Keneally studied for the priesthood to within months of taking orders) and it seems not unfair to suggest that in The Place at Whitton the author is partly reviewing his own attitudes to the priesthood. The perspective is a critical one. The vocation of priesthood is seen as attracting a fair proportion of psychically disordered personalities, and though this is not a profound insight it is well conveyed. Mr. Keneally creates with skill the smoothly functioning administration of seminary life, beneath which is concealed a host of doubts and frustrations.
Singled out for particular attention are the exceptional candidates for the priesthood, such as the visionary Verissimo and the homicidal Pontifex. But because Mr. Keneally seems, in all his works, more interested in men in a social situation than in the men themselves, none of his analyses is characterized by particular insight. The author has a conception of character as being simply anchored in social and environmental determinants, as with the priest Buchanan, who is said to suffer from a fear of thirst because he witnessed in his youth the grotesque antics of an alcoholic uncle. Moreover, the action tends to bog down a little in the "case histories" of the priests which are related one after the other (see particularly chapters 8 and 9).
Yet, as the author seems now to concede, the novel lacks direction. It tends on the one hand towards the "whodunit", and on the other towards the probing of the priestly psyche. Not that these elements are essentially incompatible in the one work; it is simply that the "whodunit" elements lack the conviction that informs the rest of the novel. Mr. Keneally establishes a link between the two tendencies by making the priest-murderer at Whitton the mauvais-prêtre necessary to the completion of the rites of a sophisticated young witch, Agnes. Except for the concluding thirty pages, the depiction of the witch's King's Cross world is contrived and mundane, and the author finally betrays his own lack of assurance by mocking it. Hence the uncertainty of the scene in which Agnes and her witch associates are celebrating, in Grecian costume, the initiation into their circle of the lawyer Townsend:
"Mark him!" a Greek chorus chanted. "Mark him!"
The iron was ready, blazing in his sight. It wavered before him, its two red prongs quavering with heat. Then it sped forward and bit the flesh of his forehead. Like some type of leech, it sucked and mouthed the flesh away.
"Augh!" Townsend yelled.
Mr. Keneally shows a tendency to graft his personal dislikes on to his material. This results in some trite commentary and in stereotyped characterization, observable in the treatment of the lawyer Townsend, of Agnes, and the policeman Ptolemy, who is in charge of investigations of the murder at Whitton. The following account is that of the typical "mug cop":
"Well, I'm not used to violent death," [the priest] Cyril said. It was a quiet statement of neutral tone, but Ptolemy felt it as an assault on his authority.
"If you're not, Father," he said hotly, not caring if Cyril deserved the title or not, and happier if he didn't, "if you're not used to violent death, I am. I mightn't be a clergyman, I mightn't be a believer of any description, but unlike a centipede beneath a rock, I deserve human respect. Whatever you may think, a policeman is not lower than a grub. He's a poor coot whom all despise yet all fly to. Everyone suspects him of bribery and corruption, but he's the bloke who arrests the homicidal maniac who's got everyone scared."
This is prentice-work caricature, as is the following out-of-keeping outburst of Verissimo's "vision woman", Joan of Arc. The visionary Verissimo expresses dissatisfaction with the poor food and accommodation at the seminary. Joan tartly delivers a homily:
"Hah," said Joan. "But the people who eat well and sleep warm aren't happy. They live a shadow life. They imitate happiness. They travel parallel to it and go through all its functions. Yet somewhere, in a moment of passion or deceit, they lost the way or the key or whatever you want to call it."
The author also airs his irritation with the Australian absorption in football, and with the standard of reading matter to be found in a physician's waiting room. Fortunately this tendency to swipe at easy targets is not evident in his later works, although Bring Larks and Heroes suffers a little from unshaped detail and from the same inability to handle women as was evident in the treatment of Agnes.
But if The Place at Whitton reveals Mr. Keneally's weaknesses it also indicates his strengths. Mr. Keneally's mastery lies in the depiction of men in social situations, and in descriptions of physical rather than mental landscapes. The old seminary at Whitton is fondly described:
The main doors of the place at Whitton were … archaic and bulky, held on by large iron hinges as long as a bayonet. A glossy electric button near the right-hand handle gave them a surprised look—like that of a dignitary discovered with his navel showing.
And Mr. Keneally's interest in language (more evident in Bring Larks and Heroes) shows itself in his aptitude for happy images: "the three of them waded across fields crumbling like wet biscuit."
Mr. Keneally displays in all his work a marked talent for the macabre incident. The notable instance in The Place at Whitton is the splendid burial alive with which the novel concludes. Pontifex finds another victim in Agnes. He drives a stake straight through her, and with this stake secures her in a shallow grave which he then calmly proceeds to fill in. Surprisingly enough, the force of this conclusion is not at all diminished by the very clumsy incidents which immediately precede it. It would seem that the author came to realize toward the end of the novel that the negative emphasis laid on the place at Whitton (which is hardly shown as a fruitful, life-giving institution), needed a positive counterpart.
First there is the brief anecdote of Whitton's Ghost, the ghost of a member of the seminary who died shortly before ordination, and whose abortive career speaks for the achievement of several of the inmates under scrutiny. Then on … we are introduced to two characters who will correct this impression. The local schoolteacher, Dawes, is pursuing a "bloody virgin queen" named Colette. The tedium of their days is mapped out at a length much too considerable for their importance to the plot, which lies in their meeting with Agnes and Pontifex on a deserted beach. Dawes has persuaded the timid Colette to accompany him on a day's fishing, while Pontifex, having fled Whitton after another attempt at murder, is using the beach as a hideout at Agnes's suggestion. The two couples meet on the beach, and to Dawes, Pontifex appears as a sort of father-figure. Possibly Dawes also experienced a sudden desire to be alone with Agnes for a while; his instinct urges him to leave Pontifex and Colette together. Pontifex quickly takes an interest in Colette and draws from her the fears she harbors about marriage. Pontifex points out Dawes's loneliness and urges that though marriage is a lottery, "in a world of rotten motives and twisted passions, you have to give everything into someone else's keeping. If you survive the giving, you come to flower. That's the odds." Pontifex's words hit home, for three pages later we are told that
in some way the talk and the companionship of the day had made the world whole for (Collette). For the first time, she was overtaken by a starting emotion of trust, trust for Dawes.
As Colette's morbid fear of all males has been so insisted on, this sudden conversion is hardly convincing. The author's fault lies in failing to show his character in a depth sufficient for the reader to be able to accept such a change. I believe Mr. Keneally repeats this error in the concluding pages of Bring Larks and Heroes.
The point of the Colette-Dawes episode is to adjust a balance, to point out that no man, not even a multiple-murdering candidate for the priesthood, is wholly bad. The point is trite, and tritely made. Nor does Mr. Keneally manage to bring Colette and Dawes alive, to make of them anything more than the "two lukewarm personalities" he has himself dubbed them.
The second novel, The Fear (1965), does not mark such a development on The Place at Whitton as does Bring Larks and Heroes on both the earlier works. The measure of the achievement in Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) may perhaps be taken by a single instance. In this novel and in The Place at Whitton, the author portrays the impulse to barbarity, barely under the surface, that can take a man by surprise. In Whitton, the explanation of this impulse is long and repetitive (see chapters 8 and 22). The rendering of the similar impulse in Bring Larks and Heroes is far more precise and forceful.
In the latter work, Mr. Keneally heightens tension by dramatizing not only this impulse to let blood, but also a conflict of loyalties. Captain Allen is in charge of a disciplinary attack, by conscripted Irish troops, on insurgent Irish transports. The bitterness of the brother-against-brother situation has already been insisted on, particularly in the affair between Corporal Halloran and the Irish felon Quinn. Halloran now avoids attacking his kin by merely pretending to strike the insurgents, but Halloran's mate, Terry Byrne, is paralyzed by the prospect of attacking fellow Irishmen. Captain Allen tries to force the petrified Byrne to take action:
The (battle) was nearly over now, except that a little way uphill and across the narrow valley, low comedy was in progress, as Allen chased Byrne who chased a felon. It was like a play, like a bad play, the way Halloran heard it later and over and over from Byrne. Byrne sprinting, the Irishman falling on his knees constantly saying. "In the name of God!" And like a farce figure was Allen, striking the turf with his sword three times, roaring "Kill him!"
Byrne gaped because he knew he would bayonet this angular young man yelling, "In the name of God!" There seemed no good reason to desist. Byrne saw him fully enough to know that he was brother-man and that the bayonet would viper him, craggy as he was, with a small head and curls close down on his forehead. When he rose and broke away again, Allen tried to get him by these curls and hack him with the sword. But he was away, and for some seconds, Allen and Byrne stood still, as if the matter was solved. Allen realized first that it hadn't been solved at all. He changed his sword to his left hand and struck Byrne across the jaw. The yellow blindness all but put an end to the affair for Byrne and for the Irishman, and even for Allen. Because Byrne made off uphill in quite frenzied style and found the boy trying to hide in under the limbs of a native fig fairly spacious and concealing in the dark. Byrne was thinking, I'm only doing soldier's work, yet he was bitter against himself, thinking also how if you're no good in the first place, you'll be no good in the melting pot, in the furnace, in the womb of wild events. He ducked under the branches and walked to the young fellow. "Jesus, Mary, Joseph," said the young fellow, louder and louder the closer Byrne got. The Holy Family couldn't do the job tonight, Byrne thought. They depended on him, and he had no mercy. The bayonet gestured softly at the boy, who turned his back and took it in the buttocks. He began a whining, too, that cringed on a rising note, back into the mousiest corners of sound. The iron went into his belly, high up because he was rolling; and he was so close to death then that, under the double bark of the fig, his breath sounded more like a felled bird than like true breath. Byrne was enthralled by the barbarous fluidity of his bayonet going in. He actually felt for the man's softer parts with his boot and spiked him a last time.
There is a grim comedy of the grotesque operating here, which adds to the macabreness of the situation where terror becomes a fascination with the act of killing. The sexual overtones of the final few lines deliberately recall that other, persistent Byrne, the Byrne who commits sodomy and makes bawdy jests about Halloran's "secret bride".
This is Keneally at his best, but it is a best that is not always sustained. The profundities which reviewers have detected in Bring Larks and Heroes may be due in part to a confusion within the work itself, although there does seem to be an attempt in the novel to probe issues which have a pertinency beyond it, as it were. Some confusion arises from the author's tendency to introduce ideas that are given too large an airing for their effect in the work as a whole. Mr. Keneally's speculations tend to run away with him at times.
There is for instance the long description of books dealing with the ethics of suicide in The Place at Whitton, or the debates, in Bring Larks and Heroes, on the propriety of a marriage that is consecrated only by the mutual exchange of vows between partners, owing to the absence of a priest. In presenting Halloran's introspections about the ethics of his "secret marriage", Mr. Keneally shapes his material to show that there is a discernible direction in Halloran's thought. Halloran has a concern with truth and propriety, but tends to romanticize issues and always remains a little perplexed. But the emphasis placed in the first thirty pages on the ethics of Halloran's situation is a repetitive rather than an intensifying device. The situation is not used to probe deeper into Halloran's mind.
In a sense, the author cannot probe deeply, for Halloran is shown to be a fairly limited person, whose perceptions are never impressive. His naive idealism is pointed to time and again: he has, for instance, an idea as to what constitutes the "artistic type". When he is rowing upstream with the artist Ewers, Halloran observes
the artist's gaze … (which) could have taken in two raw damned little men with sweat in their sternums and hairy navels and nubbly feet gripping the foothold either side of his boots. Halloran, who had seen some of the flabbergasting but redeemed ugliness in Leonardo's sketch-book, tended to expect that these two would delight an artist, send him grabbing for his transforming charcoal.
The boat is beached, and Halloran asks Ewers if he feels moved (as Halloran expects he ought), to paint the landscape. Ewers replies in the negative; a picture, he says, would give a false impression of this harsh country:
"If I painted this landscape," Ewers explained, "those who ever saw it would think that the forests behind the beaches were teeming with fruit and game. They would think that this river led to a kingly town, that Eden lay at the headwaters."
Eden lay at the head-waters was such a nice phrase that Halloran suspected he was listening to a recitation, perhaps part of the artist's private journal.
There is also the instance where Halloran brutally kicks the queer soldier, Miles. This is a seemingly motiveless attack, and most probably springs from the fact of Miles's homosexuality. Immediately prior to the kicking, Halloran had been obliged to settle a lovers' quarrel between Miles and his regular friend, a quarrel sparked off by Byrne's interference.
Finally there is the presentation of Halloran in his disputes with Hearn, the gentleman felon who likens himself to the Savior—"like one greater, I had wounds to show" he grandly announces. Hearn challenges Halloran's conscience on matters of loyalty to God and King. He hopes to prove Halloran's allegiances groundless and so persuade him to join in an escape to Europe, where the 1789 uprising has occurred. Halloran's allegiances are shaken but not destroyed, and in the altercations his wit is seen as inferior to Hearn's. Halioran adopts therefore a pompous defense, only to have it crumpled by Byrne, who has been won over by Hearn's zeal and who suddenly announces, "'Your nose is starting to run.' It made Halloran furious to have his nose so thoroughly betray his mortality. He became noticeably taut." There is a similar debunking effect soon after, when Halioran "tried to look ironic, but a sneeze scattered his efforts."
Halloran is certainly more sensitive than his fellows, but it is his essential ordinariness that is stressed. It is necessary to insist on this since some reviewers see Halloran as a sort of Christ-figure, and such a reading ignores the qualifications that events and Mr. Keneally place on him. One reviewer remarks for instance that
Halloran looks towards an agony which will not only be his but will also be a summation of the violence which the despised and rejected must suffer at the hands of those who sit in the high places of this earth in all times and places. His suffering is representative, as Christ's was, because it is so intense, so lonely and he is so conscious of it, as a process, a path to be walked, a grave ceremony (sic). Impressive in this sort of rumination is the tight holding to, the stoic guarding, the refusal to spare one's self an atom of the knowledge of what will be. The refusal to cry out is the more impressive in the light of the fact that Halloran not only is a good man, but he is to suffer all this as the direct result of his actions as a good man.
The main justification for such a reading seems to me to rest on the novel's final lines. As the gallows-rope breaks Halloran's neck he asks himself "Am I perhaps God?" Most clearly he is not, but the effect of the remark is uncertain. Possibly Mr. Keneally is attempting to enhance the importance of his protagonist's suffering, and the remark is to be read without ironic implication. Though I doubt this, Halloran's final perception remains unconvincing, for he has been shown to be limited in perception, with neither exceptional ruminative power nor spiritual status. Further, he is an essentially humble person. For his remark to strike the reader as convincing, the author would have needed to show Halloran's capacity for life as being enlarged by what he undergoes. Mr. Keneally does not show any such development, hence the change in Halloran is too sudden and the remark fails to convince.
Another reading seems more plausible, which is that this is the final irony in the career of Halloran, a man who "has the illusion of knowing where he's going", as the novel very early announces. Halloran married Ann "to ward off oblivion", yet both meet an early death. Further, Halloran fails every person who looks to him for help, and it is his own nature which contributes to such failures, as well as the circumstances of his existence. Halloran realizes this, and Hearn's hold over Halloran is possible only because he strikes Halloran on a vulnerable point. Might not Halloran have done something for the luckless Ewers, who is accused of and hanged for rape, and who Halloran knows to be a eunuch? The confusion in Halloran's notions that the debates with Hearn bring out, indicate that this final notion, "Am I perhaps God?", may be the most misguided of all.
The reading I am advancing receives further support from the parallel drawn between Halloran and the Reverend Calverly. These two are early associated: "only (Calverly) and Halloran, perhaps, in that whole town, did not resent the grotesque land, did not call it evil because it was weird." Both come to rejoice in the mercy of death, both experience mental and physical suffering. Most pertinently, both fail those who depend on them for relief. Calverly's sermonizing in the cell where Halloran awaits the gallows with two other soldiers brings down on him a volley of abuse and mockery, while Halloran's failure in respect of Quinn brings that Irishman's bitter curses raining on his head.
Such speculation may however distort the main emphasis of the novel, which is essentially concerned with the penal system, rather than with a stroke-by-stroke analysis of a single character. Mr. Keneally continues the line of Australian novels of the convict system, and there are a couple of stylistic touches that recall Hal Porter, though he and Keneally are literary stylists of a very different kind. In The Tilted Cross, Porter was primarily concerned with the effect of the penal system on the individual, but Mr. Keneally does not primarily use the "system" to make an exploratory study of human experience. Emphasis throughout is on the system, and it is in depictions of men in a community, and in rendering physical rather than mental landscapes, that Mr. Keneally excels. Ultimately, the "system" is more memorable than the persons that comprise it; the physical world by which Halloran lives is more strongly imagined than his inner experience.
The brutality and decay (of justice) in the settlement are touched in lightly at several points. Government House is described thus:
At the top of the town stood a Government House whose thatch roof was being replaced by shingles of blackbutt. Transports moved in and out and about the hole in its distant roof with the effective indolence of maggots in a skull.
Or the measure of the expectations of the colony's inhabitants is taken by the incident in which the artist Ewers has his hand painfully slashed by a caged bird for which he is attempting to provide some shade. And always there is the landscape, its stunted growth providing a physical counterpart for the failure of hopes and ideals. The sense that Mr. Keneally conveys of the dreadful inevitableness of events is created partly by pertinent detail in the landscape. Ann and Halloran spend their precious half day a week together, near the sea. They waded through
a matting of shrubs stripped and cuffed westward by the prevailing wind. Once the green shoals could be seen under the cliff, he sat Ann down on a hump of granite. The cliff-top was sown with partly revealed clods of the rock and was not unlike a half-buried grave-yard, with the names and scraps of remembrance having wasted into the crystals of the stones.
Small touches such as this prepare for harsher brutalities, such as the description of the back of a youth flogged three-quarters to death. There is "a seam in the boy's purple back and a herd of flies, whose bite is maggots, drinking from it".
Keneally is a master at rendering the manner in which men will use one another to work off frustration. Twice, felons are flogged in the capacity of scapegoats for an officer who wishes to thwart a superior and relieve irritation: Rowley's flogging of Quinn, and Captain Howard's of Hearn, follow this pattern.
One of the novel's most interesting situations is that between Ann and Mrs. Blythe, mistress of the house in which Ann serves as kitchenmaid. Ulcerated Mrs. Blythe is the possessor of a "pious gut" which her husband is endeavoring to crack by starvation. She also possesses a curious concern for her servant's chastity, and her ostensible reason, that she does not wish to see Ann fat with Halloran's bastard, hardly suffices in the face of the elation she experiences when Ann is executed. Mrs. Blythe identifies directly with Ann when she discovers that the latter is no longer a virgin ([she knew] "that Halloran had involved her in the Fall"), and on the occasion of Ann's death, experiences a sudden surge of energy. She rises awkwardly and performs on ulcerated legs a grotesque sort of can-can.
This morbid relationship is highlighted to excellent effect in the novel's stage version, Halloran's Little Boat (reappearing at the Independent Theatre, Sydney, at the time of writing). The play also brings out the tendency to disintegration of structure which results from too free speculation, speculation which is not closely rooted in the work. Ann's resentful doubts about the existence of God in such a country as this, and her exchanges with Halloran about the "secret bride" ethic, with which most of Act One is concerned, have slipped from the memory by the time of the final act which is dominated by the much more arresting Mr. and Mrs. Blythe. To adjust this balance, Mr. Keneally has curiously romanticized the play's finale by bringing back on stage the executed Ann and Halloran, who confirm, in heavenly trappings, their eternal happiness.
I wish to comment only briefly on The Fear (1965). "Joseph, the boy caught up in the battle between Catholic and Communist, and in an escape in Australia of Japanese prisoners of World War II, is brought face to face with evil in the clear Australian sunlight". Thus incorrectly and misleadingly reads the publisher's blurb on the back of the recent Sun Books edition. It is not Joseph but Daniel who confronts the Japanese, and further, the novel is not concerned with any "battle between Catholic and Communist". The Fear is instead more of an autobiography, being partly based on incidents from Mr. Keneally's youth.
The eight-year-old Catholic boy, Daniel Jordan, is both protagonist and part narrator of this novel; the other narrative voice is that of the mature Daniel Jordan. Neighbors to the Jordans are a Communist family, the Mantles, and it is Mr. Mantle, "the Comrade", who is the source of the fear that Daniel experiences. Daniel becomes entwined in the Mantles' affairs and the upshot is a tragedy resulting in the death of two of Daniel's friends. The Comrade brings home and enthrones on a dresser in the dining room, a grenade which he threatens, in his more belligerent moods, to explode in the house. Daniel, the Mantles' two sons and Dolph Conlon steal the grenade and explode it early one morning at a rubbish tip. This results in the deaths of Len Mantle and Dolph Conlon, and shortly afterwards Mrs. Mantle commits suicide and takes with her the crippled son Joseph. The Jordan family then moves to the Cape, where, after an interval of some months, the Comrade reappears, having fled his former surroundings and the rumors of his responsibility for the deaths of the two lads and of his wife and elder son. Daniel and the Comrade are among those involved as hostages in an escape of Japanese prisoners-of-war. This incident costs the Comrade his life, and Daniel expresses relief at a feeling of release that the Comrade's death effects in him.
The mass of events is given very little shape beyond the arrangement of a chronological sequence. Mr. Keneally has drawn some parallels in the two situations in which Daniel finds himself (i.e. in the incidents prior to and following the move to the Cape). At the Cape Daniel becomes the third member of a group which, prior to his arrival, was an established twosome, and this recalls his association with the Mantle boys. The drinking and whoring Comrade has his Cape counterpart in the alcoholic schoolteacher, John Oakley, who professes a platonic love for Daniel's mother and who has to be warned away from the Jordan's home in much the same manner as the Comrade's whore had to be ordered off the Jordan premises previously.
I cannot believe, however, that Mr. Keneally intends any serious comment on Communists, or Catholics, in this novel. The portrait of Mr. Mantle is true to the stereotype of the whoring, wife-beating drunkard, who confides in those much younger than himself in order to gain the esteem denied him by his peers. But there are some indications that we are meant to take events as pointing to certain truths, as for instance the desire of the Comrade's crippled son, Joseph, to be baptized. Daniel's talk of the Catholic faith arouses in Joseph a desire for salvation, despite the Comrade's instruction to the contrary. The childish prattle on this issue becomes tedious, and I fail to see why it is included unless to suggest that the rigors of Communist doctrine, as exemplified by Mr. Mantle, cannot overcome a fundamental human desire for assurance of some sort of after-life.
The events of the novel are registered through the eyes of Daniel, and the mode of narration is a little disturbing, as Mr. Keneally freely interchanges the idiom appropriate to an eight-year-old ([Stell] "was mad with me," my italics), with that appropriate to the more reflective adult: "the Mantles' narrow little brick place … seemed to be subsiding crookedly into the earth like an ill laid tombstone". This is a pertinent comparison since the Mantles' son Joseph is dying of a disease that is turning his neuro-muscular system to jelly.
Mr. Keneally has not chosen to show the development of the protagonist-narrator. He is content to evoke the world of childhood for its own sake, though some adverse light cannot but be shed on Daniel at certain points. Mr. Keneally is in none of his works at his most assured when handling character development; he cannot extend a character in depth, in order to trace a change in attitude or an increasing capacity for experiencing life to the full. Since in The Fear hardly any development in character is sustained, the incidents tend to become a catalogue with no reflective narrator to focus their influence on the developing child. Daniel remains of ordinary perception, basically unaffected by the events he experiences.
Hence when Daniel expresses "a feeling of grief" that the Comrade is dead and that he, Daniel, is now without the Comrade's "peculiar brand of menace", it is a matter of statement rather than of demonstration, for there is very little of menace in anything that happens to Daniel. It is perhaps as a consequence of registering everything through the eyes of a not very outstanding eight-year-old, that the whole novel takes on the tone of a schoolboy adventure story. The incidents themselves are grim enough, but the manner of narration reduces them to extended escapade.
Although the Comrade is responsible for four deaths, he remains a somewhat pathetic figure who disturbs Daniel's consciousness (and conscience) only when the latter is visibly reminded of the Comrade's existence. Though there is an occasional touch of irony in the author's treatment of Daniel, the latter's perceptions are on the whole endorsed. There is nothing comparable in The Fear to the pervading irony which attends the depiction of the protagonist in Bring Larks and Heroes.
The Fear remains then, the relating of a period of childhood, a period tinged, for the protagonist, with some unease, but more predominantly with much of the color of high adventure. The prose fiction breaks down at times into mere reportage, particularly in the account of the Japanese prisoners' escape. The apology to the reader that "one thing that you'll no doubt say of this random coverage of ten months of childhood is that it's shambling," is certainly warranted. However the novel shows, in small incidents and touches, the mastery of the author of Bring Larks and Heroes. The actual throwing of the hand-grenade is particularly well described, as is the account of the traveling country pastor's congregation:
In Gilbert, Father Mullally was said to be a deep man, which meant that no one understood his sermons. That morning he spoke of John Calvin and free will. A comatose generation slumped on the benches before him, one ear open for his cadences. They did not know John Calvin. There was no resentment against the man when the priest named him as the greatest enemy of the sovereign soul of man. Their eyes did not turn blazing with pity to inspect the millions of shackled souls lined up century by century—according to the preacher's gesture—between the tea urns at the back of the hall. The massive self-dialogue rolled on and over our heads, intimidated the terribly ordinary fibro walls. And the people seemed content, as did the priest himself.
Suddenly we could hear the Gilbert-Cape bus grinding over Warialda with the day's picnickers. The priest brought the sermon to a close by unleashing on it a sign of the Cross which was like three or four smart judo chops. He couldn't have our Protestant brethren hanging around the surf shed slaking their Protestant curiosity or getting good Catholic dogma without putting anything in the plate.
The Fear evokes as distinctly an Australian landscape as that in Bring Larks and Heroes, and in all three novels the sea plays an important part, as a symbol of refuge and release. The claims made by reviewers for The Fear (such as "the fascination that Keneally holds for Australian readers lies in his deep sense of tragedy and the cold proximity of sin, death and darkness"), were premature, and are more applicable to Bring Larks and Heroes, which contains the author's most perceptive writing to date.
This article has been an attempt to refocus Mr. Keneally's reputation, in the face of too extreme a critical reception. Although there is a frequent lack of assurance about his work, with Bring Larks and Heroes Mr. Keneally shows himself a novelist of distinction.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4309
SOURCE: "Keneally's Reluctant Prophets," in Commonweal, Vol. CIII, No. 10, May 7, 1976, pp. 295-300.
[In the following essay, Hospital characterizes Keneally's protagonists as movern-day Jeremiahs, interspersing her analysis with an interview of Keneally, in which he discusses political aspects of religion and authobiographical elements of his writings.]
Thomas Keneally is an Australian novelist who has won high critical acclaim in his own country, Great Britain and America. He was born in Sydney in 1935, and trained for several years for the Catholic priesthood but did not take Orders. His novels include Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) which won the Miles Franklin Award for the best Australian novel of that year; Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) which the New York Times Book Review noted was "rich in unexpected visions and sudden epiphanies. [Keneally] writes like an angel"; The Survivor (1969) which was the joint winner of the Captain Cook Literary Award; A Dutiful Daughter (1971); The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) which was on the short list for the Booker Prize; Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974); Gossip from the Forest (1975). Mr. Keneally lives in Sydney, but is currently spending two years in Connecticut with his wife and daughters while working on two novels for his American publishers, Harcourt Brace.
When the word of the Lord first came to Jeremiah he demurred: "Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child." The Lord God insisted: "Before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." Humbled by such proof, and driven by the persistent voice of the Almighty, Jeremiah obeyed, roaring the wrath of God up and down the streets of Jerusalem—but not without protest, not without a very human smarting at the ridicule and hostility, not without attempts to wrench free of the divine destiny:
O Lord, thou hast deceived me,
and I was deceived;
thou art stronger than I,
and thou hast prevailed:
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
every one mocks me. (R.S.V. Jer. 20:7)
Yet he is trapped, the puppet of the inexorable will of God, and of his own inner drivenness:
If I say, "I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,"
there is in my heart
as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot. (R.S.V. Jer. 20:9)
The protagonists of the novels of Thomas Keneally are Jeremiahs of a sort, reluctant prophets or messiahs. A form of sainthood is thrust willy nilly upon them. At times they court it, romanticize it, flaunt the exceptional nature of their chosenness; at times they fight it, struggling to escape, knowing the price of sainthood to be martyrdom, victimization; at times they mock it, demythologizing their own aureoles, revealing themselves as ordinary men and women with fears, lusts, greeds, impure motives—prophets by random circumstance only.
The contexts of their election vary greatly. There is Halloran of Bring Larks and Heroes, educated in the Bishop's school in Wexford, Ireland, destined for the Sulpicians in Paris, but consigned to the "world's worse end" as a felon for having attended a meeting of the Land Tenure Committee. As a Corporal of Marines in the late eighteenth century penal colony of Sydney, where life is raw and brutalized, he is forced to make a choice between his military oath and his humanity, in effect a choice between probable military promotion with eventual return to the world's civilized hemisphere—and a felon's death by hanging.
In Three Cheers for the Paraclete, Maitland is a scholarly priest with a hankering for the quietude of uninterrupted research. He has no taste for the role which takes him by surprise—the storm center of theological and political controversy in St. Peter's House of Studies in Sydney, a bastion of orthodoxy and conservatism. He tries earnestly not to be a rebel, to submit humbly to discipline, but falls casualty to his burning conscience—and his hasty temper (sainthood never being unalloyed with tangled human psychology in Keneally's novels).
In The Survivor there are two candidates for the status of uneasy prophet. The leader of a 1924 Antarctic Expedition looms gigantic in the memory of a surviving member of the team who was forced to leave his leader dead in the wasteland of ice. Now an aging small-town academic, Alec Ramsey is tormented by guilt: can he be certain that Leeming was actually dead when he abandoned him with a few crude burial rites—a broken ski made into a cross and carved with Leeming's initials? And was Leeming God-like or Satanic, a moral giant, an arrogant bastard, or simply a "rather shrunken man"? Ramsey's own role as a survivor is ambiguous—a sort of self-imposed destiny. "I was a polar monk and Leeming was my abbot." He is the "professional survivor" of Rotary Club speaking engagements, by turns self-mocking and righteously outraged that his callow audiences have no awareness of the massively heroic significance of Leeming.
Leeming has, for Ramsey, the quality of a sacrament as potent as the word that compelled Jeremiah. At an academic party he is suddenly asked by a drunken poet:
"Well, question is, did you and that Dr. Lloyd eat of Leeming?"
"I beg your pardon." If Alec was not straightaway outraged it was because the stressed preposition came to his ear with an almost biblical sound, innocuous to the sixty-two-year-old son of a Presbyterian pastor. Unless you eat of the flesh … "How did you get back to the coast then?" the poet was insisting…. Ramsey dared not move. That indigestible leader and unswallowable death flooded and exposed him at the one time; very like the similar vertigo and smotheration caused by the Antarctic phenomenon called white-out …
After a time he remembered that he had not in fact eaten Leeming, but the poet's suggestion seemed to him one that he must urgently blend into what he already knew of Leeming and himself.
Finally his gnawing guilt is both exposed and expiated by the unexpected "resurrection" of the dead leader. Forty years later another expedition finds the body frozen and preserved in the polar ice-cap. Ramsey's shock is considerable.
His fear of the resurrection, of the mere event, recurred.
He fought it with his reason …
He felt frightened too that Leeming's reappearance would bend and incite him powerfully towards publicly saying the truth.
And he thought of the truth as of an unknown baggage that would be forced on him by this last ploy of Leeming's, this resurgence. He seemed to be afraid, therefore, of matters yet unknown to him, matters for which he would feel culpable yet which would surprise him as much as they would surprise anyone.
It is an apocalypse he tries frantically to prevent. "For it seemed to him then that he had always been consoled by Leeming's incorruptibility in the ice. It was as crude an intuition as this: he sensed that it diminished his guilt. Now he thought instantly that they must not force those pitiful remains to make any deferred payment of decay."
Although in a state of dread, Ramsey cannot refrain from returning to the Antarctic to witness the removal of the body, though he fears "a change in the essence of his life, a change as absolute as death." The body is removed from its crevice by a winch in a macabre parody of ascension:
As the bundle eked a slow semi-circle above the heads of the people Ramsey saw how he had based his world on guilt for the quite transcendent wrongs done against Leeming. But now the ordinariness of the bundle spurred him to acknowledge the ordinariness of Leeming and the pedestrian nature of his sins against Leeming. Ramsey was so angered at the years he had wasted on shame that a demand rose in him to tear his own flesh.
In The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a fictional treatment of actual incidents, Jimmie is a half-blooded Aborigine living on a reservation. He is singled out by the Methodist missionary for education, for imbuement with European ideals. The time is 1900–1901, the fermenting years of Australia's federation as a nation.
Jimmie self-consciously accepts his chosenness. He sets out to disprove the image of the black man as shiftless, drunken, incapable of learning or of holding a steady job. He becomes more educated than the constables and farmers in the small rural towns where he works, he labors hard and diligently, he is Christian rather than a worshiper of the ancient tribal spirit gods, he marries a white girl in a Methodist church. And he is hated and spurned with an intensity greater than the indifferent contempt reserved for his tribal relatives. Quite suddenly, by a random conjunction of an instance of insulting discrimination with the limits of Jimmie's hopes and endurance, he becomes an apostle of black vengeance and violence, a black Jeremiah crying woe to the white oppressors. His rampage is not indiscriminate. With passionate but calculated method he brutally murders men, women and children from the long list of the families who have wronged him.
He knows that he must sustain his hatred and anger at a fervid and religious pitch to justify his butcheries, but is unable to do so. Jimmie Blacksmith, "lost beyond repair somewhere between the Lord God of Hosts and the shrunken cosmogony of his people" is doomed to spend the rest of his life "in tenuous elation and solid desolation between self-knowledge and delirium." He eludes capture for months, is shot and wounded, slips into a convent while the nuns are at vespers, and, ironically, it is the bishop's bed in which he almost bleeds to death before being discovered by the Mother Superior. He is nursed back to sufficient health for hanging.
Blood Red, Sister Rose is the story of Joan of Arc. Keneally's Jehanne—with the compulsion of her Voices, her dread of the martyrdom she foresees, her vacillation between a craving for the peaceful life of a peasant's wife and the thrill of leading the king's armies—has much in common with Jeremiah. As King Zedekiah both needs and fears Jeremiah, keeping him as a privileged prisoner until he is expendable because no longer useful, so Charles needs and fears Jehanne, who is kept on the leash of political expediency until her purpose has been served. She has the same abrasive and aggressive courage as Jeremiah.
[Hospital:] Mr. Keneally, your Jehanne is very much a fifteenth-century feminist. Was this a conscious political characterization on your part?
[Keneally:] Yes. I characterized Jehanne as a rough Australian country girl. As a matter of fact, she was modeled after Germaine Greer.
Does Germaine Greer know that?
No, I'm not at all sure she'd be flattered. She might well be outraged.
I take it you are an admirer?
Yes, but I also find her terrifying. I had to interview her on TV in Sydney in 1972. I was extremely nervous, and well primed with alcoholic courage to face her verbal sharpshooting. But I suddenly had a sense of the almost animal panic in her, of her vulnerability to attack—a feeling for the loneliness of her role—a "somebody has to do this but why me?" aura. I sensed her being pulled in two directions—between determination and anguish.
Did this interview give you the idea to write about Joan of Arc?
No. The subject matter had fascinated me for some time. Jehanne changed the very nature of warfare almost single-handedly. But Germaine Greer gave the shape and style to the character.
I feel sure that Ms. Greer (and all feminists, including myself) would share Jehanne's outrage when her success is put down in a very well-worn sexist way after all the battles have been won and the king crowned:
De la Tremoille: And such a new way of proceeding on the matter of prisoners! One would think you were trying to destroy the rules of knighthood.
Jehanne: In my tiny knowledge of the business, my lord, they look stupid without any help from me.
He did his high laugh and began climbing the stairs again.
De la Tremoille: Well, a great day for everyone. I didn't think I'd see it … And now it's all done I suppose you can wear skirts again.
When she put weight on the ball of her foot her whole leg trembled. She thought that fat man would crucify me this morning if he could.
Most of your protagonists seem caught in the grip of either some divine force or their own consciences to act politically and socially. If Halloran and Jimmie Blacksmith do not bring about any changes, they at least function as the conscience of their societies. Maitland and Jehanne actively intervene in their societies politically, and do bring about social and political change. I assume then that your theology would be in agreement with that of the Theology of Liberation writers, such as Rubem Alves and Rosemary Ruether?
I don't really know. I don't read theology as such any more.
But you yourself still consider what Andrew Greeley calls "the God question" worth asking?
Oh certainly. But not in an orthodox or institutional way. And I no longer think of God as a personal being.
How long were you in seminary?
Six and a half years, from 1953 to 1959. Training in Sydney as a diocesan priest.
When would you have been ordained?
Two weeks after I pulled out.
Why did you pull out?
It was not a crisis of conscience or faith. It was a crisis of emotional suppression. I still feel much anger at the responsibility of the church as an institution for the stifling of the intellect, of talent, of love, of the possibility of love, of the possibility of forming any intimate relationship with any other human being.
In Bring Larks and Heroes, Halloran suffers from this learned stifling of love as he recalls his schooling in the Bishop's house at Wexford. He remembers the Dean's Latin anatomizing of love, from the divine, down through the affection between the spouses for the purpose of begetting children, descending finally to "love only in a debased sense of the word, love by analogy only, love execrable in a tipsy ditch with a dirty, racy vagrant woman." Halloran explained to his secret wife, Ann, that his purpose, "whenever he lay with her, was to keep matters as close to God and as far away from the vagrant woman as he could." But when Ann proves to be "as racy as any vagrant woman" Halloran is "delighted but baffled."
His mind would intervene as an arbiter and try to reorganize his motives according to the rules as laid down by Dean Hannon. And his ardor would die, and he would see doubt all over Ann's face.
In Three Cheers for the Paraclete, Maitland is celebrating Mass on a windy headland for a group of graduate students. He preaches a short sermon which subsequently causes him much trouble with his superiors, although it endears him to the students. Even as he preaches he is tormented with self-doubt, with fears of his own hypocrisy, afraid that he sounds "like a fashionable priest, the glib kind."
"There are historical causes why European Christianity gave Eros poison to drink, took a confused view of him, placed him under a subtle ban."
He said what the causes were, he touched lightly on centuries and found them pliant to his touch. It was a false pliancy … "What have you been told from childhood, again and again? You've been told that Eros is a source of danger. So he is. Yet it must have seemed that if he did not have a hand in the propagation of little Catholics, he wouldn't be given standing room. For Eros is a filthy little pagan with dirty habits. One comes to see that he has been maligned. His presence generates in a person those decent human enthusiasms without which life and even religion are lost. You complain of the pallid cast of soul of this or that priest? But he lacks the self-surrender imposed by Eros to help men to enthusiasm. The priest's way is harder because he does not have this ready means of keeping his personality malleable. As you pity all sapless humans, you must pity and have understanding for the sapless priest. For some of us have been betrayed into a frame of mind that is justly expressed in the saying: 'Because they love no one, they imagine that they love God'."
[Hospital:] Maitland is conscious of this stifling of human love, of the intellect, of his scholarly articles and books. Did you experience any specific suppression of your writing?
[Keneally:] Yes. My articles, short stories, poetry were all censored.
You are, then, Maitland?
Yes and no. I didn't have the guts or the maturity of Maitland. Like Maitland (and Halloran and Jehanne) I feel a tremendous pull toward the conservative prosaic life, a yen for the peaceful and ordinary.
All Keneally's protagonists try to escape their destinies, to quiet their consciences, to cling to the ordinary life. Halloran dreads a felon's death; he has seen hideous hangings; yet his humanity and conscience compel him to steal food to aid the convict Hearn (like Leeming, an enigmatic Prophet-Satanic figure). Hearn is a Wicklow Protestant, and is convinced his escape plan is "God's scheme."
"Yes," Halloran said, "I can imagine the Almighty dodging up and down this part of the world, grinding his axe with a Wicklow Protestant …" In fact, he was terrified that there might be something on the divine agenda to cut straight across the cramped sphere of tenderness where he and Ann lived … He detested prophets, prophets were a great danger. This prophet had had two raw nights to succumb to, but here he was, voluble with prophecy, muttering omens in the bushes. They don't feed you enough to take these shocks, Halloran told himself.
Maitland detests his own prison of doubt, hankers after the old certainties:
The cold fust of old books assailed him in the dark; devotional books, Dublin 1913, a good year for unalloyed faith. Why couldn't he have been alive and priested then? Saving up indulgences, averting tumors of the throat with a St. Blaise candle, uttering arcane litanies … dying in 1924 of dropsy, rosaries and the certainty of Paradise.
Jehanne's divine destiny seems part biological chance; she is an embarrassment to her family because she has never menstruated. To herself, this seems to single her out for a more absolute virginity. Perhaps she is the virgin of Merlin's prophecy, the virgin from Lorraine who will deliver the king. She longs to be normal, to marry, to have children; she grieves for the abnormality of her womb. But she also yearns to be special; she does not want to join in the country adolescent body games and "vanish into some pattern of family and kinship." Then there are her Voices—but there is also her decision. "I'm that virgin. The one in Merlin." A local gentlewoman responds: "For God's sake, Jehannette, how could you be that damned virgin?" Jehanne replies: "Someone has to be. If someone wasn't chosen, someone would have to choose herself." What Jehanne needs, says the lady, is a husband. To which Jehanne retorts with irritation: "Do you think I want to be that virgin? Do you think there are rewards for it?"
Like Jeremiah ("Cursed be the day that I was born") Jehanne is terrified of her own victimhood. Both beg their God and their king for a release from the destiny and from martyrdom. Jehanne wrestles with her Voices:
Messire: Little he-rose, little she-soldier, when the king is anointed …
Jehanne: What? What, Messire?
Messire: The steel goes in, the heat blasts, the rose bleeds.
Jehanne: Holy Jesus!
Messire: You'll never be alone.
Jehanne: But when the steel goes in …
Messire: There's no consolation.
She woke yelling I deserve better!
[Hospital:] In spite of the yen for the ordinary of your protagonists and yourself, you, like them, did become politically involved, didn't you?
[Keneally:] Yes, I was one of the sponsors of the Australian Vietnam Moratorium in 1970. I marched in demonstrations. But my political involvement did not begin until after I left the seminary. When I left I was mentally and emotionally strung out. I worked for six months as a builder's laborer. No one showed any interest in my welfare. No one cared what had become of me. I felt an enormous sense of betrayal, of the inhumanity of the church as an institution toward individual people. I began for the first time to think politically, to see the church as one more corrupt institution among many in a corrupt society.
In 1966, I did a TV documentary in Sydney on the corruption of the corporations and institutions of Australian society, including the institutional church which functioned like any other commercial corporation. It appalled the church, of course, and brought down wrath upon my head.
Just like Maitland?
Maitland's working-class cousin, Joe, has been cheated out of his small savings by the misleading advertising and devious legal contracts of a housing development corporation. Maitland protests to the corporation on Joe's behalf.
[He was shown] into the office of the Allied Projects Development Company's chief accountant. He was greeted in a manner he had come to hate by a man of about forty. The greeting said, "We're all professional men together and know the price of fish. Besides which, some of my best friends are Catholics and Monsignor X has money invested in us. Your company, if I can call it that, and ours are two of the pillars that keep the sky up."
The company refuses to refund Joe's money. Maitland preaches a sermon in a fashionable church on the readiness of the church to condone social evils. It is reported on the front page of a city newspaper under the headline "A Power in the Pulpit." His superiors are furious. There are so many safe topics one could preach on. "It's the patently artificial things a priest can safely attack. The mass media, materialism, advertising, the threat of Communism, paganism in the arts. Add all that to faith and morals and you've enough for a lifetime of sermons."
The newspaper subsequently publishes seven letters from people who have suffered under the same company, and also the announcement by the managing director of Allied Projects that the archdiocese owns shares in both itself and its mother-sister-company, Investment General. Maitland receives a phone call from the Archbishop:
"James, I detest this sort of embarrassment, you know, the type that gives hint that the Church is economically entrenched … Of course, there are still people who feel that way, who imagine that an archdiocese can be run without revenue, where an oil company can't."
… "Your Grace," he said trembling, "is the archdiocese going to back me up by selling its holdings in both those companies?"
There was silence at His Grace's end …
"My heaven, that's called turning the flank," His Grace decided, not without some hint of approval.
"However, Mr. Boyle [a papal knight, and auditor of the company] … assures me that the companies are respectable and in no way depart from the norms of the business world."
Nevertheless, a few days later His Grace telephones again with the news that having sought legal advice, the archdiocese will be getting rid of its stock.
A century and a half earlier, in the same city, Halloran had less success with, and more bitterness for, the institutional church. Four Irish Catholic convicts have been condemned to hanging for stealing from government stores to aid another convict in escaping. The Protestant chaplain comes to the condemned hut where Halloran and his three fellow convicts are chained like animals awaiting execution.
The Reverend Mr. Calverley begins to preach about the wrath of God to sinners. The men "pelt him with the best blasphemies they had." The noise brings a Constable with a chain in his hand. He swings it round the hut, beating "at the four man-soft corners. The chain clattered and plopped across wood and flesh, hissed along Halloran's scalp one way, then another." The chaplain is appalled, and orders the Constable to stop, "but he thought that stripes these four deserved, and stripes they would get in their pit in hell."
"There is no other name but the name of Jesus given in heaven or on earth by which it behooveth a man to be saved," proclaimed the chaplain quietly.
"And he works for Government House," John McHugh called, feeling out his chain wounds and crying over them.
[Hospital:] Although all your protagonists find themselves in opposition to an institutionalized God, they are all supported by an inner (sometimes mystical) religion. And they act on the authority of this religious conscience. So although you do not read the theologians of liberation, I assume you would approve of their political activity.
[Keneally:] With reservations. I have a great distrust of the church's history of co-operation, of its ability to exploit legitimate impulses of rebellion for its own ends.
Yet surely people like Camilla Torres, Paulo Freire, Helder Camara are like the heroes/heroines of your novels? They have stayed within the institution of the church, risked their lives in political involvement.
Yes. I must make it clear that my distrust of the church's leftwing political endeavors is not a rational one. It is still a reaction of personal and instinctual anger.
Yet Maitland submitted completely to his superiors in the end—to the censorship of his sermons, the ban on publishing and a disciplinary transfer to a rural parish. If you were writing Three Cheers for the Paraclete now, eight years later, would you still have Maitland remain a priest?
No. I'd have him get out into politics. Or writing.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2629
SOURCE: "Eden Upside Down: Thomas Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes as Anti-pastoral," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 297-303.
[In the following essay, Monk traces the progress of Halloren's apotheosis in Bring Larks and Heroes as a function of the narrative's inversion of conventional and pastoral tropes, related to characters, settings, and moral tone.]
Thomas Keneally can justifiably lay claim to an important place in Australian literature. If, however, there were a single moment in his works by which he might be best remembered, I suspect that moment would be the final paragraph of Bring Larks and Heroes, in which he describes the death agonies of Phelim Halloran:
It was as he had foretold. Every prayer, curse and snatch of song unleased itself up the vent of his body. Oh, the yawning shriek of his breathlessness, above him like a massive bird, flogging him with its black wings; the loneliness ripping his belly up like pavingstones. On his almost closed lids, six-sided pillars of light came down with terrible hurtfulness. It was with such a surpassing crack that his head split open, he being borne presiding through so many constellations, that he asked himself, panicstriken, "Am I perhaps God?"
Halloran's apotheosis—the apotheosis of a spoiled priest from a poor Irish family into a Christ figure—is the final act of a pastoral tragedy set among the transported felons of an early settlement "not meant to be identified with" Sydney, according to the author's note.
Keneally's primary concern in Bring Larks and Heroes is with the culture shock awaiting new colonists whose expectations of a return to Eden are shattered by encounters with the foreignness of trees that shed bark rather than leaves, mammals that lay eggs, and the phenomenon of summer in December. Eden has thus become demonic, and "the busy compilers of journals called it evil at some length." Consequently Halloran, who does not "call it evil because it [is] weird," becomes estranged from the community, and eventually becomes the scapegoat for a crime committed by others. Halloran's inexorable progress towards his sacrificial death and apotheosis can be traced as a symbolic corollary of his steady progress towards his final understanding that the landscape surrounding him is not, in fact, demonic, but only Eden upside-down.
Before I trace that progress of Halloran towards his apotheosis I want to look briefly at what I consider to be the keys to Keneally's inversion of the pastoral convention in Bring Larks and Heroes. There are, in fact, two complementary patterns of inversion existing simultaneously in the novel: the inversion of the picture of the early settlers as the inhabitants of a pastoral setting, and the inversion of the concept of the landscape of that setting as a type of Eden. In the first of the patterns, the settlers, free or transported, see themselves as the innocent inhabitants of a pastoral world, frustrated only by the ugliness, hostility, and inhospitability of the physical aspects of that world. Keneally's inversion shows us that the settlers themselves are the demonic element, bringing death and disease into the landscape. The conventional pastoral, concerned as it is with the depiction of an ideal society, uses the trope of the sheep to represent the people under the benevolent protection of their aristocratic or ecclesiastical rulers, the shepherds. In Bring Larks and Heroes, however, the relationship takes on a thoroughly demonic aspect as the role of sheep is given to convicted felons, and that of the shepherds to their military guards. Benevolence is replaced by bloody and brutal tyranny. Hence society itself is shown not as idealized but as demonic.
The second pattern of inversion concerns itself with an apparently demonic landscape: crops fail, the weather is bad, stock dies, and the settlement is very close to starvation. However, in this case the point of the inversion is to show that this landscape, in its beauty and fertility, is the hoped for and elusive Eden. The key to the understanding of this process of inversion is found in the passage where Byrne catches a sea gull. As the narrator oxymoronically states, "Byrne ate the inedible bird." If you can eat something safely and gain nourishment from it, as does Byrne, then it is by definition not "inedible." Here Keneally points directly to a truth that is also made clear elsewhere in the novel, with regard to Halloran's understanding of his relationship with the natural world: the land can provide food if one is willing to revise one's ideas of food. The Aboriginals survive because their idea of food conforms to what the land provides (gulls or grubs); the Europeans almost starve because their idea of food (cheese, beef, bread) does not conform to what is provided. The wasteland is paradoxically the fertile garden, if only one can learn to recognize its fruits.
The most prominent patterns of inversion, then, are those of character and setting. There is another kind of inversion present, however, albeit one implied to a somewhat lesser extent: the inversion of choice in one's moral actions. Halloran, when we first meet him, is carrying a gun, but without any hope of killing game, because "the full-time game-killers, three men chosen from amongst the transported felons, had not brought in anything since the New Year." The crime for which they have been transported is not named, but the skills required for full-time game-killing would be almost identical with those required in poaching. Poachers, therefore, become licensed hunters on behalf of the community—and the definition of crime is changed to suit the needs of the community. But the inversion here is not simple, for although the poaching/game-killing inversion turns a crime into a community service, the crime of stealing food from the community remains a crime, one which is in fact less unjustifiably punishable in the circumstances of the settlement than in the country from which they have come. Keneally's point is not that circumstances change morality, but that people change it, usually for their own benefit—a suitably demonic concept for a demonic society.
It is Halloran's triumph that he recognize all these truths: that the settlers are the demonic element, that the landscape is really edenic, and that a demonic society produces a demonic morality. It is also his tragedy, for the community cannot tolerate someone who sees things differently. Consequently, he is killed for his vision. This vision is not a sudden revelation but one which develops slowly in the course of Halloran's relationship with the natural world, and with his fellow human beings in the settlement.
To return to the inversion of setting: the novel begins in an apparently demonic landscape, "the world's wrong end," which is, to borrow [Northrop] Frye's definition, "the world that desire totally rejects: the world of the nightmare … as it is … before any image of human desire, such as the city or the garden, has been solidly established." The natural features of the landscape are, however, "far too open to a bland, immense, and oriental sky," and consequently the settlers are also exposed. Yet in spite of this evident vulnerability, the settlers' response is to resist assimilation, and to impose their will upon the land:
although nothing but the worm of death seemed to flourish in this obdurate land, it was the duty of those who served the King … to outstubborn the wayward earth.
Halloran, however, in the midst of this apparently demonic land, is confronted by the possibility, indeed the necessity, of developing a new set of standards by which new values might be determined, for "it seemed that in these poor scrubby woods, all his judgements on what a forest should look like were being scarcely tolerated by the whole pantheon of the gods of this, the world's wrong end."
Halloran's visit to Ann releases her from the "God-abandoned" hutch of Blythe's, for the divine center no longer rests in human dwellings or society, into the temporary freedom of the woods presided over by a new pantheon. Here she is "transmuted by something very close … to pure animal joy"—a transmutation into something more in tune with the land, and one which Halloran (who is described as feeling "cubbish") shares with her. It should be noted, however, that at this point Halloran is still identified with the demonic settlers insofar as the symbol of his superiority, which he has chosen to carry through "this forest," is a gun. His notion of his own superiority to the blacks who are "dying of smallpox" rests on his perception of his superior ability to kill and to resist death.
Having established Halloran's initial identification with human society, Keneally proceeds to present a series of juxtaposed visions of the land as actually edenic (although apparently demonic) and white humanity as actually demonic (although apparently innocently pastoral). The first of these occurs when, standing on the cliff, Halloran sees
set in the jelly-blue, a fleet of jew-fish tend[ing] slowly north. It did make one angry, to see such placid manna a foot or two below the sea-top, passing by the hungry town without a flick of their tails.
Set in juxtaposition to the colonists' indifference to this "placid manna" (no fishing boats are out) is their frantic activity in the lime hunt; considerable time is spent looking for mussel-shells left behind by generations of native people. Ironically, these shells are intended to be used, by the military rulers of the settlement, in the making of the mortar necessary to the construction of a real "brick" building, a building designed to make its inhabitants feel more at home. The hungry colonists ignore the fish, which would satisfy and nourish them, in order to try to make the land conform rather more to what they think it should be like.
The second of these juxtapositions occurs during Halloran's expedition upriver to "the Crescent" with the transported forger Ewers. Here the land begins to seem hospitable to Halloran, even beautiful:
The land looked promising from the jolly-boat, the river went west quite royally, spangled with sun, miles wide. Before its massive kindliness, the coves and beaches, cliffs and islands stood back.
Ewers, with the artist's eye, sees this beauty more immediately than Halloran, to whom he remarks:
If I painted this landscape … those who ever saw it would think that the forests behind the beaches were teeming with fruit and game. They would think that this river led to a kingly town, that Eden lay at the headwaters.
However, Ewers' hubristic vision of the true nature of the land, away from the colony, as edenic, and his ability to make others see it his way, founders at once on his confrontation with Mrs. Daker; the death of his vision is recorded in his recognition that the two of them appear, this time, as a part of a "caricature of the Pastoral landscape." As the bird he is painting, and the beauty of the land which it represents, dies in her crazy hands, it prefigures his own death, described in terms of a "ravaged animal spill[ing] dirt and water down its legs." Although Ewers' death acts as a foreshadowing of Halloran's, the full vision of demonic humanity, as opposed to the edenic land, is presented not through Mrs. Daker but in the scenes in the hospital at the Crescent.
Here the cruelty, filth, and irrational sexuality of demonic humanity is exposed as Halloran, separating the couple copulating on the filthy floor in a ring of bystanders, makes his way to the bed of the criminal patient he has been ordered to escort to headquarters; looking down at the man, he sees his back and upper legs to be a mass of stinking, gangrenous flesh. Later, when he sees this flesh encrusted with flies, Halloran can only rush outside in order that the "clean astringency" of nature can provide some kind of antidote to the effects of demonic humanity. Breathing in the fragrance of crushed eucalyptus leaves, he comes to the moment of unconscious choice—when he aligns himself with the land. It is worth noting, however, that by this point he already has begun to think of it as "the world's south end" rather than as its worse end.
A further such juxtaposition provides the turning point of the novel, for here Keneally presents Halloran's conscious alignment with the forces of the land. This takes place on the occasion of Captain Allen's expedition into the wilderness, an expedition which, although designed to conquer, only proves its own incapacity. The members of the expedition, including Halloran, are in such poor condition that they can only cover fourteen miles the first day, "although the country was easy." Their lack of stamina is made particularly evident in their encounter with a family of natives:
In the early afternoon of that first day, they found themselves being watched by a stock-still native family not unlike denuded acacias at a distance of a quarter of a mile. They were very thin, that family, but loped easily away. The crooked grey thickets consumed them like mist.
The natives are thin, admittedly, but fit; they survive because, in their likeness to trees, they shape themselves to the land. Some time later a moment of conscious choice presents itself, to Halloran, as a kind of "transfiguration":
The generous morning continued to gild them all with an heroic light. Halloran himself gazed across the river, across mangroves to a tableland as blue and hazed and comfortable as chimney-smoke. He felt himself to be very much the center of this world. With his hat off, he found that the tawny drench of light through his eye-lashes was made of gold rods all bearing on him. He was the focus, he was the central screw. Take him out and the hills would fall apart. He contained the world and was not contained by it.
Here he identifies consciously with the land, most significantly with the light which is so conspicuous a feature of it. Yet, it is "an heroic light," and consequently Halloran's identification with it points forward to the "heroic" death he must suffer.
That heroic death is the occasion for the final juxtaposition of land (now revealed as truly edenic) against humanity (now revealed as truly demonic). In the previous episode I have mentioned, it is of considerable significance that the natives are likened to trees rather than to any other natural feature. Not only is the image visually attractive and apt, but also it adds a further item to the sequence of tree images in the novel; one is led steadily forward from the opening scene where Anne, visited by joy, leans against a tree, to the final, symbolic juxtaposition of the tree of life and the tree of death. In this scene, Halloran perceives the trees outside the "death-hut" as part of a single tree of life: "Outside, the white eucalyptus grew, five trees from the one bole, gusting outwards from each other, very much a conclave…. Life arrogant there, outside the death-hut; life astringent in white trees."
At the final moment Halloran dies on the gallows, his neck broken in the drop, Keneally ends with Halloran's question. "Am I perhaps God?" The answer implied by the novel is, I believe, yes. For in this upside-down, hardly recognizable Eden, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life are the same. Halloran has tasted the "cool astringency" of the eucalyptus which has brought him both knowledge and life. At the moment of his physical death he is raised in an apotheosis in which he becomes identified with the natural world. "Borne presiding through so many constellations" and therefore immortal, he passes beyond both demonic and human comprehension, a dying and a living god.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2365
SOURCE: An interview in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 453-57.
[In the following interview, Keneally discusses the function of history in his fiction, the significance of his non-Australian settings, and his fictional use of historical facts.]
[Hergenhan:] A number of your novels have been concerned with history and war They have been set wholly or partly outside Australia often with no overt Australian element [Keneally interpolates: 'the sin against the Holy Spirit']. How would you account for this, do you see any recurrent concerns and associated aesthetic problems?
[Keneally:] The whole business of historical novels is that for a time I found history an easier model—paradigm to use that fashionable word—to work with than the present is. Unfortunately though, the reading public have problems with working out what sort of historical novel a novel is. As I said in an article in New Republic when I was reviewing Gore Vidal's Lincoln the best sort of historical novel is not the tempestuous sagas of bygone ages or the bodice-rippers that you see in newsagents. These have certainly a great commercial value but ultimately many of them debase history. The best sort of historical novel is the one which is really about the present and uses the past as a sort of working model for the present. Or, to put it another way, the best sort of historical novels are novels in which the human issues are the same as those we have now, and have always had to face. I went through a phase in my writing when the model I worked with was the past in one way or another. Mind you I have to say that of course there are a number of my novels which are contemporary and set in Australia as well. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith wasn't one of them because it was set in the year of Federation but such novels as Three Cheers for the Paraclete, The Survivor, Passenger and Family Madness are all Australian centered though in Family Madness you see the interest in history again, in European history, specifically the history of Belorussia during World War II. Notice that there is suspicion there that Australia is twice as interesting if placed in that rather vivid historic context. The migrant is more interesting if you know the history he comes from and it may be an ancient history, of course older than World War I, older than Joan of Arc. We see such a history operating in Australia in 1984 on a family of Belorussian migrants. If you take a book like Gossip from the Forest which is about the signing of the Armistice in 1918, it admittedly has not a lot to do with Australia and yet on the other hand it has. There had been for Australians between 1788 and my generation a tendency to look upon Europe as a place where the other half of your soul was, particularly to look upon somewhere in the British Isles as the place where the other half of your soul was. But one of the greatest 'future shock' sort of events of our lifetime has been the decline of Britain and the decline of Europe. My grandparents used to look upon Britain as something admittedly satanic but enormously powerful, ramified, megalithic, as something that was immutable. There was a great comfort both for the English and the Irish in that picture of things and to my amazement in the space of my early adolescence Britain virtually withered and became an increasingly impoverished nation and I suppose in Gossip from the Forest I am looking at some of the causes of this withering. I imagine that I write both as an amateur historian and as an Australian of my generation who used to sit in my childhood round family gatherings where uncles would show the shrapnel wounds in their legs, or would be visibly affected from gassings which had happened more than a quarter of a century before at Paschendale or Ypres or some such place. It is inevitable that that war should seem to me to be the event which signaled the end of innocence and the end of freshness and power for Europe.
Now about recurrent concerns I think there is a recurrent concern in the novels in men of decency, the central characters often being men, fighting historic causes on which they can't quite get a grip. It happens with Erzberger in Gossip from the Forest, the German politician who tries to bring sanity to the negotiations and who has a sense of being the only one there who can foresee the ultimate results for Europe in what is happening in that railway carriage, and you see it too in Delaney an innocent Australian lad, quite charming, who is trying to rescue a girl he loves. Danielle from White Russian history—a history he doesn't understand and whose power he is ill equipped to deal with.
About associated aesthetic problems that run through the novels: I am not aware of any, although every novelist has enormous aesthetic problems to deal with. I'm not aware of any to be honest that arise specifically out of the historical aspects of the work I do. The continuing aesthetic problem is to make the human being real and immediate and that is not the problem which the bodice-ripper type of historical novelist has. His main aim is to make the person exotic either through dress, speech, preposterous wealth, preposterous cruelty, etc. A distancing mechanism is quite deliberately employed in the Gothic romance and the historical romance. The opposite is true of historical novels which wish to pass as novels as such, but that observation is true of all serious writing.
How would you relate these novels to those set in Australia?
I find that the work is pretty well a continuum. You have in say Corporal Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes of long, long ago, or in Delaney in A Family Madness, the same sort of pilgrim voyager though I like Delaney rather better than Corporal Halloran because I think he's more fully developed than Halloran, not more fully developed as a character but certainly as a human being. I suppose the critical debate about the body of my work if there is one or if there is to be one would be concerned about this question of whether the body of work is a continuum or whether it is a set of jerky new directions continually embarked upon. I hope it won't seem special pleading if I say that the historical novels, the ones set outside Australia, were the equivalent of the Australians' trip overseas which in my youth was generally sanctioned by the dictum that you could only get perspective on Australia by seeing it from outside and I think that is the case, I think that we have been so little subject to outside scrutiny that we have got to do it to ourselves, we have been so little objects of interest and there has always been this gulf peculiar to small countries and ex-colonies, I suppose, between what seem to be eternal verities and important issues here and the way those same issues and verities look when they are reviewed from a distance of 12,000 miles. So if those historic novels like Gossip from the Forest, Confederates and so on were my sort of literary overseas trip then of course the difference between them and my Australian preoccupations are more apparent than substantial. I remember a publishing executive a few years ago advising me to stop being a literary bikie, thundering off down unexpected and unprecedented alleys and dragging my readership with me like a semi-willing bikie's moll. But I think that some writers are simply like that temperamentally, they prefer to jump about. There is more of this in the American writing tradition, in Mark Twain or Gore Vidal or others than there is in the Australian tradition. Just the same you have it in a nascent way in Blanche D'Alpuget who has written about Asia and now about Israel. Continuity comes from the perceptions and values of the main characters, so basically, I see my work as a continuous and relatively homogenous thing, although it can't ever seem to be as homogenous as the work of those novelists who generally write out of intimate personal experience.
Do you think your fiction about war stands apart from other fiction about war written by Australian authors?
The different settings go without saying because we have the south in Confederates and we have the signing of the Armistice in Gossip from the Forest and in that other book Season in Purgatory we have Croatia, but I think theme and treatment are more or less the same as those in such works as 1915. You are dealing with innocents trying to prove their honor against the background of massive movements of history and massive items of technology and out of that comes the poignancy of most of this sort of fiction. When I am writing that sort of book, whether it be Confederates with the central character, Usaph Bumpass, or whether it be my favorite work, Cut Rate Kingdom, in which a labor politician deals with the realities of Australia's position vis-a-vis Asia in 1942, whichever it is, you always show the myths that the individual takes with him into the fray and the way these are ultimately swamped and overwhelmed by (I have probably used the phrase before) the realities of history. The myths that Johnny Mulhall takes into his dealings with the Americans in Cut Rate Kingdom have to do with Australian socialism, Australian utopianism, the Australian warrior—whether, that's a political or a battle field warrior as the gamest, the flashiest, the one with the most panache; and of course such local and tribal mythologies get gobbled up by forces vaster than them. But that's something that I think all writers about war and history also deal with, so that apart from the mere differences of the settings, once again I see a continuity in terms of theme and treatment with other fiction written by other Australians on this sort of theme. Perhaps there is a greater stress on those forces of history moving in the background, and perhaps there is a greater stress on that rather than the mere comradeship or the intimate events of the group of men who are undergoing this experience.
I think one of the reasons Australians write about this sort of subject, particularly Australian males (it's very much what your feminist would call Anglo-Celtic and rather sexist) is that most of Australian life has been fairly safe and that, for Australian males anyhow, it is quite obvious that the battles they experienced are the supreme events of their lives. Maybe this says a lot about the impoverishment of male experience. I think that may be too glib a judgment but that there is none the less a great deal of truth in it. I am pleased to be out of that phase of my career now and moving onto other matters.
Would you care to comment on the use of fact as a basis or departure point or whatever in your fiction?
The only book I have written which purported to be based to a strict degree on fact is Schindler's Ark. The reason it had to be so written was that I had a duty to the people who gave me interviews and who had been Schindler's prisoners which no doubt accounts for this or that small error of fact in the book but the point is that these errors do not occur for any aesthetic or technical reason but are a mere lapse. In an historic novel errors can be deliberately courted. By error here I mean the deliberate imposition on an historical character of a vision he or she may not have had or of a particular linking of events which may not have taken place but which has that prevailing artistic truth of something which should have happened.
Let's talk about that terrible word 'faction'. Schindler's Ark was such a book and I thought it an appropriate mode to use since it had been used so well by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. The writer of 'faction' has a great deal of artistic liberty in interpreting what the events mean, in finding their linking symbolism, in the use of language and metaphor, in providing a piquancy to the characterization. It is a valid genre, again much more honored in the United States than it is here, though Bryson's Evil Angels was a fine example of it and it is in a way technically easier to write, though in research terms it is more demanding. Why it is technically easy is that the recurrent flaws and strengths of a personality such as Schindler's give his life an artistic form of the type you have to make up for a fictional character. The most remarkable coincidence between life and art lies in that phenomenon, that lives often have what appears to be an artistic neatness to them. The same faults that do us in during youth become terminal in age. The only reason that lives aren't quite as neatly arranged in the real world as they are in a novel is that in the real world accidents occur which are genuine accidents whereas in a novel accidents should only occur if they have already somehow been caused by the action and by the excesses of the characters. The point about 'faction' though is that it is in some ways too limiting. You are bound by the realities of the exterior world. You cannot have an essential inventive experience which goes with writing true novels like Family Madness. You certainly can't have what you have in A Dutiful Daughter, an adolescent girl who turns her parents into cattle creatures, and you can't have a journal-keeping foetus like you have in Passenger. So 'faction' is one decent direction for writing to take but the fantastic is another. I think in my future work I shall veer towards the fantastic.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4144
SOURCE: "History and the Refuge of Art: Thomas Keneally's Sense of the Past," in The Writer's Sense of the Past: Essays on Southeast Asian and Australian Literature, edited by Kerpal Singh, Singapore University Press, 1987, pp. 160-69.
[In the following essay, English examines the subjective bases of the authorial consciousness that informs Keneally's novels, emphasizing specifically the textual connections between his own biography, his sense of history, and other written texts..]
In every aspect of his published writing and commentary, Thomas Keneally presents a consistent and uniform consciousness: he lives in a world of unresolved dualisms. The primary dualism is that which distinguishes the sacred potential of the will from the profane, finite betrayal of all bodies, or forms, most importantly the human body.
Keneally presumes that to be an author is to accept the task of eliminating these dualisms. He regards himself as a mediator in the eschatological struggle. He venerates and translates what he regards as authoritative, and he attempts to consecrate what he regards as mere form. He doesn't regard himself as a source or an authority. He once said "Order is beyond me" when referring to his research techniques, which is fortuitously emblematic of his total state of consciousness. Keneally is unable to accept the idea that truth, or analogues for truth, in the form of literary structures, might emanate from him and live independently of him in a life of their own. Such a situation would imply that we are alone in a fatherless universe and, since our product can live independently of us, mortal as well.
His need for what he himself calls "repositories of immortality" manifests itself as a general inability to relinquish authorship. While the "author" is in communication with the product of his imagination then finitude, an ending, is temporarily deferred. He remains an omniscient, self-conscious writer and his product becomes a self-created momentary order with which he can have a reflexive dialogue. With Keneally there can never be a created reality existing beyond the narrator's consciousness—there can be no true characterization, no arbitrary fate, no "past" if that means an entity existing in its own terms to which he must subject himself.
It is a commonplace paradox that the dualistic uncertainty of an author like Keneally which prevents him from relinquishing control, terminating his art, or accepting reminders of mortality, is the same uncertainty which prevents him from being truly an "author", if that is taken to mean the origin of authority. Patrick White, for example, is not self-conscious. He submits himself to his own vision with no idea of the outcome and no attempt to retain authority over the significance of what he says. As a result White is repetitive, or insistent as Don Anderson has put it, but he is truly original, an origin, whereas Keneally who avoids repetition because it becomes an analogue for the pointlessness of life, also remains profoundly unoriginal.
Keneally finds certitudes, or origins beyond his unresolved consciousness, in three major areas: (i) his own biography, and immediate experience, and the act of writing, because in this subjectivist world one's self is the most tangible entity, and the words on the page are miraculous objects which have precipitated in a sea of subjectivism; (ii) what he calls "the past" because it seems to have a neat order; and (iii) other written documents or literary works, because they offer, like one's own language, a defining point or authorising agent which calls out a reaction and relieves consciousness from the burden of finding its own literary-creative direction.
Keneally's reliance on the certainties of subjective experience has resulted in two novels which are obviously autobiographic, The Place at Whitton and Three Cheers For the Paraclete, as well as two novels which revisit the themes and text of previous works of his own, A Victim of the Aurora and Passenger. Perhaps more significantly, Keneally's reliance on his own vision or subjective perception for authority leads him to resort to surrealist fantasy of the sort in A Dutiful Daughter, which breaks out from time to time in otherwise realist narratives like Confederates, Blood Red, Sister Rose or Schindler's Ark.
The condition which constantly eludes Keneally is ordinariness, both in terms of event and narrative stance, because to sustain a created sense of ordinary reality requires him to engage in illusionism, to erect an analogical edifice which suggests the real through the intangible. The unseen is a threat for a consciousness like Keneally's, so that he is able to engage directly only with his own language, or alternatively to produce convulsive surreal fantasy, another version of subjectivism. As he puts it himself:
I've been reading Marshall McLuhan, and I've come to realise that print is only the most artificial repository of immortality—and that's what we're involved in, immortality. I'm wondering whether to cast off into a sea of pure fantasy.
One of the happiest outcomes of Keneally's need to use himself as an authorised source of information is the portrait of Phelim Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes, his second historical novel. It is a brilliantly confessional novel, and a true autobiography. The unrecognised achievement in this novel is how, with sentence-by-sentence precision, Keneally fits Halloran into a biographic scheme or proposition. The imagery, logic, vocabulary and event-sequence around this personality never deviates from the thesis that authoritarian belief systems produce a personality which is self-conscious, irresolute, fearful, dualistic, marginalised, morbid, fatalistic, powerless, superstitious—the complete victim.
All of Keneally's characters are framed inside this master-victim dualism, and he has broken no new ground in characterisation since Bring Larks and Heroes, because, I would suggest, he is not interested in being informed by the world beyond himself.
It should come as no surprise to find that a writer with Keneally's preoccupations should find the past more congenial than what he calls "the perilous moment in which we live". The "perils", of course, lurk in the uncertainties of the present. With the exception of the autobiographic and surrealist novels, along with the highly self-conscious Passenger, all of Keneally's novels are "historical" if that means set in the past.
Certainly the idea of the past is very reassuring for Keneally. As he said in 1975 when referring to the perilous present:
Writers will always be attracted by the past, it is less confusing than the present. Historians have already reduced it to some understandable unity for us. Their gift is beyond estimation.
He goes on to make another characteristic dualist claim that the past is merely "the present rendered fabulous", that is, the past offers a rock-like certitude against which he can project his irresolute consciousness; it is he as author who constructs the fable.
There are three aspects of Keneally's sense of the historical in his novels which are consistent with his own formulation. Perhaps most obviously, there is no sense in Keneally's historical novels that any one period is different from another, nor could there be if the past is merely the present, (that is, Keneally's present), rendered fabulous.
Keneally's portrayal of life in the past automatically, almost obsessively, dismisses the intractable, the foreign, the social structure, the determining context, in favor of an anachronist, knowing-humanist view in which all men and women of all nations and times have the same personality. The victims, Halloran, Jimmy Blacksmith, Jehanne, Usaph Bumpass, Poldeck Pfefferberg have mental processes, even occasionally speech mannerisms, which are indistinguishable: as do the masters—Major Sabian, Dowie Stead, Stonewall Jackson, or Sir Jean D'Aulon in 1422:
D'Aulon: They call me honest Jean. By that they mean I'm the poorest knight banneret in the army. I'm not married because no girl's old man is very interested in estates that have been in the keeping of the Goddams for the last eleven years….
Jehanne: Sir Jean, this is my page Minguet.
D'Aulon: Hello Sunshine!
Of course this passage has many elements familiar to readers of Keneally. There is the knowing compound allusive-ness available to an author with time to construct it, (but not to a participant feeling his way through the perilous present), and the verbal play ("honest Jean"), and the outrageous piece of triumphalist authorial wit ("Hello Sunshine!"). However, while there may be a respectable view of History to suggest that "there's nothing new under the sun" and all people in all cultures are the same, or while the Christian view of man, which Keneally presumably represents, might presume that there is an a-historical integrity of the individual soul before God and therefore historical periods are only constructs, there is still the possibility that Keneally needs to invade and demystify, or appropriate "the past", since the existence of the past indicates transience. If an event, an entity or an order of things is allowed to have existed beyond the narrator, then the narrator himself is threatened with mortality.
One only need think again of Patrick White's sense of the past, by comparison, to understand what Keneally finds difficult. White, the illusionist, traces out in The Twyborn Affair a series of intensely nostalgic sketches of the Edwardian South of France, Australia between the wars and London in the blitz. The places and periods are allowed to have existed and then relinquished.
If the first aspect of Keneally's sense of history is that he won't permit the past to exist outside his own consciousness, then the second is that his historical novels only ever concern themselves with war and violence. There may be a view of history which relates war to key social and economic changes, but this is not Keneally's reason for always writing about war. For him the intensities of acts of violence and military behavior are the extraordinary modes which he hopes will give meaning to the ordinary.
War or Civil Disturbance is one of the great certitudes. While a country or district is under arms the imponderable ordinariness of peacetime can be shelved. Action is required by the circumstance, life has a purpose and a given order. As a writer Keneally can take voyeuristic sustenance from the immediacy of the event without being threatened as he might have been in real life. From the tranquillity, the refuge, of his armchair and his omniscience, he can imagine his way into the bush with Jimmie Blacksmith, or into the Confederate army, or the carriage in which the Armistice is signed. He can be a General, fantasizing about rolling an army up this way or that, or he can think of the timely expedient of hosing down the hot cattle trucks carrying Jewish prisoners on their way to Auschwitz. It was actually a character called Sandie, but it could just as easily have been Keneally in Confederates who thinks, as he rides out behind Stonewall Jackson, "This is what it is to live … with a man who sees his job as being to whip history into shape".
Keneally also tends to behave as the omniscient repository of technical details, terms, and incidental observations which are placed, almost precipitated, into the narrative, presumably to add authenticity. The effect however, is often a voyeuristic fetishism, a suggestion that his fascination with the caliber and names of guns, the branches and anabranches of rivers, the precise ranks and army equivalents of officers of the S.S., compels in him an ambiguous boyish fascination. When Oskar Schindler is watching from what is literally his refuge, the shade of trees on the hill overlooking Krakusa Street, he notice that:
An armed S.S. man intervened. Beside the nondescript mass of Ghettomenschen, such a being, in his freshly pressed summer uniform, looked superbly fed and fresh. And from the hill you could see the oil on the machine pistol in his hand.
Of course Oskar could not have seen the oil, it is Keneally who imagines it, just as in Blood Red, Sister Rose it is not Sir Jean D'Aulon but Keneally who is interested in the precise place in the hierarchy occupied by a "knight banneret."
However, it is Keneally's specific obsession with violence that allows him to make what I think is his real contribution to historical understanding. Keneally is not one who wishes evil, pain or suffering on anybody; his interest in violence is merely one version of a larger morbid preoccupation with the relationship between significant and insignificant form, and in particular the moment of transgression, or violation, when the secrets of that most significant of forms, the body, might be revealed.
Keneally is an acknowledged master of the art of representing violence. His "technique" is not as deliberate as the term implies. His automatic and unvarying way of representing violence is to separate physical cause from conscious effect. Invariably the subjective consciousness learns, by observing that its mortal vessel the body is no longer intact, that it, the consciousness, is a function of another agent, the body. Keneally sees an act of violence as an eschatological experiment, a search for the essence in the form. Often, as in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a ripeness is split. Often death is administered by a probing bayonet, as it is by Terry Byrne in Bring Larks and Heroes who is enthralled by "the barbarous fluidity of his bayonet going in". The same bayonet is run into Albert in Confederates although Usaph Bumpass has, like Terry Byrne's victim, turned his buttocks to Albert expecting his own end. The murderers of Navaille in Blood Red, Sister Rose also have delving swords and later in the novel Jehanne wonders how she'll feel "When—to use Messire's phrase—the steel went in". It's Keneally's phrase, of course, but then Messire is also a deity.
In preparing this present study I've become conscious of how important a trigger for Keneally's imagination has been Joseph Heller's Catch-22. While he was researching Schindler's Ark he suggested that Schindler's Ark would be the Jewish version of Catch-22. Oskar Schindler is certainly the Axis answer to Milo Minderbinder, but the more urgent metaphor in Catch-22 that "The spirit gone, man is garbage", the message in Snowden's entrails, is one that infects Keneally like a disease; it may be that each of his novels is a version of Catch-22. Hunter Maguire in Confederates gets off his horse at the Culpeper pike to attend to Snowdon Andrews. He lifts the blanket to find that a "great mess of Snowdon's viscera was tumbled into the dust", and when Jehanne comes across an Englishman al Orleans whose "guts flopped red and grey out of a long belly wound", she wonders about how to tuck them back.
However it is perhaps Keneally's more general morbidity which helps him and his reader to fantasize into events of the past. Keneally gravitates towards the moment of "transubstantiation", when significance or essence leaves or enters a given form. The wider dualism at work in his military historical novels is the balance between the rarefied diverting abnormality of a civil emergency and the unsanctified ordinariness of everyday life.
Schindler's Ark, for example, is a monumental and thoroughly engrossing treatment of the Second World War because, thoroughly in accord with Keneally's minimalist smart-aleck view of historical cause and effect, most of the creative energy is spent establishing that the shooting and battlefield maneuvering has only a small place in the texture of the routine life of a country at war. Keneally replaces our adventure-film view of war as shooting with another kind of fantasising detail—what it was like to walk down a Cracow street in 1943, go shopping, catch a tram. How running a prison camp meant procuring permits for this that and the other, installing machinery, buying food, dealing with the Armaments Inspectorate. What Keneally in fact does is force together the two modes—decisive violence and everyday details of life, so that author and reader alike become engrossed by the obscenity of the process whereby something as horrendous as the final solution can be expressed in terms of supply and demand, train timetables, consignment notes.
A third aspect of Keneally's representation of history is that he does remain omniscient, not simply as the ordering intelligence which any historian will bring to his narrative, but as an all-knowing arbiter or deity. He enjoys the sense that as author the outcome is in his hands. He regards his novel as a world of his own creation, and his characters as beings whose lives are terminated at his will, not by the workings of an independent fate. Keneally enjoys being the repository of the future; he likes the suggestion that he has the prescience of a God when in fact all he has is the privilege of being the narrator. For example, in Confederates Horace Searcy, who is a journalist and spy, both attributes that make him an author-figure in this novel, is leaving on his mission to steal army battle orders, and we're told that:
… he and young Angus were riding through the shuttered town. It looked finally shuttered now, as if it knew the army and all its needs were going to vanish overnight, as if it were now money-counting time and time to take thought about what attitudes to strike whenever the Union army should arrive, as it would surely soon do, pursuing Lee.
And it is in Bring Larks and Heroes, the Keneally protonovel which is at once an analysis of the victim personality, the product of the dualistic self-conscious narrator, and the literary "mesh of sunlight and shade" from which the artist can conduct his arcane craft, that Halloran feels "above himself and Ann, the mercy of a story-teller".
Which brings us to the third of those experiences offering Keneally a resolving authority beyond himself. If his own subjectivity and "the past" each in their own way free Keneally from the burden of true authorship, he also relies heavily on a received order from other authors and documents. There is in fact a level of engagement in the historical novels which has nothing to do with the past al all. Keneally engages directly with his historical and literary sources because they at least are tangible; in the end however, he finds it difficult to take any received structure seriously.
In the 1975 statement in which he claims that the past "is less confusing than the present" Keneally also remarks of the past that it is the historians who "have already reduced it to some understandable unity for us", and he goes on perhaps archly to say that "their gift is beyond estimation". "Their gift" is certainly important for Keneally. It seems to me that his historical research is not directed towards finding out "the truth" about the past—it often seems superficial and too reliant on popular interpretation. What Keneally seems to need is a range of actual texts to play off as a kind of latent model: they provide the pre-existent order which allows him to achieve his tone of easy omniscient matter-of-factness. As he puts it himself:
With Jean and Blood Red, Sister Rose I had both the notes and four very good biographies of the lady to chart my course by. Anatole France, Regine Pernoud, Viola Sackville-West and Andrew Lang were continually consulted and read—I hope not for the purposes of plagiarism but because they provide ideas to expand or fight against.
Keneally is not a plagiarist, but he does enter into a dialogue with the source text to the point where its ordinary content and purpose can no longer hold his attention. The ironic suggestiveness of the French pronunciation of "Jean" which allows him to coin the phrase "honest Jean" is one example. Another is the growing suspicion in Blood Red, Sister Rose that Jehanne, having been called a duckling right through the novel has become in the epilogue a roast duckling for Keneally. And yet another is the unexpected insistence on the phrase "It's time" in Blood Red, Sister Rose, published in 1974, two years after the Australian Labour Party swept to power under the famous slogan "It's time." He certainly cannot sustain serious engagement with sober human reality for too long, as Veronica Brady points out when she accuses Keneally of being Apollonian, shrinking "from the Dionysian spirit" and points out that in Blood Red, Sister Rose "Novelist and reader stand off, voyeurs of decay, not participants in the human drama involved …".
The examples with which I'm most familiar in which Keneally practises a secret art and engages with neither the past, nor the ostensible story nor the historical documents are Bring Larks and Heroes and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. For each of these novels he has a "profane" literary model which he "reacts against" to give himself a sort of naughty-boy's minimalist joy in consecrating them.
For Bring Larks and Heroes the "profane" model is Hal Porter's The Tilled Cross and for Jimmie Blacksmith it is Frank Clune's Jimmy Governor. He derives much of the basic story for each of his novels from these two pre-existing models, but he also enters into a dialogue with them. Frank Clune's stolid misunderstandings of criminality, and his genteel evasiveness, are corrected and satirised time and time again by Keneally. Similarly while Porter's Queely Sheil has most of the characteristics of Halloran, Porter's rococo flights of fancy are mercilessly sent up either by being rewritten or alluded to. He also, with both sources, relies on them to define the parameters and referents of each story, choosing himself often only to vary, invert or otherwise comment on the detail.
Interestingly, too, for each of these novels there is a second antecedent model, one which in each case Keneally feels is worthy of appropriation, veneration or, to use his own term, is something "to expand". For Jimmie Blacksmith it is Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and for Bring Larks and Heroes it is Nabokov's Lolita. In this case he relies heavily on the thematic and metaphoric structures of the antecedent novels. Crime and Punishment lends Keneally in Jimmie Blacksmith a ready-made kit for discussions of "madness", "guilt", and identity, not to mention the axe-murder itself. It also offers things like the surreal school teacher McCready, who is modeled on Porfiry, plus the opportunity for jokes about Napoleon, Wellington boots and Dulcie, who in Jimmie's dream is both mother and religious sister, and finally the observation from Mr. Hyberry, (who is having trouble with his Grand Master) that "sewage was less contingent than crime and punishment" which makes sense if it is realized that while "CRAP" might only be the initials of a book title, it can certainly make its presence felt.
Similarly, Lolita provides Keneally with themes about authorship, identity and authenticity, the nature of art, the artist as voyeur observing from his refuge, the concept of two selves and the idea of the omniscient author being the deity who can both terminate life and the novel. It also provides some specific metaphors and events which otherwise give the novel an unspecified density. The surreal involvement of the Blythes in the hanging of Halloran and Ann derives much of its creative energy from the confrontation between Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert at the end of Lolita. Halloran "has the illusion of closing the door on so many rooms" in his life just as Humbert "lucidly insane, crazily calm" goes about trying to close the doors in Quilty's house. The Blythes and Humbert and Quilty argue about potency. Mr. Blythe and Humbert are both toting pistols, they are both locked out and manage to get in, they both cause their better halves to rise up; while Clare plays the piano and dances in the air Mrs. Blythe hears wet leaves outside "tinkling with chandelier music" which she wants to dance to, and so on.
All this is what Veronica Brady might think of as a profound disengagement from the ordinary realities of events in an actual historical past, or for that matter the present. Keneally, like Jean Farlow in Lolita, gravitates towards "a place of green concealment, spying on nature," where he joins the robed author Quilty, and his own squadron of author-prophets, Hearn and Halloran on their wooded hills, Gilda's baby and McCreadie in Jimmie Blacksmith, both in hoods, Private William Hood up a tree in Confederates spying on the Union army, Joan of Arc in her red thigh cloak, or Oskar Schindler watching from the woods as the toddler in Krakusa Street "dressed in a small scarlet coat and cap" makes a "scarlet node" in the street. But then in this case as Oskar watched from the woods above the ghetto, and as we might expect if the tranquil safety of a Breughel canvas suddenly came to life:
Everything seemed speeded-up, difficult for the viewers on the hill to keep pace with. Those who had emerged were shot where they stood on the pavement, flying out over the gutters from the impact of the bullets, gushing blood into the drains.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5476
SOURCE: "'White Ravens' in a World of Violence: German Connections in Thomas Keneally's Fiction," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, October, 1989, pp. 160-73.
[In the essay below, Petersson investigates the parallels between Keneally's use of German imagery and the Australian cultural experience, correlating German traits to similar Australian values.]
Despite an increasing diversity in both modes of, and critical approaches to Australian writing, the question of cultural specificity has remained one of the foremost issues. How do we see and represent ourselves? What distinguishes us from other cultures? What do we want to be? These are some of the major questions raised. The debate about 'radical/nationalist' vs. 'universalist' positions and their 'postcolonial' variants may have become more refined, but hardly less self-conscious. Cultural independence comprises the readiness to look for similarities as well as differences, for models and anti-models 'out there'. Perhaps cosmopolitan rather than universalist, Thomas Keneally is one of those novelists who have addressed national issues in an international framework, and contemporary problems in an historical perspective. Keneally says that he has found history an easier paradigm to work with than the present, and that the best sort of historical novel is 'the one which is really about the present and uses the past as a sort of working model', a novel 'in which the human issues are the same as those we have now, and have always had to face'. In analogy to the use of the past as 'a parable for the present', Keneally's use of foreign settings and characters can be assumed to be paradigmatic, providing reference points for Australia, and raising questions about both human behavior in general and Australian issues in particular.
Among the cultural 'hetero-images' in Australian writing of the past four decades, German images have, for obvious reasons, been mostly unfavorable. They have usually emphasized the pretensions of 'high culture' and the incomprehensible transition from civilization to the barbarity of Nazism. By and large, German-speaking societies have been set off as 'the others', representing what Australians do not want to be. In a sense, therefore, Keneally's German images are an exception. Two major characters in his novels are Germans, Matthias Erzberger in Gossip from the Forest (1975) and Oskar Schindler in Schindter's Ark (1982), and so are some minor characters in A Family Madness (1985). Linking up with Keneally's preoccupation with war, violence and times of crisis, and with individual behavior in extreme situations, the two world wars provide the historical context for his German images: the armistice after the First World War in Gossip, events of the Second in the other novels.
There are some striking similarities between the German characters in Keneally's novels. They are outsiders who come from the periphery of the German Reich, both regionally and culturally. Though publicly functioning within the ideological and social system, or even representing it officially (a system which is either disintegrating or proves to be downright evil), these men are at odds with its mainstream developments. Within a merciless environment, they retain an unusual sense of human responsibility. None of them is portrayed as a 'flawless innocent' or a larger-than-life-sized idealist; in fact, they all are rather ambivalent. This applies to Erzberger, whom Keneally sees as 'a classic contradictory character', to Willi Ganz (of A Family Madness) and, most obviously, to Oskar Schindler, whose story has fascinated Keneally and who, in his own words, 'was such a fantastic character that it's hard to imagine making up a character who would be as contradictory, picaresque and large'. Keneally himself has emphasized the concern in his novels with 'men of decency' who fight historic causes 'on which they can't quite get a grip', and he says that he finds it more and more striking 'how every generation seems to produce independent spirits, the people who evade conditioning'. Erzberger, Schindler and Ganz (and some of the other minor German characters) have in common such an independence of spirit, a nonconformity which is all the more striking when set off against a background of extreme relentlessness or even barbarity.
Matthias Erzberger, leader of the German armistice delegation, is the center of attention in Gossip from the Forest, and even more obviously so in the dramatised version of the novel. Erzberger is a tragic figure. A moderate politician, he is dispatched by a collapsing political system that is hardly able to back him up any more. It is he, a civilian, who is expected to end the sufferings of war, whereas the military shun their responsibility. What he observes of the situation of soldiers and civilians on both sides, spurs him on to accomplish a truce ('All the fathers had abandoned the front and left their children behind'). But this compels him to accept the ruinous and humiliating terms on which Marshal Foch insists. These terms would increase poverty and famine in Germany and eventually, as foreshadowed in the novel, fuel the nationalistic and anti-democratic forces and help to establish Nazi tyranny. Erzberger knows the implications: the enemies despise him on the one hand for being one of the monsters 'liable for the mustard-gassed and the torpedoed corpses', and on the other for being weak and indulgent, a compassionate humanist ('Wemyss: Imagine those chaps trying the starving-children line?).' His compatriots, for their part, despise him for his way of ending the chaotic war situation. They will blame him for the disastrous outcome, call him and his companions the 'November criminals' and finally murder him.
Keneally's novel informs the reader extensively about the historical implications of Erzberger's career and, through it, about the German (and European) situation, by including documented facts and comments, but also through a poetic subtext of reverberating imagery. When one compares Keneally's portrayal of Erzberger with a scholarly study on the politician such as Klaus Epstein's Matthias Erzberger and the Dilemma of German Democracy, one realises that Keneally followed closely the results of research regarding both the personal and the political situation. Like the biography, the novel stresses Erzberger's Swabian peasant background which so markedly distinguished him from the ruling upper classes in the capital Berlin in various ways: in dialect and religion, appearance and manners, education and refinement. Erzberger, a southerner and a bright country boy, is constantly aware of the condescension and contempt with which the Prussian aristocrats and officers regard him, the outsider: 'He had never got used to facing the blue eyes and sculptured faces of the vons of the earth; there were still movements of bumpkin disquiet in his stomach, the belly calling him back to his peasant stale'. The novel highlights a sense of inferiority that makes Erzberger wonder whether he can live up to the greatness of his task: 'He thought, we won't get far because this is long traveling, it's Dante's hell and all we can expect is a further circle. And the worst thing is I have no Alighieri stature. I'm just a happy glutton with a head for figures and a little wife'. Although the novel, more than the biography, suggests an ambivalence of character ('His motives were both opportunist and visionary: that was Erzberger's nature'), it construes as predominant qualities Erzberger's incorruptible conscience, and his compassion and sympathy for the simple people. Rather than presenting a German character as the enemy, or as the embodiment of odious German imperial pretensions, the novel focuses on a man with a humble background, a basic decency and a sense of responsibility for the ordinary human causes. That he may appear petty in the eyes of the great and powerful adds to his qualities, and also to the sense that he is constructed to comprise some traditional Australian values. In emphasising those idiosyncrasies which originate from his social and ethnic provenance, the characterisation of Erzberger implicitly draws parallels to Australian cultural experience. There is firstly an association with postcolonial white Australians who lived at the periphery of the British Empire, as the Southern Germans did with regard to the Prussian dominance in the German Reich. There is also the parallel to an aspect of Australian society: Erzberger's Catholicism and his Swabian ethnicity put him in a marginal position similar to that of the Irish-Catholic minority in Australia (a theme treated in Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes). The author's sympathies would certainly be with the outsider.
In an obvious departure from historical sources, the name of one of the German delegates is changed from Count Alfred Oberndorff (still used in the first edition) to Count von Maiberling. Considerations involving the Oberndorff family prompted the author to rename this character, who seems constructed more freely than others, as a contrast to Erzberger on the one hand, and a symbol of a general decadence on the other. Another, at first glance minor, divergence is the novel's treatment of the umbrella connected with Erzberger's death. In Epstein's detailed account of the assassination, it is Erzberger's companion Diez who carried an umbrella on the fatal walk in the Black Forest. Gossip equips Erzberger with the umbrella and transforms it into one of the symbolic or allusive elements of imagery used to intensify the significance of events. In Erzberger's premonitory dream the umbrella is urged on him by his wife against his will, a 'treacherous', 'terrible' and 'sickening' umbrella, one which threatens rather than protects. From its bullet-holes, pale young soldiers struggle and attack Erzberger. The corresponding murder scene at the end of the novel reads:
Erzberger had forgotten his dream of 1918. All he had was the normal sense of déjà-vu. Impelled by it he opened his umbrella. Diez hit them with his. But Erzberger yielded to his supine nub and blotted them out with black silk.
Through this false hemisphere he was shot in the chest and forehead. (my emphasis)
In this scene Erzberger is presented as fatalistically prepared, as both unwilling and unable to defend himself. However, the umbrella image also carries geographical and historical overtones. The soldiers rising from the 'blood-bespattered' bullet-holes point towards the future war (as do also the Nazi arm bands the murderers put on in Keneally's playtext), and the metaphoric umbrella as a 'false hemisphere' suggests the old world as a terrible, treacherous place which can no longer protect the decent or innocent.
To be sure, Keneally's novel does not promote the southern hemisphere as a better alternative, nor does it refer explicitly to any Australian participation in the 'Great War'. But there is an Australian subtext in the novel, although Australia as a place figures only in a marginal episode where the British Admiral Lord Wemyss remembers a voyage around the world in the 1870s, visiting the distant parts of the British Empire with the future King. Wemyss's nostalgic retrospection to the 'benign imperial concept', 'the empire which was not only a geographical reality but a resonant abstraction also' evokes the decline of the British Empire and the 'collapse' of Europe. These the author sees as one of the most disturbing events for the Australian consciousness, and their effects on Australia underlie many of his books. Thus the links with Australia in Gossip are implied, for one thing, in the historical consequences. The choice of Erzberger as a protagonist and his characterisation provide another, more subtle link.
Whereas Erzberger eventually loses—personally when he is murdered, politically because his working for a peaceful democratic Germany will prove to have been in vain—Oskar Schindler is obviously more successful. Most critics and reviewers have emphasised the sense of hope that prevails in Schindler's Ark and sets it off from Keneally's earlier, more pessimistic novels. However, the novel's optimism is not based on the perception of an encouraging progress in humankind or societies at large, but rather on what the author sees as manifestations of independence and grandeur of spirit in individual human beings such as Schindler, 'an ordinary German who evaded the conditioning of his culture, his childhood and the politics, in a highly individualistic way'. In Schindler's Ark, a documentary novel described as 'imaginative historical journalism', the German protagonist once more functions as the outsider. Like Erzberger, Schindler comes from the periphery, and because of his background, his life-style and his attitudes, the respectable and powerful treat him with patronising condescension: 'He was Sudeten German, Arkansas to their Manhattan, Liverpool to their Cambridge'. Schindler is 'virtuous' in a strange sense. He provides a sanctuary for Jewish prisoners and saves many of them from death at the risk of his own life, but he 'worked within or, at least, on the strength of, a corrupt and savage scheme'. This scheme is reminiscent of the penal colony in Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes, but it is more outrageous and horrific in its dimensions, 'one which filled Europe with camps of varying but consistent inhumanity and created a submerged, unspoken-of nation of prisoners'. And, as in Bring Larks and Heroes, 'the gaoler actively conspires with the gaoled in order to subvert the system'.
Keneally's novel depicts several other positive characters besides Schindler, people who try to relieve the suffering and undermine the monstrous machine of mass-murder. The narrator tells their stories, but seems fascinated only by Schindler. One dissenter of kindred spirit, Wachtmeister Bosko, helps Schindler to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto. When he turns his back on the system completely and joins the partisans, the book stresses that he remains ineffective. He 'secretly despised himself and had contempt for partial rescues', the narrator comments, and 'Bosko wanted to save everyone, and would soon try to, and perish for it'. Only jovial Schindler with his playboy exterior, the apolitical capitalist, one who drinks and plays cards with the devil, succeeds in saving many victims because he is cunning and makes use of the oppressors' own modes and manners. The question of motivation underlies Keneally's reconstruction of Schindler's amazing story. Some critics in Australia and overseas argue that the book gives no satisfactory answers, others have questioned its ideological implications. Comments on its protagonist range from 'a man chosen by some divine force for its own ends', to an anti-intellectual, a 'Voss in the 80s, on the rebound from the Australian desert, back in his home patch, shorn of idealism'. The puzzling ambivalence of Schindler's character certainly pervades the novel as an informing theme. When Schindler is juxtaposed with his cruel opponent Amon Goeth, the commandant 'who went to the work of murder as calmly as a clerk goes to his office', the novel evokes a Jungian dichotomy of good and evil, with Goeth as the shadow of Schindler's persona ('the reflection can hardly be avoided that Amon was Oskar's dark brother, was the berserk and fanatic executioner Oskar might, by some unhappy reversal of his appetites, have become'). In Keneally's narrative Schindler has integrated the polar opposites within himself to a practical, social and humane wholeness. He becomes what in German is called a weisser Rabe, an exceptional 'white raven' who, aware of the evil intentions of his peers and familiar with their fatal methods, acts for deliverance and life instead of suffering and death. However, by concentrating hope on an exceptional person who can outwit a savage system only on a small scale, Keneally's novel puts forward an individualist and basically pessimistic view of history.
In examining representational patterns in Australian narrative, Graeme Turner fits Schindler's Ark into that section of literary treatment of imprisonment ('our most enduring literary and mythic image') which presents 'moral criticism of the gaolers in order to propose the moral superiority of those incarcerated'. Another critic, Michael Hollington, argues that Keneally's novel owes more to 'the mythology of the bush than to that of Central Europe'. Investigating the novel's 'subterranean connection with Australia', Hollington finds that Schindler represents features of the Australian bush hero and outlaw and calls him 'the Ned Kelly of Cracow'. Referring to the Schweik stereotype in the characterisation of Schindler, he evokes Brecht as a contrast: 'Brecht's 'red statements' about Nazi Germany remain superior: his Schweiks are not heroes, but they at least grasp that you get somewhere only when the office of "just man" is abolished'; and, "'Australia," read as the natural impulse of the heart, isn't ultimately an effective counterweight to "Europe.'" However, Brecht believed that humankind could learn and 'get somewhere', that change is possible (and that the artist can contribute to this educational process)—but Keneally obviously does not, nor does he believe in 'salvation through a political system'. He rather admits an instinctive and strong belief in original sin, or, in his own words, assumes that there is 'a problem at man's core that can't be overcome by any particular system'. Accentuated by keywords such as madness, lunacy, insanity, savagery, violence, corruption or brutality, the world presented in Keneally's writing continues to be a world of terror despite the occasional 'white raven', Australian or European. It is this lack of hope in historical progress that Keneally's portrayals of the Germans Erzberger and Schindler have in common with some of his more revolutionary characters such as Jehanne in Blood Red, Sister Rose or Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes.
At this point it is worthwhile to look at some problematic aspects of the relation between the use of fact (or documented material) and fiction in Keneally's writing. One issue has already been mentioned in connection with the changing of the name of Count Oberndorff in Gossip from the Forest, that is, the sensitivities of living 'characters' or their relatives towards possible distortions. For Schindler's Ark, Keneally did thorough research. He interviewed a great many witnesses all over the world, and tried to be as exact or 'documentary' as possible. This method, on the one hand, attracted the criticism of those who did not consider the book a 'novel', a work of fiction and creative imagination, when Keneally was to be awarded the Booker Prize. But it also attracted criticism from some who felt there was too much fictional embellishment or courting of effects in the book, at the cost of a more reliable documentation of historical evidence and facts. (In the case of transcribing oral history, it would, however, always be difficult to decide who does the 'construing' of events—those who tell their story from memory, or those who structure it into written form.) During a recent stay in Germany, I spoke to one of the Jewish survivors saved by Schindler, who was interviewed by Keneally and included as a character in his book. I must respect his wish to remain anonymous for his own reasons, but some of his general remarks are important enough to be noted. Although this person did not question the overall value and quality of Keneally's book, he had some objections and proposed some corrections concerning particular (though minor) details described, which he remembers differently and regards as unrealistic fictional adornments. The importance of such questionable details lies not in their relevance for the story by and large, the witness pointed out, but rather in the fact that inaccuracies play into the hands of reactionists who have doubted the measure of Nazi atrocities and have even tried, for defensive purposes, to discredit reports from extermination camps as untruthful exaggerations. (And one is reminded of a recent trend in Germany towards national apologetics in connection with the so-called Historikerstreit.) Perhaps the implications of these controversies can only be fully appreciated in a society confronted with such a terrible history. The problematic relation between 'real' and 'realistic' remains, and also between the 'imaginative' and the 'documentary' rendering of historical truth in writing. Is Schindler's story, presented in a realist mode and based on witness accounts and documents, more real, true or credible than, for instance, Himmelfarb's story in Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot, 'created' as fiction and lacking a realistic description of the brutality involved? And, to carry the question further, is the sensational presentation of savagery, e.g. in The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas, more likely to shake up complacency than the quiet, laconic and ostensibly distanced approach of Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah?
With A Family Madness Keneally moves closer back to the mainstream fictional genre, although this book, too, is based on historical material (and on an Australian incident). The novel combines two strands of narrative, one set in Europe around the time of the Second World War, the other in Australia of the 1980s. The two parts are interwoven by thematic and structural devices, thus providing an obvious illustration of Keneally's concept of linking history with the present. The Belorussian immigrant family Kabbelski/Kabbel serve as an external connection. Forty years after the war, the Kabbels are still unable to lay to rest the ghosts of a savage past, gradually revealed as the Australian story develops. This haunting past is juxtaposed with the reality of a contemporary Australia in the process of losing the qualities of a sanctuary. Through a network of parallels and associations, imagery and comments, the narrative suggests that events, settings and situations may be different, but basic human predicaments resemble one another; that humankind finds itself placed dangerously at 'the cutting edge of history'; and that the belief in possible safety is an illusion.
Focusing on the fate of the Kabbelski family, the European part of the novel also portrays two German characters who swim against the tide, trying to preserve some decency in a savage environment: the SS Oberführer Willi Ganz and, a minor character, the young Wehrmacht sergeant Jasper. The novel picks up motifs from Gossip and from Schindler's Ark. Willi Ganz is an outsider like Erzberger and Schindler, but one of a different kind. As the German provincial governor in an occupied Belorussian town, he represents the 'white raven' within the black flock of German SS officials whose brutal ambitions are aimed at complete extermination of the Jewish population and of political enemies. His attempts to bring about a policy of moderation and to protect some of the victims fail completely and let him become the target of a murder plot, executed by Russian partisans, but contrived by his own superiors. Ganz is modeled on the German Generalkommissar in Belorussia, Wilhelm Kube, a 'civilian' administrator and thus a rival of the SS. In comparing the representations of Kube in historical, and Ganz in fictional writing, the latter emerges as a much more human and positive figure than the former—perhaps an indication of the author's tendency to explore both sides of the coin in his fiction?
There is no sense of hope in Keneally's representation of the Belorussian world. As in Season in Purgatory, all participating sides act with utmost brutality: occupiers and partisans, Germans, Poles, Soviet Russians and Belorussians. An aesthete and artist, Ganz does not really fit into that scheme, but he is too vulnerable to be effective or even to survive. Unlike Schindler's, his individualism is esoteric, elitist and escapist, and unlike Schindler, Ganz fails to recognize that 'no one could find refuge any more behind the idea of German culture' (Schindler's Ark) and that the values of enlightenment are vain in an age of darkness, where 'both Germans and Russians behave like savages' and the locals assist for the sake of nationalism. Ganz commits himself through his compassion and thereby courts danger, but he can save no one. The novel presents his attempts to escape into a world of art and refined culture, of friendship, children and domestic peacefulness, as an attitude of resignation, a retreat into a utopian dream that can never cope with the brutal reality. The 'Bavarian sentimentalist' Jasper, presented as a more genuinely 'innocent' character than Ganz, is 'a representative of that generation of Europeans who were all forced at great pace to learn a fierce amount about themselves and their fellows during those years in the furnace'. But, like Bosko in Schindler's Ark, he is eliminated before his resistance to the system has any effect. Like some of the German soldiers in Season in Purgatory, Jasper is a victim himself, conscripted and exploited by the regime.
Despite an occasional ambivalence towards the character Ganz, the novel uses him and Jasper to point up the helplessness of the decent individual within an evil or deteriorating world. Thus he is thematically related to the Australian protagonist, Delaney, who also tries to save others, but fails to prevent the decline in his mate's and his lover's lives and in his own. Though the consequences are of a different scale, a sense of resignation in the face of the inevitable, but also of guilt and confusion connects both parts of the narrative. The madness of the title is not restricted to the story of the Kabbel family and their past, but echoed in aspects of societal developments in contemporary urban Australia. Like Delaney, several of the foreign characters are ordinary people, with ordinary hopes and expectations. There is nothing megalomaniac about them, and they become guilty in pursuit of such aims as nationalism, patriotism, self-preservation, family protection—aims with positive connotations as Australian values.
One of the narrative devices of linking Australian and European experience in A Family Madness is the literary reference to The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. Keneally admires the experimental qualities of Grass's novel, and he may have found in the German author's work attitudes, concerns and topics both congenial and challenging to his own views, e.g., a strong though critical affinity with Catholic tradition, combined with a kind of social and political 'moralism', a preference for realistic descriptions of lower-middle-class surroundings, and for the interweaving of the fictitious private foreground with the historical public events in the background. Both authors share a boldness in verbally attacking (or ignoring) sexual taboos (often to unmask bourgeois hypocrisy), an ironic tone and (occasionally grim) humor, and a taste for the picaresque. The Tin Drum covers the same time span as the Kabbelski accounts in A Family Madness, and both novels evoke the history of Europe in the first half of this century, dwelling particularly on the time of the Third Reich. There are some parallels between the fictitious narrators Oskar Matzerath and Rudi Kabbel. Their recollections present history through the perspective of a child endowed with the understanding of an adult. Both are exiles, and both are victims who are eventually driven into madness by the insanity of their environment. Whereas Oskar's refusal to grow up is a visible protest, Rudi's refusal to accept the world as it is, manifests itself in his vision and in his depending on voices and the imaginary uncle. The most interesting aspect of this literary connection concerns the way in which Keneally's book presents the German novel to the (Australian) readers; that is, for one thing, which themes from The Tin Drum are highlighted and how they are related to the narrative, and, for another, the impression the book makes on the Australian protagonist of A Family Madness. By having Delaney read some of the explanatory course notes to The Tin Drum, several central themes are outlined which, though referring to Grass's novel, also allude to themes in Delaney's own story. The connections with the Kabbelski story and with the terrible consequences of nationalism in occupied Belorussia are obvious; those with Australia are more allusive. When Delaney starts to read the novel, he is conscious only of the girl behind the book, but already he senses an imminent threat. The danger implied works on two levels: in private life the love affair jeopardising his marriage and career, in public life an increasing societal instability. The allusion to the 'Glass Night' in the notes foreshadows a subsequent incident of violence connected with the urban 'guerilla warfare', where windows are broken and a bag of glass is emptied on the car park, an incident that points to some disturbing features of contemporary urban development. Whereas Oskar's dwarfism as a trope for deliberately retarded consciousness is made explicit, the consequences of another (albeit less devastating) retarded consciousness in the Australian reality of Delaney and his mates reveal themselves only gradually and less conspicuously. Thus the early juxtaposing of the Tin Drum notes and Delaney's Rugby League diary operates like a warning: later in the novel, Delaney's world of sport, this 'perfect model of an imperfect world', will be infected by increasing brutality.
A further reference to The Tin Drum is used to contrast European and Australian perceptions. Delaney is impressed and confused by the opening chapter of The Tin Drum, 'The Wide Skirt', which tells the story of Oskar's grandfather who, persecuted by the police, escapes under the skirts of Anna in a potato field. The setting of the episode, 'somewhere around the borders of Poland and Germany', does not really interest Delaney. He 'preferred in fact for the young fugitive's politics to be vague and for the location to be a no-man's-land, a land still to be invented'—there is an association with a Utopia, an Australian topos. Whereas in Grass's novel there is an immediate motivation for the persecution, Delaney in his dreams associates it more generally with a Kafkaesque situation of the alienated individual in a threatening world. The wish for security found under Anna's skirts is a recurrent motif in Grass's novel, as is, in Keneally's, the wish for ultimate security. Delaney relates the skirt image to his almost pious longing for the ideal love, the ideal woman embodied by a medieval picture of a woman with a unicorn, symbolising chastity and faithfulness—ironically just the qualities Delaney is about to destroy. His wish to find 'the woman at the middle of things' informs his love for Danielle, and he tries to adapt her European strangeness to his sphere, by imagining her as the woman surrounded not only by unicorn and lion but also by kangaroos and emus. For the 'innocent' Australian, Delaney, the world evoked in The Tin Drum and the 'dark atmosphere of that book' remain alien and frightening. He feels relieved when Danielle in her course moves on to a novel more lucid and familiar to him, Our Man in Havana, where the atmosphere is homely and humane because there are heroes and villains, whereas 'in The Tin Drum there were escapees sheltering in weird and joyous places; a mother and an uncle loved each other; midgets could break glass with their voices; horses' heads squirmed with eels; and a woman ate herself to death with fish oil'. Delaney's reaction indicates that the Australian reader might find it difficult to understand Grass's novel and the (un-British) European world it presents, therefore its images remain meaningless to him. But there is an irony in the novel's use of art as an indicator of innocence or decadence. Grass's The Tin Drum apparently does not appeal to Delaney, nor does it suit his 'Australian ethos'. Yet by exposing the mounting violence endangering society, the Australian part of the narrative also creates a 'dark atmosphere', one without a clear-cut division between heroes and villains. Delaney's own story evokes, among other things, an Australian wish for Utopia not fulfilled.
I have suggested that Keneally uses the German images in his fiction to explore a different kind of experience but at the same time to relate them to aspects of specifically Australian issues. By treating such issues in another cultural and historical context, Keneally's narratives indirectly also complement, expand and comment on problems of Australian self-definition. Some positive traits of the German characters correspond to positive values of Australian self-images, and are therefore affirmative. The negative ones serve to correct or change self-images and draw attention to inherent dangers in Australian society. Referring to a dictum, common in his youth, that one 'could only get perspective on Australia by seeing it from outside', Keneally calls those of his historical novels set outside Australia the equivalents of a 'literary overseas trip'. This links up with the notion of an 'accidental Australianness' which Keneally shares with Malouf and other writers, and of the alternatives that can at least be written out, if not lived out. The European world of violence in Keneally's writing could be read as a reversal of an 'antipodean' myth, implying that hell is over there. More than this, however, it is a way of fictionally distancing fundamental human issues which also affect Australian self-understanding. Many of Keneally's characters have a Utopian dream, an insight that there are better possibilities worth striving for. But as a small nation such as Australia seems helpless against the influence of overwhelming powers, some of the protagonists in Keneally's fiction, including several German characters, seem helpless before the terrific task of changing the course of things—be it history, the system, or simply humankind's cruelty. Keneally sees the Germans as 'a fit study for anyone interested in humanity'. Thus the German characters in his fiction are presented not so much as 'ogres', but rather as exemplifying more widespread trends which in turn mirror 'what always goes on'.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934
SOURCE: A review of The Place Where Souls Are Born, in Commonweal, June 5, 1992, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review, Swickfaults The Place Where Souls are Born for its "confused mosiac" of Native American history and for Keneally's dependence on secondary sources.]
Here is an interesting idea: A book by an Australian, introduced by a Welsh woman, about the least "European" region of the United States.
It helps your natural dubiousness to learn that the Australian is the highly regarded Thomas Keneally (author of, among other books, Schindler's List) and the Welsh woman is the doyenne of contemporary travel writers, Jan Morris, who over the last few years has enlisted some of her favorite authors as contributors to a travel series called "Destinations." With The Place Where Souls Are Born, Keneally joins an impressive list that includes M. F. K. Fisher, Herbert Gold, and William Murray.
I am sorry to report, however, that his book is not as engaging as the others in the series. My suspicions were aroused when I turned to the acknowledgments page at the back. (New books, like new cars, should be looked over carefully, front and back, before being started.) Almost the entire page is taken up with the titles of the books that helped Keneally along the way, while four lines are given to the names of the people. This, I thought to myself, could be a long haul.
The journey covers four states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico (all decoratively mapped in the front). But the book is not concerned with the mechanics of travel—we hear little about the long drives from state to state and almost nothing about the author's wife and daughter who are accompanying him—but rather the ravages of history.
Keneally starts off, outside Denver, with some recreational skiing and lengthy ruminations on the Ute Indians. From the former activity, we get: "Aerobics at high and lovely altitudes have a very humanizing influence on a marriage"—an observation that is felicitous even while being somewhat pompous.
But Keneally's real interest is with the Indians. "The Ute were intransigent nomads…. They were dangerous fellows, a peril to European livestock and to European stock. Like the Celts, they honored warriorhood. They were stub-born."
This passage sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is replete with historical vignettes, culled from the books listed on the acknowledgments page, interlaced with personal reflections. By the time we get to New Mexico, having made a counter-clockwise loop from Denver, we have read about more tribes than we can remember. Keneally, apart from his obvious respect for these peoples, seems to delight in the very mention of their names and the names of their settlements. "A pause was thereby brought to the essential Eagle Clan and Arrow Shaft ceremonies. Other Hopi in Oraibi, Waipi, Shungopovi, and Mishongnovi, so that they could take over the ceremonies and continue the cycle, decided that the population of Awatobi should be massacred."
There seem to be two fundamental problems with Keneally's approach. A travel book—especially one built, like this one, around a journey (as opposed to the "sedentary" travel books of Gerald Brenan and Elliot Paul)—is by nature cursory and impressionistic. The history of the native peoples of the American Southwest is ancient and complex, and so does not lend itself to this sort of passing glance. Instead of a revealing portrait, we get a confused mosaic.
Considering this handicap, it might have made more sense to focus on how Native Americans are faring in the "European" Southwest of today. In fact, that Southwest is curiously absent from these pages. Apart from some brief descriptions of the suburban sprawl of Phoenix and Albuquerque, there is little sense of contemporary life. Too many passages, with their recollections of the past, sound as if they were written—or at least could have been—back home in Sydney.
One of the most interesting parts of the book, for me, is the discussion of D. H. Lawrence—a superb travel writer himself—and his relationship to this part of the world. "We cannot go back to the savages," he wrote, "not a stride. We can be in sympathy with them. We can take a great curve in their direction…. But we cannot turn the current of our life backwards…. So many 'reformers' and 'idealists' who glorify the savages in America. They are death-birds, life-haters. Renegades." Keneally, calling Lawrence "an unrepentant Caucasian," claims that his point is "the crucial debate in our relationship to tribal people and is still being argued in New Mexico and elsewhere." But, sad to say, it is not much argued in these pages.
The other problem with the book is that Keneally depends so heavily on secondary sources. He spends entirely too much time with his history books, especially for a man who is so seemingly enamored of the intuitive ways of native peoples. Rarely are we introduced to living people, and when we are, rarely do they speak. There is virtually no dialogue—a critical failing for a travel book.
I suspect that the culprits here are Keneally's wife and daughter. Though, as I've said, we hardly hear of them, they are always silently present, keeping the author from getting around and meeting the people who would give his book life. Last year at the Key West Literary Seminar on Travel Writing, a distinguished panel was asked if travel writing had to be a solitary pursuit. The unanimous answer was yes. "Sad but true," added Jan Morris.
My advice to Keneally: Next time, leave home without them.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156
SOURCE: "The Woman Who Lost Her Children," in New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1993, p. 9.
[In the following review, Schaeffer outlines the plot and themes of Woman of the Inner Sea.]
What would you do if you were a happily married woman whose husband had an affair with a woman who came to obsess him—and then a mysterious catastrophe took your two beloved children from you forever? Would you have the emotional stamina to survive? If you are one of those fortunate people who hasn't experienced this kind of tragedy, you don't know. Kate Gaffney-Kozinski, the heroine of Thomas Keneally's 20th novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, doesn't know either—even though it has all happened to her—but she is about to find out.
Kate was raised as a modern woman, trained to think of the frenzy of motherhood as something primitive. Wealthy and privileged in her beach house near Sydney, she came to believe that life would be one long, sun-drenched idyll. When her marriage collapsed and her children were gone, she became, according to her uncle, the roguish Rev. Frank O'Brien, the "Queen of Sorrows." She needs to rediscover how to live, needs to learn "what is required of me now."
Kate is looking for a personal myth or fable that can explain her own life and give her purpose. She is convinced, as is her Uncle Frank, who has carefully passed his own beliefs along to her, that it does not matter what gods you believe in as long as you have gods to believe in, gods that can give you faith to see you through a life all too often disfigured by suffering. It is not necessary, according to Uncle Frank, to worship only "the Other. The Dressed-up One."
Kate does not seek wisdom in the "big, loud, mad cities" where, she believes, there is no truth to be found; instead, she sets off for the outback. Acting as a "free traveler," she decides to let the "wide-spaced towns educate her," then randomly settles in Myambagh, in central Australia, because it "looked most eminently a town of habit," a town tailored exactly to her requirements: "She wanted to be amongst those country faces anyhow. She wanted to feed numbly on them. From the present, poisoned world, she wanted to track back with the help of those faces to the safer Australia … where people called lunch dinner and dinner tea."
Kate takes up residence in Murchison's Railway Hotel and quickly comes to see the hotel bar as a kind of church, a sacred place "of holiness and taboo like other places of this nature: the weighing room at racecourses, the middle box of a confessional." In this bar are men who have also become holy. Each one, the owner tells her, is "bloody famous for something." Each, in other words, has a purpose and knows what it is. Sitting at the bar, "they thought they were pleasing themselves but in fact were at a kind of work, fulfilling a function, occupying spaces which had to be occupied to insure that things lasted and that constellations stayed in place."
Kate herself is soon ordained as a barmaid in this holy place. And when one of the floods that periodically threaten Myambagh arrives, Kate, who has begun an odd affair with a man called Jelly (not for his weight, but because he handles gelignite, an explosive he has learned to use in the construction business) goes with him on his sacred mission to dynamite the railway levee that is trapping the flood waters near the town. They are joined by a bar mate, Gus Schulberger, and his pets, an emu named Menzies and a kangaroo named Chifley. But all are led by Jelly, who after dying in his effort to save the town "would have such renown in Myambagh tomorrow, a man who would have rounded the circle of his own appointed fable."
With Jelly gone, Kate turns to Gus—and to Chifley, the tame kangaroo, whose ability to leap through the air restores her faith in salvation. Weighed down as she is by guilt, which has slowed and trapped her, she sees Chifley as something of a god, perhaps as her own child, certainly a symbol of freedom.
Before Kate's adventures in the outback end, her dead lover, Jelly, is transformed from a mere hero of Myambagh into someone of truly mythic stature, and Gus, who has rescued the emu and the kangaroo, has become a folk hero. When Kate returns to Sydney, she has learned what she needs to know: that suffering is in the nature of things; that the worst catastrophe that can occur is merely one among many; and that no crisis, however enormous, justifies expending everything on it.
These are, as Kate's Uncle Frank tells her, simple truths, but hard to grasp. Yet now that she knows them, she is free to revenge herself on her husband, free to solve the riddle of her children's deaths, free to lift the undeserved burden of guilt from her own shoulders. She reaches, as Mr. Keneally tells us in his final passage, "the illusorily static point appropriate to the closure of a tale." In his concluding line—"We all wish her nothing but well"—he underscores his theme: life does not always leave us happy. Trouble never ends. And Kate, like everyone else, will need our good wishes.
Woman of the Inner Sea succeeds on many fronts. It is a picaresque and often hilarious adventure story, recounting one woman's unforgettable if improbable travels. It is a series of love stories, as Kate meets the man who is appropriate for her at each stage of her life, and it is a mystery story as well. But the novel is also very much an exploration of ethics. What is a good person? asks Mr. Keneally. And what is good behavior? A good life? Does an individual existence have a purpose and, if so, what is it?
"Kate is in her way a strong character," Mr. Keneally tells us. "She's not like someone out of Ionesco." And, he adds, "it is all very well for novelists not to believe in character, but what if the characters themselves have been raised to believe in it?" This question gives us a strong insight into Mr. Keneally's own purpose. He regards modern urban life as a wasteland where people no longer speak the truth. In Woman of the Inner Sea, he stands up for his own verities.
The world we live in is, according to Mr. Keneally, "poisoned" and overcivilized materially, while spiritually it is dangerously undernourished. Using all his novelistic skills (including uproarious humor) he asserts and makes convincing the very serious belief that each of us has a necessary place—and that our most important task is to find it. Woman of the Inner Sea is a magical fable about how this can be done.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
SOURCE: "Is There Birth After Death" in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, p. 7.
[In the following review of Woman of the Inner Sea, Rifkind focuses on the characterization of the book's heroine.]
Australia, like America, was built on the promise of reinvention. Live here, it urged its immigrants, and be someone your old world would never permit. Thomas Keneally's 20th novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, reinvents the theme of reinvention. Set in the heart of Australia, the book asks a universal question. Is it possible to transform yourself after you have suffered the greatest loss you could ever imagine?
Keneally is an impeccable writer with a longstanding international reputation whose books have had settings as various as Nazi-dominated Europe (Schindler's List) and the interior of a hijacked airplane (Flying Hero Class). He has written about his native country many times as well. But, the contemporary Australia of this new novel has a particular dual purpose. Its miles of empty red earth, stringybark and eucalyptus, savage storms and eccentric wildlife represent more than just the external landscape through which the book's main character, Kate Gaffney-Kozinski, travels; the fluid unpredictability of the land also mirrors Kate's transformation as she makes her way from the coast toward the country's interior.
In her former life Kate had been the pampered but neglected wife of a Sydney real-estate tycoon. Lacking her husband's affection, she had poured all her resources—a beautiful home on the beach, limitless money, fine taste and the best intentions—into the art of motherhood. No matter that Paul spent more time with his mistress than with his two children; Kate made up for it by being the kind of mother who enrolls her toddler son in a class to learn to catch a ball, who rejoices in her agile daughter's swimming speed, who perches near their rooms at night to feel "the voiceless motors of her children's sleep."
In the space of a tragic afternoon Kate's maternity is erased. A house charred to its foundations, a husband screaming accusations and two small coffins are evidence of how completely her conscientiousness has come to nothing. She boards a train for the interior, hoping to lose herself in the country's great yawning center, to be "breathed in by the great antipodean stupefaction." The place Kate chooses for her self-annihilation is the "three-minute town" of Myambagh, where she finds work as a barmaid at Murchison's Railway hotel and concentrates the rest of her numb energy on getting as anonymously fat as possible on the pub's steady supply of steak and beer.
Myambagh, built on the hard flat rock of what was once an immense inland sea, is a town where a four-wheel drive is the key to survival, not a suburban affectation. The local economy relies on the certainty of brutal annual rains, which cause floods of biblical proportions: the time between yearly inundations is spent nailing, patching and plastering the town back together in preparation for the next disaster.
Kate likes Myambagh's soothing guarantees of loss made routine and unsurprising. She also likes the regulars at Murchison's, who have made a liturgy out of the strict unspoken code of pub behavior. These include Jelly, an obese pensioner with a hero's reputation for using dynamite to blast back the floods; Guthega, a loudmouth whose son holds the local championship for sheep-shearing; and Gus a cracker-jack mechanic.
Despite the town's preparations, the inevitable rains come, and Myambagh is once again swallowed by flood. At the height of the well-publicized catastrophe, fearing that the news cameras will betray her hiding place to her family in Sydney. Kate escapes westward again, closer to the country's obscuring core. This time she's not alone: Gus travels with her, attended by his pet emu and kangaroo.
Keneally's characters are archetypes to a man and woman, not to mention those two hugely symbolic animals, who happen to appear on the coat of arms of the commonwealth of Australia. His purpose is to invoke the Australian frontier tradition which, like all frontier cultures, seeks to reinvent ordinary people as icons and mythic figures.
While the major Australian icons have always been men, Keneally augments his country's tradition by making Kate the story's hero. In the tragedy of her dead children and her subsequent pilgrimage, Kate represents a nation on a perpetual search for reinvention, a nation hardened by countless histories of cash hunger, tough luck and untimely death; by the principle, as Keneally writes, "that the order of the world is loss followed by loss" in an unpredictable, unforgiving landscape.
Yet Kate is, to the author's credit, an utterly believable individual as well as an icon. Outlining the vastness of a mother's grief is one of literature's hardest challenges. The very outlandishness of Kate's pilgrimage (at one point, she and Gus pose as animal wranglers on a movie set with the emu and the kangaroo in tow) is made plausible by her bereavement: after suffering like hers, Keneally is suggesting, nothing surprises.
Woman of the Inner Sea is not a long book, but it has a wealth of complex characterization and action of a kind that few contemporary novels provide in any length. Keneally is a born storyteller whose writing becomes more clean and purposeful with every book. The experience of reading his latest work provides more grateful pleasure than the usual vocabulary of promotional cliches could ever begin to describe.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969
SOURCE: "Wizard of Oz with Jet Lag and Too Busy for His Own Good," in The Observer, September 12, 1993, p. 53.
[In the review below, Conrad finds the arguments and production values of Memoirs from a Young Republic "shockingly amateurish.".]
Writers are the makers and the keepers of a nation's identity. Thomas Keneally (or Tom, as he now matily styles himself) has done as much as any living writer to identify and extol Australia. He deals with the bogus ceremonial of its European settlement in The Playmaker, and with the suppressed tragedy of aboriginal dispossession in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; in Outback he tramps across its dusty, torrid, adored terrain.
He was an inevitable choice as chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, which aims to make the country at long last its own master by severing constitutional links with Britain before the centenary of federation in 2001. Why then has he now disgraced himself and degraded the cause by writing such a shoddy, ill-argued book about it?
Please don't mistake me for an expatriate loyalist. The republican cause is as dear to me as it is to Keneally, and in my wallet I carry one of the ARM's trinkets, an unspendable five dollar bill from which the Queen's face has been meticulously expunged by nail polish remover. I too will feel proud when I finally have a passport which treats me as a citizen rather than the subject of a non-resident and increasingly unmajestic Majesty. But before I accept the jumble of anecdote and propaganda in Memoirs from a Young Republic as an emotional and intellectual justification for this epochal change, I'll drop a curtsy in the main street of Wagga Wagga.
Keneally's conviction of historical inevitability absolves him from having to do anything except repeat that the republic is coming, whether the Windsors are ready or not. Paraphrasing law books, he works through the iniquities of the current Australian constitution; he also recites the usual list of local gripes against Britain, which commandeered colonial troops for use as cannon fodder at Gallipoli in 1916 but declined to defend Australia against the Japanese in 1942.
His own contribution to the debate consists of a claim that 'Jenny Kee, the couturier' can't market her wares in Asia because Australia is still perceived to be a 'white supremacist' bastion, and a lament that, during his own promotional junkets across America, he has had difficulty explaining the monarchical connection to 'deconstructionists like Harold Bloom and Jacques Derrida' (who, given the self-centeredness of Yale and its cabalistic high priests, probably suffer from a more basic bemusement about where and what Australia is). There have to better reasons than facilitation of the rag trade and a spanielling desire to earn Derrida's approbation!
Keneally's analysis of Australia's ancient servility towards Britain, recycled from a review of Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore, is interesting; he blames it on 'our penal origins', which encouraged Australians to see themselves as 'the fallen, the spiritually defeated', requiring redemption by a mystical White Goddess like Elizabeth II.
The same demoralization is probably responsible for the economic malaise of a country which can no longer lazily trot to prosperity on the back of its merino sheep. Keneally trusts that affluence will return, along with self-respect, when the 'mercantile protectorate' is ended. This surely over-estimates the curative powers of a quick constitutional fix. Keneally's case is not helped by a quote from the poet Les Murray, who windily prophesies 'a surge of creative energy' the moment the Union Jack is lowered. Australia needs entrepreneurs, not more state-subsidised novelists.
The fuzziness of Keneally's thinking might be forgivable if his book weren't so sloppily put together. Grammar and syntax frequently slump out of control, and he manages to misspell the names of Randolph Stow and Peter Shaffer, colleagues he professes to admire.
He is, admittedly, a busy man. He casually mentions that in 1990 he wrote three books and a screenplay simultaneously, and reveals that while compiling Memoirs from a Young Republic he worked on a new novel and ghosted the autobiography of 'the great Manly Warringah utility player Des Hasler' (a footballer, in case you were wondering). He now commutes between continents as well as projects, hopping from Sydney to California, where he teaches creative writing, with detours every few months to England to promote the latest of those mass-produced books. Recently there have been diversions to Prague, where Spielberg was filming Schindler's Ark, and humanitarian expeditions to Eritrea. 'I work a lot on planes', Keneally confesses. Alas, it shows.
He tends to excuse political blunders by pleading jet lag. On one return to Australia, when his body arrived in advance of his brain, an interviewer asked him for a short list of presidential candidates. Keneally provoked a scandal by blurting out the names of 'a number of women: Ita Buttrose, Geraldine Doogue, Faith Bandler….' Not exactly world-class ladies: after considerable research I ascertained that the first used to edit the Australian Women's Weekly; the second is that most unbearably light-headed of beings, a television personality; and the third has the fortune—in the grievance-culture of political correctness—to be the daughter of an enslaved plantation worker from the New Hebrides. If the plangent question of the cultural cringers is 'Who among us is worthy, Lord?', then I'm afraid the answer is 'None of the above'.
Meanwhile Joan Sutherland—the only woman with the proper theatrical training for the post-regal role, though disqualified by her DBE and OM—was faxing support to the royal resistance from her tax-free fastness above Montreux ('in the Helvetian Republic', as Keneally tartly comments), and declaring that the republicans deserved transportation to Australia, which is where they were already. This shockingly amateurish book makes me feel, in spite of my own sympathies, that she has a point. Cry, the beloved country.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
SOURCE: A review of Jacko the Great Intruder, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 879-80.
[In the review below, King praises the cultural insights and narrative strategies of Jacko the Great Intrude.]
Jacko the Great Intruder is the most complicated novel Thomas Keneally has written and the most exciting to read. While it will not get the same attention as Schindler's Ark or Confederates, it is probably even a better novel and would make an excellent film, provided that a way could be found to treat the many flashbacks, the changes in place, and the multiple strands of the narrative, which are essential to the story.
Jacko is one of Keneally's studies in the strange ways of goodness and evil in this world. A product of Australia's immense, largely uninhabited, remote Northern Territory, he is a contradictory mixture of ambition, energy, roughness, cunning, bad taste, good will, sentimentality, and enthusiasms, who lives dangerously, carelessly, as likely to shock with his disregard for the feelings of others as unexpectedly to do good. Seemingly unrooted, except in Australian matesmanship, he belongs to a crude, hardy, still lawless culture, in which toughness, survival, and individuality produce larger-than-life characters with few of the social refinements, liberal guilts, or squeamishness of the cities.
The novel follows Jacko's career as a television interviewer, itself analogous to the increasing international role of Australia in the communications and arts industries, from Australia to New York to California. Jacko has a more vulgar kind of Australian low taste, lack of propriety, and imprudence which makes even American television appear inhibited, but he can have moments of bravery and moral obsessions which endanger his career and life and which, by contrast, show how hardened others, especially Americans, have become to the evils of modern life. If this is a novel about cultural contrasts, it is also, surprisingly for Keneally, a story about manners and morals in which the most sensitive, compassionate, and conscious are not necessarily the best. If Jacko is the great intruder, invading homes to interview people, invading lives to get what he can, carelessly breaking legal contracts, careless of his marriage, he leads demonstrators in destroying the Berlin Wall while other television reporters get the best footage. He spends months tracing a missing person and, finding her in slavery in California, is so overcome with her condition that he throws away the best program of his life and then pays from his own pocket to send her to Australia to recover. Jacko the Great Intruder is a complex novel, but one of its themes concerns a brash, naive innocence still found in parts of Australia in contrast to a jaded, equivocating, refined high seriousness and political correctness which has left much of the West without active moral courage.
The novel involves various times, moves between continents, and shifts of focus between the lives of many characters, including a novelist narrator who resembles Keneally and a Nobel Prize laureate who resembles Patrick White. Still, the stories and lives are so interesting that the book reads like a collection of Australian yarns. A realist who bases his material on the recognizable, Keneally now has the mastery of form that many critics associate with magical realism or the postmodern, yet he remains a Catholic novelist concerned with good and evil and an Australian writer who tells a good tale.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2845
SOURCE: "'The Critics Made Me': The Receptions of Thomas Keneally and Australian Literary Culture," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 17, No. l, May, 1995, pp. 99-103.
[In the essay below, Pierce examines the motives of Keneally's detractors.]
While Thomas Keneally himself generously acknowledges that 'the critics made me', few Australian authors—in the course of long, productive and internationally acclaimed careers—have suffered such critical opprobrium in their own country. His perception of causes soon to be fashionable (such as the treatment of Australian Aborigines), his insistence on how the Australian present can be traced to its European social and intellectual origins, his espousal of an Australian republic, have held up a mirror to a generation of Australian readers. Nevertheless he has been subject to censure by some academic critics without losing a loyal general readership, in Australia and overseas.
It is received wisdom in some quarters that Keneally's work has steadily fallen off in quality since the early 1970s; that his treatment of female characters has been misogynist; that his novels show an inordinate interest in, and relish for, violence; that—in the case of Season in Purgatory (1976)–Keneally was a plagiarist; that his Irish origins and republican affiliations (properly separate matters, between which Keneally at least is capable of distinguishing) somehow discredit, or diminish, his literary achievements; finally that his art has suffered from success and excess, from the prolific and profitable professional career which Keneally has established. If these charges cohered, let alone if all of them could be sustained, they would amount to a weightier indictment than any ever previously brought against an Australian author. Investigating why this is so, why Keneally has apparently caused such grievous and abiding offence to some critics, will illuminate murky aspects of the literary culture of this country.
In the last year, the most vicious assault on Keneally's reputation came in the course of a 5AN radio discussion, broadcast on 26 July 1994. Christopher Pearson, a pro-monarchist and editor of the Adelaide Review offered this gambit:
I remember learning about a St. Patrick's Day speech where Tom Keneally described the Queen as 'a colostomy bag on the Australian body politic'. It's a memorable phrase and it seems to me to suggest the quality of the passion that drives him.
Keneally denied that his simile had been so colorful. Instead he recalled a tamer offering: 'like a briefcase carried at arm's length or … the constitutional equivalent of a colostomy bag'. And he pleaded 'a few Guinesses too many'. That convivial admission further incited his adversary, who moved savagely sideways from a consideration of Keneally's support for an Australian republic to damn him as a novelist. Belittling Keneally's literary credentials was presumably intended to deride, by association, the political cause of republicanism.
This commentator continued:
the best that the Republic Movement can do is to trot out a novelist who's burnt out basically, who's done his best work early and who's never overcome the plagiarism charges of Season in Purgatory and is now writing warm, fuzzy holocaust novels and who's obviously in a sense looking for rehabilitation, to rediscover a role for himself as a man of public affairs.
These intemperate and inaccurate charges indicate the depth of rancor which exists in some recesses of Australian cultural life, when Keneally is at issue. While Pearson's invective scarcely deserves rebuttal, one can remark that, in the last decade, this burnt-out case has written his finest and funniest anatomies of Australian contemporary life—A Family Madness (1985) and Woman of the Inner Sea (1992)–besides brilliantly revisiting his first critical success, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), in the altogether more benign tale of our European origins, The Playmaker (1987). The 'plagiarism charges' are now forgotten, and the matter of Keneally's guilt was at best ambiguous. Nor is Keneally now 'writing warm, fuzzy holocaust novels'. He has never written one. And Schindler's Ark (if that is the book meant) was published thirteen years ago.
No honour was satisfied by this exchange, nor could any conclusions be reached from it, except as concerns the pathology of some Australian monarchists. But larger questions were raised: why has criticism of Keneally's work (as novelist and public figure) been so vexed and bitter? What have the effects of this been on his career? What cultural problems in Australia do the attacks on him, and his responses to them, expose?
An answer to these linked questions suggests that Pearson's spleen was extreme, but not exceptional. Keneally has suffered from the high expectations that critics foisted on him in the late 1960s. As long afterwards as March 1991, the anonymous author of the 'Shelf Life' column in the Sunday Age sadly intoned that:
There was a time when he looked the natural successor to Patrick White. Over the years, however, Thomas Keneally has done his best to turn himself into our one popular international writer.
Forget Carey, West, McCullough for the moment, Keneally is being slighted here not only for not succeeding White, but for securing acclaim overseas. A writer's pardonable ambitions (to be distinctive, and successful) are disdained. The source of resentment of Keneally is obscure, but the caricature offered of the author is a potent one. Keneally has been described as 'the most notable Australian example of a not unfamiliar type: the potentially major talent which dissipates itself in commercialism' (Craven). Such a comment leaves no escape for the author, whose financial rewards are disparaged as the waste of a talent with which evidently they have no connection.
Recognizing the currency of this parody of himself, Keneally was finally goaded into responding to his Australian critics. On 13 November 1993 he had a letter published in the Weekend Australian where he expressed 'a genuine anguish and bemusement'. He had been especially upset by reviews of two of his books that year: the novel Jacko (by Michael Sharkey) and Our Republic (by Imré Salusinszky). Keneally's response was to recount the literary awards which he had won, at home and abroad; the critical and commercial success he had had overseas; the honors bestowed upon him, for instance a Distinguished Professorship for Life in the University of California system. Accordingly Keneally wondered what he had to prove to certain Australian critics, as distinct from his reading public? How was he to square parochial pundits' views of his falling away with 'the experience of having every novel published during the period of my supposed decline praised by literary figures in the New York Times Review of Books and elsewhere'. Why was it, Keneally continued, that no foreign review was ever 'as bitter and intimately rancorous as the ones I frequently received in Australia?'
Critical opprobrium towards Keneally began in earnest in the 1970s, after the publication of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Keneally concedes that he courted trouble. Reminiscing two decades later, he admitted: 'part of it is my folly. I attacked academics. I was a real smart-arse when I was young'. Some of these academics did not forget. Historian Henry Reynolds characterised the novel reductively as 'very much a book of its time'. Reynolds contended that 'at worst', it
shared faults with some contemporary Government policies which, though superficially well-meaning, were paternalistic in execution and burdened with an unconscious legacy of ancestral racism.
How Keneally, with his deeply imbued memories of the history of the Irish at home and in Australia, responded to this presumptuous charge is not recorded. Not for the last time he was suffering from the confusion of the political agenda of others with an evaluation of his fiction; suffering, too, because he is a cultural barometer, who draws for his art on the most contentious issues just before their season of wider publicity.
In 1974 Keneally found himself the subject of an astonishing commentary. Under attack was his alleged relish for violence. Purportedly reviewing The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a critic ventured ad hominem speculations of an unpleasant, unwarranted kind:
One gets the impression … that Keneally turns to the past not out of historical interest but for the opportunity that a more brutal past affords him to express his taste for blood.
Off-handed psychoanalysis of Keneally's vampirism consorted with the hand-me-down terms of Leavisite critical reproof as the reviewer concluded:
The chief obstacle in the way of his development now is the violence within himself which he must renounce before he can enter the vast world of productive human relationships … An angry writer can achieve power and intensity; but he rarely grows.
This anticipated other occasions when Keneally's character would be insulted in the guise of literary judgment, and critics arrogate the right to dictate the course his career should take.
As that career progressed, Keneally was subject to one of the more insidious tactics of marginalization practiced in Australian literary circles. This is a pseudo-argument that affects to demonstrate how local writers of once splendid talents often suffer a lamentable decline in their powers. Envy appears in the guise of invidious comparisons, made in sorrowing tones. Writers such as Williamson, Murray and Carey, besides Keneally, have had later works disparaged by comparison with all that their earlier ones supposedly promised. Williamson commented on this phenomenon with a rueful wit:
You were discovered, given premature canonization, the artistic hopes of Australia were placed on your shoulders, then if you happened to have a critical reverse you were subjected to savage retribution and you spent the rest of your life wandering from bar to bar wondering why you weren't Dostoevsky.
Keneally has had plenty of experience of this treatment. One commentator opined that 'the early stuff was remarkable, the later stuff less demanding'. No specific instances were given. Another claimed that
his artistic career is paradigmatic of the path of so much creative talent and so many people in this country: from potential excellence to ineluctable mediocrity; from daring and excitement to chafing comfort; from passion to anomie.
O'Hearn begged questions. Why should there be an 'ineluctable' path to mediocrity for Australian writers? Does this indicate an ingrained pessimism among certain critics as to the worth of the Australian product? Or is it that they cannot forgive their early enthusiasms for authors whose subsequent development has failed to please them? And if a writer seeks 'comfort', and this is conceived in terms of material rewards, why should it chafe?
As David Marr's recent edition of Patrick White Letters (1994) shows, the novelist he was once deemed likely to succeed attacked Keneally viciously in private. On 18 March 1968 he wrote to James Stern, an American critic, that he would:
like to write about Larks and Heroes, but I am prejudiced by all the publicity from this rather revolting little bog-Irish almost priest married to a renegade nun.
Snobbery apart, we will never know (but would not previously have been inclined to suspect) whether jealousy of a potential rival was one motive for White's response to the novel which he had just read. More acrid is his undisguised sectarianism. Keneally would find that sentiment resurfacing in an attempt to discredit his espousal of republicanism.
With evident reluctance, Keneally has developed ways of responding to critical assaults upon him. The letter to the Weekend Australian was a blunt, exasperated reaction. His strategies have usually been subtler. One has been his willingness to give interviews, cannily crafted to set the terms for an appraisal of his writing. For many years Keneally has responded generously to requests from around the world for accounts of his work practices, recently to Zhang Wei-hong, who wrote a PhD thesis on "Thomas Keneally's Work as a Continuum" for the Beijing Foreign Studies University. Peter Quartermaine, in his monograph Thomas Keneally (1991), represented the author as "a man of the people," who yet "remains a very private person in his concerns, and wary of the effects of publicity". Less "wary" than cunning perhaps: several of the epigraphs in Quartermaine's book are drawn directly from interviews with or essays by Keneally.
Another of Keneally's responses to attack has been the pose of indifference to criticism, and the assertion that he is determined to write on regardless. Keneally is sensible of what the Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, styled "the Paris option"—exile abroad, as a gesture of contempt for ungrateful local critics. That exile is literal, in that Keneally spends lengthy periods each year absent from Australia, making himself less frequently "a motley to the view" and resigning from the Chair of the Australian Republican Movement. It is also a metaphorical (if intermittent) withdrawal from Australia, into the solace of an overseas reception of his work that continues to be warm, in contrast with his Australian reception.
Publicity kits, such as Heinemann produced for Jacko, included encomia of his previous work by Bernard Levin and Graham Greene. But there is a risk in advertising, or depending on, praise from abroad. The comparison of his favourable reception overseas with what he now perceives as an entrenched hostility among some Australian critics becomes sterile, as Keneally surely knows. Moreover, his appeal to international arbitration can be attacked on the very grounds of national independence which—when concerned with Australian sovereignty—he would strongly espouse. Keneally has provided his adversaries with weapons to use against him. For instance, writing as much as he does guarantees that some of his novels will be more highly wrought than others.
By making his public profile more than that of an author, Keneally has also invited attacks on his politics which, once made, have been used to tarnish his credentials as a writer. Keneally has never claimed that his stature as a novelist underwrites his opinions on an Australian republic. Nor has he heeded those (with whose interests at heart?) who have called on him to write less, and spend more time instead on revision. Or perhaps he has listened. After three books in 1993, none appeared in 1994, not even under the pseudonym, 'William Coyle', which Keneally adopted for two novels of the Second World War.
Keneally's critical reputation has been so fiercely disputed for so long that any diagnostician of Australian culture must speculate why this is so. Both the genius of the national literature and—less fortunately—the sovereign temper of literary history and criticism in Australia are melodramatic. The manifestations of such a temper are many, and usually pernicious. In a melodramatic action and setting, the villainous prey on the virtuous. A heightened, hysterical and adversarial language characterises, at the same time as it disables discourse. The argumentative habit of dichotomy, so often truculent and embattled, prevails. As it happens, Keneally is one of the most acute analysts of the national melodrama. To the extent that he is a victim, however, he has had to endure persecution without sufficient warrant; has seen his career divided into lopsided parts, with the consequent critical neglect of his fine work during the last decade. With a growing and pardonable testiness, Keneally has endured attempts to dispossess him, to remove him from an academically if not generally approved canon of Australian literature.
The melodramatic vision is paranoid. The hero-victim feels persecuted beyond any reasonable measure of offence. It is a tribute to Keneally's moral resilience, to the equability and generosity of his temperament, to an apprehension that he can appeal over the head of critics to the people, and—of course—to his continuing dedication to his craft that he has survived what may look increasingly to him like systematic persecution from some Australian critics. The critical reception of Thomas Keneally is by now a complicated and contradictory business that is three decades old. He has had loyal, long-term advocates (for all that they have occasionally been disappointed): David English, Brian Kiernan, Leonie Kramer and Adrian Mitchell among them. That his reception nevertheless seems to be narrower and more prejudiced these days is an indication of cultural malaise rather than the exhaustion of the author. One wonders whether critics have made of Keneally the scapegoat for their own distaste for, or lack of confidence in, Australian culture, so that attacks on his art, subjects, politics signify a cultural death-wish?
But that is too negative a note, Keneally's relationship with the critics who once 'made' him has always been dynamic. Reckoning with their strictures, he has made amends, however wryly, for his earlier portrayals of women, for which he was taken to task in the 1980s by Shirley Walker and Frances McInhemy. More importantly, Keneally has engineered a seismic shift in his career between "alienation" and "affirmation," as he told Zhang Wei-hong (173). Criticism of Keneally's fiction may in the end have been more creative than destructive, in that it released the rejoicing side of his imagination; led him from Bring Larks and Heroes to The Playmaker, from his first novel, The Place at Whitton, which features a literal witch, to Woman of the Inner Sea, where the unhistrionic bravery of a woman is explored. Criticism did not discourage Keneally's desire to write a comédie humaine in the antipodes, although he has never thought of Australia as anything but part of one world, where we are all in the same boat, or ark, and where we all hang together.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 967
SOURCE: "A Hard Life in Haunted Spaces," in New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1995, p. 12.
[In the following review, McCulloughassesses the narrative style of A River Town.]
Traditionally, the annual announcement of the Booker Prize, Britain's most famous fiction award, comes accompanied by ready-made controversy. But when Thomas Keneally won in 1982 for Schindler's Ark (published in the United States as Schindler's List), the outcry was over an issue more basic than the usual squabble over quality. The book was non-fiction, the protesters said, and not a novel at all.
Such confusion over the line that separates fiction and nonfiction seems to be a typical problem for Mr. Keneally. But then few novelists are quite so invisible as he is. Like a master character actor, he disappears into his subjects. Whether he is dealing with Joan of Arc or the American Civil War or the negotiations leading up to the end of World War I or revolt and famine in contemporary East Africa, the grace and clarity of his writing style—not to mention his facility as a story teller—often get overlooked because he works so magically with such mundane things as facts.
Which is why I am sorry Mr. Keneally has let it slip with hints on the dedication page and in prepublication interviews that his impassioned new novel—his 21st—is based on events in the lives of his grandparents, real Irish immigrants who ran a real grocery store in a raw little Australian river town back at the turn of the century. This simply opens the way for the kind of speculation that always hounds Mr. Keneally. That any of A River Town is "real" or "true" or "based on fact" should be beside the point. It is a wonderfully rich novel, and readers should appreciate Mr. Keneally—who has never as a writer been emotionally more visible—not as an especially clever cryptohistorian but as a novelist with a vision of his own.
The name of the river town is Kempsey, an isolated village on the banks of the Macleay River, hundreds of miles north of Sydney. The year is 1899. The Victorian era is about to end. An aging British Empire is feeling the strains of civil war in South Africa and appealing to its colonies for help (or perhaps simply for cannon fodder). An infant Australia is debating its future: how unified does it want to be, how independent of that distant island so many of its residents still call home? In Kempsey, the future is embodied in the pilings of a bridge being built across the Macleay that promises to unite a handful of scattered villages into a city.
At present, though, it is a divided little town, with English and Irish—few think of themselves as Australians—maintaining an uneasy and distrustful peace. Tim Shea, from County Cork, owns one of the town's general stores, one that can count on its Irish clientele but needs some wealthy English customers to prosper.
Tim is a good man trying to do an honest job, extending more credit than is probably wise, but he is haunted by dreams and memories and what he considers his responsibilities. He regrets losing a successful pub he was unable to buy because his arranged bride from home, Kitty, did not arrive in time (pub owners must be married men). He daydreams about the beautiful wife of one of his wealthiest customers. Although he cannot afford to, he secretly takes on the financial care of an orphaned farm girl simply because he was one of the first to arrive at the scene of her father's fatal accident.
Most of all, he is haunted by a dead young woman. No one knows her name; no one remembers having ever seen her. She died during an illegal abortion. Her body was buried in a local graveyard, but her head has been placed in an alcohol-filled jar that is being shown around the countryside (although not to "respectable" women) by an especially inept policeman.
Inexorably, step by step, always by doing what he believes to be the good or right thing, Tim digs himself deeper into trouble. Often he is accompanied, against his better judgment, by a traveling Punjabi herbalist, someone even lower on the social scale than an Irishman. At his lowest ebb, Tim is even suspected of introducing bubonic plague to the Macleay Valley.
A River Town is hardly a lyrical novel. There is a curious stillness about it. The relentless heat is palpable. Smoke from wildfires in the nearby mountains clouds the sky. The countryside around Kempsey, places with names like Euroka and Dongdingalong, seems drab and featureless. As Mr. Keneally describes it, only the river—the community's link to the outside world—is alive and moving, relentlessly sweeping with a force that just recently cut a new path to the sea.
This is a truly compassionate novel, full of vividly portrayed outcasts. They are outsiders in a nation of outsiders who are only beginning to define themselves in their new home, people who thought that "if they traveled 12,000 miles, they might outrun original sin." Instead, Mr. Keneally writes, they found that "the old Adam was already waiting for them on the new shores. Met every damned boat."
The final pages seem a bit hurried, as if the characters, having met this crisis, were in a rush to get on with their lives. Or perhaps the author realized that in the conclusion of Tim Shea's heroic, seemingly predestined story are the seeds of a broader, even more complex tale that needs to be written as soon as possible. Either way, A River Town is a finely told novel. It is fired with the passion and hidden poetry that only a sure and experienced novelist can bring to fiction.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2628
SOURCE: "Grand Gestures," in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 10, May 25, 1995, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review, Hospital emphasizes the millennial tone of A River Town, comparing the novel's themes on Australia in 1900 to comtemporary Australian experience.]
There is something about a millennium, something about the clicking over of zeros on the odometer of history that sends a frowsy doomsday swell welling up from under, Good round numbers beget both end-of-an-age unease and unreasonable hopes. They breed signs and wonders. They inspire large gestures towards New Beginnings.
In 1900, the year in which Thomas Keneally's most recent novel situates itself, the separate Australian colonies were reeling from economic depression and the worst drought since European settlement began in 1788. There were catastrophic losses of cattle and sheep, wheat plummeted to less than one-tenth of pre-drought yield, dustbowl conditions prevailed, bushfires raged, farmers and squatters were forced to abandon their land. Far away, the sons of these hard-pressed farmers were dying under British generals in other people's wars: the Boer War in South Africa, the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China. And above and beyond all this, most ominous of doomsday signs in that apocalyptic year, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney.
In 1900, in short, death was swift and common in the six Australian colonies: from drought, bushfire, battle, accident, disease. And yet for most settlers, compared to what was left behind—the dreary lives of the impoverished and the excluded of London, Glasgow, rural Ireland—Australia was still the promised land. Indeed, the revellers of 26 January 1900, celebrating the centenary of the First Fleet's arrival, had a jubilant and self-confident view of themselves, not as the transplanted pawns of empire in exile at the 'world's worse end', but as Australians, a lucky people, fiercely independent, with hope and initiative in their tucker bags.
In spite of plague and hard times, grand gestures toward a new age were definitely in order, and on 1 January 1901, federation of the six colonies as the Commonwealth of Australia took place. An editorial in the Worker (Brisbane) on 5 January 1901 reflected the messianic optimism:
For good or ill the several Australian colonies now constitute what is known as the Australian Commonwealth … and what was a group of colonies steps upwards and onwards to the dignity of a Nation. Victorians, Queenslanders, or Westralians will be unknown, and every child born of the soil, or approved and naturalised colonist, will in future be an Australian. An Australian; a citizen of a nation whose realm is a continent and whose destiny is—what?…
Australia has ever been an exemplar to the old lands. From the first establishment of responsible government within its borders it has steadily forged ahead, initiating and perfecting, experimenting and legislating, on new lines. By a happy fortune it sprang up free of most of the superstitions, traditions, class distinctions, and sanctified fables and fallacies of the older nations. What few of them were bound about it it has shaken itself free of, and stands on the threshold of the future with its fate in its own hands.
Nevertheless there were, in the small bastions of transplanted gentry, fierce voices raised against "disloyalty" to Britain. Irish settlers were deemed particularly culpable, their motives and their Australian patriotism suspect. No one, needless to say, so much as consulted the indigenous population on the question. The dark underside of 1900 has been powerfully explored in another Keneally novel set in the same millennial year, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
All this sounds oddly familiar as Australia approaches the year 2000, staggering out from under economic recession and from the worst drought of the century, the old millennial urge for a New Beginning still running strong. It is the promise of Prime Minister Paul Keating of the Labour Party, of the Australian Republican Movement, as well as the majority wish of the populations as sounded by pollsters, that on Australia Day 2000—or at the latest by 1 January 2001, the anniversary of Federation—Australia will cease to be a constitutional monarchy owing allegiance to the British Crown, and will become a republic. There has been much airing of a 1900 refrain: that republican fervour is a species of treason toward the past, that the ARM is an Irish-Australian plot (and indeed, the Prime Minister and the leading lights of the ARM are conspicuously of Irish descent). But the appeal of the republic is far wider than this. Although debates still rage, there is general acceptance of its inevitability, and over the past year public discussion has moved from whether Australia should become a republic to what sort of republic it should become.
It is of course no accident that A River Town should seem to be so eerily about the present. The allegory is intentional, the intention passionate. Thomas Keneally was first chairman of the Australian Republican Movement and is now a member of the National Management Committee. His grandparents, to whose memory the novel is dedicated, were Irish immigrants who kept a store in the Macleay Valley, north of Sydney, a store identical in its location and lineaments to the store owned and run by Tim Shea, protagonist of the novel. When the characters of A River Town debate Britain's needs and Australia's duty in the Boer War, or when Irish Tim is blacklisted by certain establishment gentry for his unwillingness to swear an oath to 'support without equivocation the aims of the British Empire in Southern Africa, including the extinction of all Boer pretensions of sovereignty', the reader is being offered the hindsight of history as a glass through which to look at today's political agenda. ('How in hell's name,' Tim asks himself, 'could you vote casually for the death of the young?')
The novel opens in January 1900, in the town of Kempsey, in the valley of the Macleay, 'on the lush and humid north coast of New South Wales'. Almost everyone in town except Tim Shea, proprietor of the general store, has gone downriver by steamer to celebrate the national holiday. Hope is in the air. 'Hard times were said to be ending.'
But doomsday signs and wonders also abound. On the holiday, at the edge of the empty town, there is a horrible horse-and-sulky accident. Shea, in an impulsive though futile rescue attempt, is witness to the ghastly sight of wild pigs goring and devouring the crushed driver's head. The driver's orphaned children are also frightened observers. Later, still on the national holiday itself, Tim is shown by the local constable the severed head of a young woman, unnamed, unidentified, victim of a bungled abortion. The head floats ghoulishly in a flask of alcohol 'in accordance with long police practice in such affairs.' Before the imprisoned abortionists can be prosecuted for murder, their victim must be identified, and so the head is carted around by the constable who keeps it in a preserving jar wrapped in blue gingham in a picnic basket. 'We call her Missy. She was only young … You'll see, she was lovely in life'. The severed head, with its eyes not quite shut, its lips parted, haunts Tim Shea. He sees 'a serious child, making serious claims'. From the first glimpse, he feels marked, chosen, senses that she makes moral demands of him, seeking the restoration of her name and the calling to account of the man (clearly someone powerful, someone affluent) who discreetly arranged the abortion of the child he had fathered. For Tim, Missy is dreadfully everywhere', particularly in his nightmares.
And then there are the orphaned children of the accident, for whom Tim feels responsible. The disaster has particularly disturbing effects on Lucy who has a strange power to infect other children with her detachment and her death-defying urges. More signs and wonders: children fly, they scale lunatic heights, they leap off cliffs.
A severed head, another head gored by pigs, untamable orphaned children; these are weighty symbols, suggesting parallels in the body politic (a distant head of state, alien to its imperial limbs; an orphaned colony bent on self-destruction), though their allegorical import runs curiously counter to the protagonist's sympathies. Such slippage gives the book a richly ambiguous texture. Here, in fact, lies one of the consistent strengths of the entire (and considerable) body of Keneally's work. Though he has a passionate moral vision, he is not didactic. (Spielberg, yes; Keneally, no; the rose-tinted light of moral sentimentality that Spielberg has cast on Keneally has skewed the perception of the novelist's work in some quarters. Perhaps Keneally will come to wish that he had done as Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer prize winning Maus, has done: turned down Spielberg's film offer.) Keneally is one of those rare writers whose work is widely accessible yet also of real sinew and complexity. He is too fine a novelist not to subvert any narrow moral or political intention. His images skitter in several directions at once, their import is provocatively and fruitfully multivalent.
Like all his protagonists, deeply reluctant prophets and heroes every last one of them, Keneally has a heightened awareness of the contradictions inherent in characters and in issues. His protagonists, men and women who have a yen for ordinary unremarkable lives but who are compelled by circumstances and by some hard inconvenient kernel of integrity to be exceptional, are torn by self-doubt, they are hyper-conscious of mixed motives, they are distrustful of certainties.
Long before Oskar Schindler, by random encounter, had caught Keneally's attention with his imponderable life and ambiguous sainthood, the novelist had been exploring the hubris and the vulnerability of the kind of flawed hero whose archetype is the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. ('Oh Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived … I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me … But if I say "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.')
From Halloran of Bring Larks and Heroes (the early novel of Australia's convict days, winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 1967) to Leeming, the Antarctic explorer in The Survivor (1969), to Jimmie the Aboriginal rebel pushed beyond endurance in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), to Joan of Arc in Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974), to Oskar Schindler, to Tim Shea, rebel in spite of himself, Keneally has given us a gallery of extraordinarily memorable, complex, deeply flawed heroes-by-accident.
Tim Shea's life seems proof that no good deed goes unpunished. His inconvenient conscience and his generosity (of finances and of compassion) almost destroy him. Taking ten year-old Lucy to his own home after the accident, he feels morally and financially responsible for her, a stance he can ill afford, being in more or less perpetual debt because of his unwillingness to demand payment from hard-pressed customers. Further, and in spite of an astringent attitude toward his Catholic heritage and the Church hierarchy, he also feels compelled to pay for intercessory masses for Missy of the severed head. Not only is this financial lunacy, it renders him suspect in the eyes of the constable. Is Tim the guilty lover who arranged the abortion?
Of even more serious consequence is his behavior at a jingoistic meeting to drum up a Patriotic Fund for the Boer War. Tim has no intention of completely ruining his precarious business by any public posturing. He feels irritation for the newspaper editor who is much 'taken by the surface glitter of injustices. That was the great fault of writers. Injustice never penetrated their skins too deeply, put them off a meal, or the next drink which waited for them in the bar of the Commercial'.
Though Tim 'was willing to risk being poor for the sake of everyone thinking him open-handed, he didn't want to risk it for the sake of politics'. He listens with wary admiration to the dairy farmer Borger who speaks out against the war, but is catcalled down. Borger reminds Tim of 'his own political uncle from Glenlara, a family secret. Uncle Johnny was Fenian "Centre"—they said at his trial in Tim's infancy—for the whole of Cork. Denied absolution by most priests … Stuck by his ideas, like Borger, and was shipped on the last convict ship to Western Australia … A soul like Borger's. A soul Tim didn't want to have.' And yet, in spite of his fixed intention, Tim finds himself applauding Borger and making his own speech. 'It was the first public display he had given, and he could feel the blood prickling its way along his arms and legs. For there was some rare gesture building in him. He was excited by such occasional rushes of courage, but loathed them too, the way they exposed him.'
Tim is blacklisted, his business brought within a whisker of ruin. It is through the shipping negligence of his principal opponent, prosperous merchant and chairman of multiple civic bodies, Ernie Malcolm, that the plague comes upriver from Sydney, first striking at Ernie Malcolm's own wife. And through an impulsive and wholly typical act of compassion, which he furiously regrets, Tim himself risks infection and is quarantined in the same barracks as his foe. More secrets than either anticipated come tumbling out of this closeted time. In an unexpected way, a kind of justice is done, a kind of right order restored.
Such a resolution, even with the bittersweet edge, is rare in Keneally (victory is usually Pyrrhic, frequently posthumous), though it is historically in keeping with the millennial optimisms of 1900 and 2000. A River Town is not without weaknesses, veering as it does towards political fable, political romance. There are times when Keneally's lapsed-Catholic sensibility and his not-at-all-lapsed Irish sensibility turn mawkish, a recurrent sin (venial, to be sure) in his work, more under acerbic control in the early novels, less so in the later ones. It is as though he were still furtively yearning for absolution from Manly Seminary (which he left two weeks before his ordination to the priesthood) and from the unbending Christian Brothers of his schooldays. He directs, as always, bracing satire and astringent wit towards the Church, but also reveals a nostalgia that is soft at the center. The Irish-Australians and the Catholics in Keneally's novels may be larrikins, they may be faulty and flawed, but none of them is ever mean at the core. One can never say the same for the non-Irish and the non-Catholic.
Nevertheless, Keneally's lapses are redeemed and overshadowed by his meticulous attention to psychological details which have nothing to do with his political agendas and which in fact subvert them, diverting and dispersing focus. He is truly catholic in the non-sectarian sense of the term in the breadth of his empathy, in the nuanced observation of private and social relations (between a policeman and other drinkers in a bar, for example), and in the sheer delicacy and affection lavished on the portrayal of even minor characters.
Above all there is the quite extraordinary portrait of orphaned Lucy, ten years old going on fifty, somber and wise beyond her years, needy as an infant, gifted manipulator, both self-sufficient and desperate, a wild child, a cynical and alarmingly intelligent all-seeing observer. Only in Henry James does one encounter another such riveting portrait of cursed innocence, and Keneally's Lucy is a more vibrantly warm flesh-and-blood waif than any of the little lost souls in James. Think what you will of the republic and the politics of Australia, past and present, you will not easily forget Missy's severed head or Lucy's spreading of her tragic little wings for her brave flight into the new century. The meaning of these images are multiple, unclear, unassimilated, unforgettable.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2426
SOURCE: "Shrunk to an Interloper," in Field Work: Sites in Literary and Cultural Studies, edited by Marjorie Garber, Paul B. Franklin, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Routledge, 1996, pp. 113-19.
[In the following essay, Ryan compares the authorial perspectives of Schindler's List, Günter Grass's Show Your Tongue, and Marguerite Duras's The Lover, to account for the ways their national identities influence their attitudes toward multicultural relations.]
In one of my very earliest classrooms—it must have been at nursery school—hung a large map of the world. In the lower middle part of the map, a big reddish-pink island swam in a blue sea; at both upper corners small reddish-pink shapes hovered like guardian angels on either hand; in the center a large reddish-pink triangle pointed downward from an amorphous and multicolored land mass; and the whole map was satisfyingly unified by patches of ruddy color distributed over a substantial portion of its surface. I did not know then that what I was experiencing was the aesthetics of Empire.
"Two souls, alas! reside within my breast," declares Goethe's Faust. Within my breast reside, however, not two, but at least three souls. Teaching German and comparative literature would seem to place me equally on the side of the "national" and the "global." Yet I also happen to be Australian. The Australian self—my "third soul"—subverts conventional relations between the smaller and the larger worlds.
Hence I've conceived this paper from the viewpoint of what Australia's great poet, Ern Malley, has described as a "black swan of trespass on alien waters." In Australia, we were taught from the beginning to internalize a Eurocentric view while at the same time defiantly creating an Australian one. When we learned French and German, we had to memorize the words for scores of trees, plants, and flowers, along with their English translations—but practically none of this vegetation actually grew in Australia. I still don't know what a nightingale sounds like—though the mere thought of its song is enough to move me quite profoundly.
To place myself as an Australian is to feel myself—again in the words of Ern Malley—"shrunk to an interloper," yet also conveniently located off to the side of an argument in which it is only too easy to take one side or the other. If you ask me whether "national literatures" should be eliminated in favor of "global" perspectives, I'm inclined to say "yes"—as long as I don't specifically think about Australian literature and its long and ultimately successful struggle for an identity of its own.
Let me talk now about some literary texts of our time in which a great writer has tried to come to grips with the problem of the national versus the global viewpoint. My first example is Thomas Keneally's novel Schindler's List, of 1982; my second is Günter Grass's travelogue Show Your Tongue, of 1988; the third, Marguerite Duras's novel The Lover, of 1984. In a more conventional presentation, I would have felt obliged to treat these works chronologically; but what interests me here is the gradation in complexity with which they explore the ways in which one's national identity affects the position one takes toward complex cultural relations. I will try to show that even in the apparently dualistic worlds of these works, another, more complicated "soul" leaves an important trace—a trace that might even be regarded as the principal message of these difficult and troubling texts.
Schindler's List is the story of a man who saves numerous Jews from the Nazi death camps for motives that are by no means unmixed and irreproachable. In the novel, as opposed to the movie, the ambiguous nature of Schindler's actions is highlighted at every turn. Schindler is a Faustian figure with two souls in his breast, genuinely caring, in some sense, about the Jews entrusted to his care, but at the same time driven by economic motives and his desire to succeed as a big businessman. After the war, the Jews Schindler saved from the Nazis are scattered over the face of the Earth among what the "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book describes as "seven nations—Australia, Israel, West Germany, Austria, the United States, Argentina, and Brazil." The Schindler survivors, a nation in the psychological sense, are disseminated throughout a range of other nations in the political sense of the word. But this duality of psychological versus political nationhood is only one way of seeing what is at work in the formulation of the "Author's Note." This prefatory explanation also subtly disturbs most customary hierarchies, arranging the various nations neither alphabetically nor in order of their relative political power. In this list, Australia is named first.
Another important trace of a "third soul" occurs in this text at the point where Oskar Schindler decides to move his enamel factory from Cracow to Brinnlitz. On returning to Cracow from a preliminary visit to the Brinnlitz site, Schindler finds the charred wreckage of a downed Stirling bomber. The men in the plane, he discovers, were Australian. "If Oskar had wanted some sort of confirmation [of his plans to move away from Cracow], this was it. That men should come all this way from unimaginable little towns in the Australian Outback to hasten the end in Cracow." Whereas the writer who names Australia first in his list of seven nations can only be an Australian, the speaker in this passage about the Stirling bomber shifts into the consciousness of someone for whom Australia is quite remote from the familiar. No Australian would speak of "unimaginable little towns in the Australian Outback"; even if we have never actually seen outback towns, Australians have no trouble imagining them. Keneally's novel, despite its subsequent entry into the "global world" by means of the Steven Spielberg movie, is nonetheless a text that secretly insists on its Australianness—while overtly distancing itself from Australia by treating World War II from a perspective that appears to transcend what might otherwise have seemed, to the "global" world, a far too limited one.
The implications of Schindler's List for Australians go beyond the events of German racism in the nineteen-thirties and -forties, though this has rarely been noted in connection with the book. Most Australians would prefer, after all, not to think about their country's own racist past as exemplified in the notorious "White Australia" policy, the aim of which was to prohibit the immigration of Asians and Pacific Islanders into Australia and to deport workers of Asian origin from the sugarcane fields of Queensland. When the original bill (called the Immigration Restriction Act) was enacted in 1901, one newspaper wrote, for example, that the policy would save Australia "from the colored curse" and from becoming "a mongrel nation torn with racial dissension." The Immigration Restriction Act was not rescinded until 1973. Only those familiar with the history of Australian nationalism can fully understand the irony of that little scene in Schindler's List (the novel) where Australian bombers descend upon Cracow in an attempt to drop supplies for the partisans fighting against Nazism and where the charred remains of one pilot are found in the destroyed plane, still firmly clutching "an English Bible." The novel's final sentence about Oskar Schindler, "he was mourned on every continent," thus acquires a peculiar resonance for readers from Keneally's homeland.
Gunter Grass's Show Your Tongue is, as it were, the other face of Schindler's List. Written not from the point of view of an ex-colonial, but from that of a former colonizing nation, the book is contemporaneous with Grass's 1988 proposal for a Pan-European cultural union. In large measure, Show Your Tongue is about the crossing of borders and the partitioning of nations. Grass's visit to India—the ostensible subject of the book—also permits a side trip to Bangladesh, a divided country whose citizens repeatedly urge him to draw the comparison with Germany, which at the time of course was still divided. In Grass's view, only one thing unites the split Bengali nation: its admiration for its lost leader Subhas Chandra Bose. The novel opens with a discussion of a bronze statute of Bose in Calcutta, and later notes the existence of statues of him in other cities. Traveling around the subcontinent, Günter and Use Grass learn the story of Bose's attempt to free India from British domination by allying himself in turn with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Stalinist Russia; they learn of the plane accident that caused his death and of his continued popularity in India and Bangladesh as a "Führer" and "holy man" who is thought to be hiding out in the hills and will reputedly return, at the age of one hundred, to rescue his fellow Bengali from their fate. In Grass's view, the numerous monuments to Bose crowd out memorials to his polar opposite, Gandhi, the "other soul"—to use my Faustian terminology—of the country the two Germans are touring.
Subverting this easy dualism are the narrator's repeated references to Ilse's uninterrupted preoccupation with the nineteenth-century German realist Theodor Fontane, whose novels she reads obsessively throughout their travels. The presence of this literary precursor in the minds of the two travelers gives an additional twist to their response to Indian cultural history. Fontane's comments on the Scottish regiments' defense of Calcutta during the Sepoy uprising, which took place while he was living in Britain as press attaché for Prussia, the similarities between present-day traces of Victorian India and the nineteenth-century country estates described in Fontane's novels, and finally Grass's embarrassed discovery of Fontane's "ironic, patronizing amiability when dealing with Jews," serve to cast an icon much cherished in the German literary tradition into a highly questionable light. Grass's book about India complicates the insider-outsider problematic of traditional travel writing by insisting on its Germanness and criticizing it at one and the same time, distinguishing between home and abroad, past and present while simultaneously conflating these seeming oppositions. An early note in the travelogue articulates the difficulties of this complicated perspective: "What I am flying away from: repetition that claims to be news; from Germany and Germany, the way two deadly foes, armed to the teeth, grow ever more alike; from insights achieved from too close up; from my own perplexity, admitted only sotto voce, flying with me."
Marguerite Duras's novel The Lover is an even more complex attempt to deal with these issues. Narrated by a woman who, like Duras herself, grew up as the daughter of a French schoolteacher in Vietnam but has now reversed her parents' emigration and returned to live in France, it tells the story of an adolescent who moves among what seem at first to be three cultures: her French family, the Vietnamese world around her, and the young Chinese businessman who becomes the partner in her first erotic experiences. The intrusion of the Chinese lover troubles the fifteen-and-a-half-year-old's adolescent self-image, a deliberately ambiguous amalgam of apparent oppositions. We first see her dressed in gold lamé sandals and man's flat-brimmed hat, a privileged white girl on her way to school who nonetheless looks and acts in many ways like a child prostitute. Dualisms of male and female, mother country and colony, educated and uneducated classes, age and youth—among others—are set up in this opening passage, only to be undermined by the Chinese lover, who cannot be identified by any of these conventional rubrics. Other elements in the novel also work to subvert the binary structures of colonialism: the narrator's retarded classmate, Hélène Lagonelle, who belongs to the privileged boarding-school world but can never be completely integrated into it; the narrator's mother, whose psyche combines activist ambitions with passivity and melancholia; and the violent older brother who is at once a wild beast in the Vietnamese jungle, a viciously oppressive representative of the male sex and the colonizing nation, and the ultimate symbol of the decline of empire and (conflated but not necessarily identical with it) the modern collapse of reason. Finally, the retrospective narration that comprehends the past not as a factual reality but as an imaginative and constantly metamorphosing construct that must continually be subjected to questioning, subverts the conventional autobiographical compact as it is usually described by literary theorists. Couched in deceptively simple language, the novel increasingly gathers complexity. Its insistence on what is not said, not written, not photographed, is much more than a call for the reader to recover what has been repressed—or suppressed, according to one's perspective. Nor is it an attempt to hold oppositions in suspension by converting them first into ambiguities, and then, by sheer multiplication, into what is fashionably termed "indeterminacy." Rather, Duras's novel is quite literally a demonstration of the resistance put up by linguistic and cultural structures to representation when even an individual viewpoint can only be understood as inherently multiple.
Many of us who move easily between "national" and "global" traditions have tended to ignore what remains in our psyches of a colonial or otherwise subjugated existence. Rescued from its repression, this "third soul" can become a powerful tool to undermine an opposition between the "national" and the "global" that should long since have become outmoded. And yet it is surely an affront to those who have been more clearly and outrageously oppressed to suggest that a postcolonial like myself is peculiarly equipped to dissolve binarisms. For this reason, I do not propose that we should all adopt in some sense a position on the margins—that is precisely what my literary examples do not do. Rather, they show the complexities of contemporary cultural situations in which the opposition between center and periphery is no longer adequate. But neither is it enough, they imply, merely to activate a third perspective in addition to the familiar two. Rather, they suggest that we should experiment more freely with an array of different positions, discarding conventional dualisms, but also avoiding "indeterminacies" that swallow up fine distinctions and nuances that mark relational experience in all its exhilaration and despair. Even when the languages we speak and the traditions in which we move prevent us from freeing ourselves entirely from oppositional thinking, we should at least become more aware of the interplay of multiple perspectives that informs our understanding of culture and that makes it impossible for any individual, whatever his or her actual intention, to be reduced to a spokesperson simply for the "national" or the "global." Reading literary texts, and observing ourselves as we read them, is one of the best ways we have of understanding this intricate problem.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 167
Chernekoff, Janice. "Thomas Keneally: An Annotated. Secondary Bibliography, 1979–1984" Bulletin of Bibliography 43, No. 4 (December 1986): pp. 221-27.
Identifies secondary sources, including articles, essays, and reviews.
Beston, John B. "An Awful Rose: Thomas Keneally as a Dramatist" Southerly 33, No. 1 (1973): 36-42.
Examines Keneally's effectiveness as a playwright.
Burns, Robert. "Out of Context: A Study of Thomas Keneally's Novels" Australian Literary Studies 4, No. 1 (1969): 31-42.
Praises Keneally's development through his first four novels, citing several examples.
Frow, John. "The Chant of Thomas Keneally" Australian Literary Studies 10, No. 3 (1982): 291-99.
Studies Keneally's presentation of Australian aboriginal culture in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
O'Hearn, Tim. "Schindler's Ark and Schindler's List—One for the Price of Two" Contemporary Novel in English 5, No. 2 (1992): 9-15.
Refutes the contention that textual differences exist between the European and American versions of Schindler's List.
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