Thomas Keneally | Critical Essay by Janette T. Hospital

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 4,236 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Janette T. Hospital

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.

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